TORONTO -- So, let's just start with the most important question: Are the Toronto Raptors for real?
If we answer "yes," then there's another question: Is Friday night's game, the Raptors hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers, a legitimate Eastern Conference finals preview? Yes, folks, seriously; the Raptors, who have won exactly one playoff series in the 20-year history of the franchise and who have lost in the first round the past two years despite having home-court advantage.
It's fair to question them, in the same way the Raptors question themselves. The concept of facing the Cavs in the postseason implies certain assumptions the Raptors don't want to get caught making.
But the results, the data and the scouts don't care about history or the Raps' relative anonymity to the casual NBA fan. The fact is Toronto has the league's fifth-best record (38-18), has a top-five offense, a top-10 defense, two All-Stars, a 5½-game lead on Boston for the No. 2 seed and a favorable home-and-road schedule the rest of the way.
And, if they beat the Cavs, they'll have won the season series (it's tied at 1-1) and be within two games of Cleveland for the top seed. Nothing in the NBA in February is the final word but these are hallmarks that, in fairness, should not be ignored.
"Are we a perfect team? No," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "Do we have some holes? Yes. But we're better suited now to compete that we have been in the past. I believe that."
Scouts and executives see this as a possible ascension for Toronto. So many of their competitors -- the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat -- have either not met expectations or been felled by injuries. It has opened the door for the Raptors, who have bucked the underachievement trend to become a contender.
The Eastern Conference is pretty much viewed as the Cavs, then everyone else. But the Raptors want to be the last team standing -- and they've shown they have the potential to do so. This might not be a badge of honor for some teams, but it would be a transitional moment for a franchise that hasn't been this relevant since Vince Carter's prime.
Yet, this is the undercurrent within the team: There's a limited enjoyment of the regular-season success they're having. The core of this team has been down his path before and the scars remain from early postseason exits.
Last year, the Raptors got embarrassed 4-0 by the Wizards in the playoffs, giving up an average of 110 points per game in the four losses and allowing the Wizards to shoot .443 from 3-point range. While the Raptors put up some impressive offensive numbers, they were a woeful defensive team, finishing 23rd in efficiency. The defensive deficiency was an affront to Casey, who made his bones as a defensive coach. The Atlantic Division banner they raised suddenly seemed insignificant.
"In the playoffs if you can't get stops, you're screwed," Casey said. "Our bad habits told on us."
It may be a tired narrative to discuss last season in Toronto but right now, it is the legacy of this current group. In terms of public perception, it holds them back. It also serves as a cautionary tale.
"So you look at this game against the Cavs and you say, 'Is it a measuring-stick game?'" Kyle Lowry said. "No. Measuring-stick games happen in the playoffs. You don't take a game now and compare it to Game 2 of a playoff series when you're down 1-0.
"What this is, for us, is a chance to make progress. That's so important for us, to get better."
Lowry is in the best shape of his career after back and leg injuries wrecked the back end of an All-Star season last year. Now, 10 years into the league, he knows the value of incremental progress but he also knows that ultimately has to lead to an eventual leap.
When he looks at the Cavs, Lowry sees challenges everywhere, starting with his main assignment, Kyrie Irving, down to the team's newest player, Channing Frye. What is also a possibility is that the Cavaliers could be adding Joe Johnson in the coming days if all plans come together. Lowry's experience tells him to be deferential and to not get ahead of himself.
But he's also confident, if quietly so. With DeMar DeRozan, who is also having a career season, the Raptors apply tremendous pressure to defenses with their driving. Offseason acquisition Cory Joseph, who was part of a second-unit makeover that has helped reinvigorate the Raptors defensively, can play alongside him, which gives Toronto a surprisingly nimble and defensively tough backcourt.
The Raptors have the ability to play with a big lineup with James Johnson, Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas -- which some scouts see as a possible disaster against the Cavs -- but they also can go smaller and more nimble with Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo. Lowry can play on the ball or off. DeRozan has developed his outside shot and is also now a relentless basket attacker as he trolls for shooting fouls.
The star power isn't as deep as what the Cavs deploy, but the depth and versatility does give the Raptors some options. It's without a doubt one of the reasons they've risen to the top of the conference.
"You look at the Cavs and they're so diverse, they can play so many different lineups with so many different strengths," Lowry said. "But we feel like we can too, we've worked really hard on that. If you don't have lineup flexibility in this league right now, you're screwed."
There's that word again.
It's hard to say what Friday's game will mean to the Raptors' process as they are still without key addition DeMarre Carroll, whose return from knee surgery remains unclear. The Cavs themselves are still somewhat a work in progress following their midseason coaching change.
The game has meaning to both teams and that alone says something about the Raptors. Playing important games in February is a relatively new concept in Toronto, not just from a standings perspective but also from a confidence perspective, which is an area where the Raptors are still trying to find their footing.
"To be at the caliber where you can say you're one of the top two teams going head-to-head," DeRozan said, "every player and every team wants to be in that conversation.
"That is what it is for us. So it's [a] regular-season game, yes, but for us it's a way to see where we're at. The tides have turned for us to be in this situation. We're starting to see teams getting up for us, we're getting more teams giving us their best shot. That shows where we are."