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Jerry Sullivan: Raptors still chasing accursed Cavs

Hard as it is to believe, it has been 20 years since Jack Armstrong coached his final game at Niagara in March of 1998. A year later, he took a job as an announcer for the Toronto Raptors and has been covering them ever since.

Armstrong is now the lead Raptors analyst on TSN and NBA TV Canada, a national hoop icon. Last year, he won a Canadian Screen Award (their version of the Emmys) and he's nominated again this year. But the Brooklyn native makes his home in Lewiston and is a Buffalo guy at heart. Yes, Bills fan.

So after watching the Cleveland Cavaliers prosper at the Raptors' expense over the last few years, Jack sees some distinct parallels.

"It's like Buffalo fans with New England," Armstrong said Friday. "I think there's an apprehension that all cursed fans have. Bills fans — and I'm one of them — are looking at Tom Brady like 'Oh, boy.' And Raptor fans are looking at LeBron James like, 'Oh boy,' this guy took us out the last two years.' "

Toronto is in the midst of the best run in its 24-year NBA history. The Raptors have averaged 51 wins the last four years under head coach Dwane Casey. At 38-16, they're leading the East and on pace for 58 victories, their most ever.

But no one takes the Raptors seriously, largely because they got embarrassed by the Cavs in the playoffs the last two years, in a six-game conference final two years ago and a second-round sweep. The eight losses were by an average of 22 points a game. James averaged 36 points in last year's sweep.

The Cavs looked vulnerable during a recent swoon, however, when they were horrid on defense and James seemed detached and discouraged. So on the most dramatic NBA trade deadline day in memory, Cleveland turned over half its roster Thursday.

Gone are six players, including Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas, the centerpiece of last summer's Kyrie Irving deal. The Cavs brought in four new players: Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and George Hill.

I have my doubts. It won't be easy to engender team chemistry in two months. Clarkson and Nance have zero playoff experience. Hood has 11 games in which he shot 35 percent. Hill is on the downside. To me, the issue is the guy who's not there: Irving. It's hard to win an NBA title without a second superstar.

Still, the consensus is the Cavs got better. They've gone from an old, fading team to a younger, fresher outfit, once again seen as the team to beat in the East.

"There's no question Cleveland had an impactful trade deadline," Armstrong said. "I thought there were some really astute moves. You add youth and scoring punch with Hood and Clarkson, a guy who can get after it defensively with Nance. George Hill is a sound point guard."

Armstrong said Hill's defense will be critical in the postseason, when it's vital to slow the dynamic point guards in a league that no longer allows hand-checking. He said it can set the tone for an entire defense.

"I thought they really addressed some of the issues they had," he said. "They're an elite offensive team. They can beat you in a shootout. The question is, can they prevent one? I think they have more answers defensively, and they've added youth and pop and energy and enthusiasm."

Those qualities have defined this year's Raptors, who have one of the league's more productive benches with C.J. Miles, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. They dominated the Cavs in a 34-point home rout last month, when Toronto was without starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and elite scorer DeMar DeRozan had an off night.

But does it matter? Even if the Raptors get the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in the playoffs, can they compete with the Cavaliers and James, whose teams (Miami and Cleveland) have won the East seven years in a row?

"I still think they're very, very good, and they're the team to beat in the East," Armstrong said, "because they got 'that guy' and he ain't going away, and he gets every call. It's a difficult task for a Toronto or Boston or anyone else you might consider a contender in the East."

'That guy,' of course, is LeBron James. As Armstrong said, he tends to get the benefit of the doubt from officials. Jack isn't shy about speaking his mind. He believes the Raptors are an afterthought in the NBA, a franchise that wins but operates outside the U.S. media sphere and gets little love.

"The Raptors have been on U.S. national TV once this year," Armstong said. "The NBA will never publicly address it. But with the Nielsen ratings not registering in that market, we're basically a 29-team league. It's a good story, but it doesn't move the needle at all.

"They'd rather put a lousy Laker or Knick team on because it moves the Nielsen meter. The television numbers in Canada are excellent. They're a big deal. They're Canada's team, and coast to coast it's a big deal. And yet, nobody below the border has any clue they even exist."

Armstrong said he's not whining, just stating a fact. It's also a fact that the Raptors were dreadful against the Cavs in the last two playoffs. A couple of calls wouldn't have made a big difference. If they want attention, they have to shed the reputation as a regular-season team that collapses in May.

"Now they've got to make that next step, and it's a tough one to make," Armstrong said. "That guy in Cleveland is standing in the way, just like that guy in New England is standing in the way of everybody in the AFC.

"You've got to live with the reality. It's a reality that Buffalo fans can relate to. You know what the leagues look at as sexy matchups, as things that benefit the bottom line, and Toronto doesn't fit that."

Maybe this is the year when it all changes. Hey, the Bills finally broke the drought, right Jack?

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