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NBA trends: Raptors only two games behind Cavaliers in East

NBA trends: Raptors only two games behind Cavaliers in East
Toronto guard Kyle Lowry had 43 points in the Raptors' 99-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 26. (Claus Andersen / Getty Images)

Here's what's trending around the NBA:

Raptors show they're a contender

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With the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers atop their respective conferences, the NBA Finals may prove to be a rematch of last year's six-game series — but the Toronto Raptors are making their case as contender in the East. On Friday night, All-Star guard Kyle Lowry scored a career-high 43 points, making the game-winning jumper with 3.9 seconds left on the clock to beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers 99-97.

The Raptors (39-18) and Cavaliers (41-16) have completed their regular-season series. In each meeting, the home team won, giving Toronto the 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker. Should the two franchises finish with the same record, the Raptors would claim the top playoff seed in the East.

While the Cavaliers entered the season as the favorite, the Raptors are proving to be formidable competition.

Joe Johnson a taxing addition

The Brooklyn Nets parted ways with the second-highest-paid player in the league, waiving guard/forward Joe Johnson on Thursday. Due to make $24.9 million, just a hair under Kobe Bryant's $25 million, Johnson let Brooklyn shave off $3 million from his salary, so he could leave to join a playoff contender looking for veteran help.

Johnson signed Saturday with the Miami Heat, probably at a minimum contract near $400,000 for the remainder of the season. The Heat successfully spent much of the year making deals to get out from under a $20-million luxury tax bill, trading championship-era holdovers like Mario Chalmers and Chris "Birdman" Andersen. Johnson will cost the Heat roughly $2.5 million as a taxpayer once again, while giving the team a tested, versatile player for a postseason run.

McCollum is most improved

Guard Damian Lillard may be the best player on the Portland Trail Blazers, and a glaring All-Star snub, but Lillard has an impressive backcourt partner in C.J. McCollum. In his third season, McCollum has jumped from 6.8 points a game last season to 21.1, along with a corresponding jump from 15.7 minutes to 35.1. McCollum's playmaking has also increased significantly, from 1.0 assists a game to 4.3.

The Trail Blazers are the surprise team in the NBA this season; a squad with serious playoff hopes based on the play of the team's two dynamic guards. McCollum should be an absolute lock for the league's most-improved-player award.

Warriors still challenging Bulls' record

All-Star Golden State guard Stephen Curry scored 93 points on back-to-back nights this week, including a 51-point outburst, hitting 20 of 27 field goal attempts and 10 of 25 from three-point range against Orlando. The Warriors continue to chase the Chicago Bulls' all-time record of 72 wins from the 1995-96 season. Through Friday, the Warriors held a 52-5 record — one better than the Bulls' 51 wins through their first 57 games.

Magic hits the floor

The Magic made a puzzling roster move this week, claiming forward Chris Copeland off waivers from the Milwaukee Bucks ... only to immediately turn around and waive Copeland. The reason was strictly economic. Teams are obligated to spend 90% of this season's $70-million salary cap. Claiming Copeland pushed the Magic up to the necessary $63 million. The Bucks have already paid roughly three quarters of Copeland's $1.2-million salary. Orlando is responsible for nearly $300,000, but the Magic will reach the league's salary floor by virtue of Copeland's entire salary for the year.

Suns threatening Lakers

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Through Friday, the Phoenix Suns continued on a brutal 13-game losing streak, becoming a real threat to the Lakers' first-round pick in June's NBA draft. The Lakers sent their pick originally to the Suns for Steve Nash, but Phoenix repackaged it to the Philadelphia 76ers. If the Lakers don't get through the NBA's draft lottery in May with a top-three pick, they'll lose it altogether to Philadelphia. Currently the Lakers have a 55.8% shot of keeping their selection, but if the Suns continue to lose and "catch" the Lakers in the standings, the Lakers' odds dip to 46.9%. The two lottery contenders meet twice quickly on March 18 and 23.

Looking ahead

OKLAHOMA CITY AT GOLDEN STATE: Thursday at 7:30 p.m. TV: TNT.

This is the third and final regular-season meeting between these teams — and it could serve as a preview for a titanic showdown in the Western Conference playoffs. The Warriors' deep, talented roster is a mega-challenge for any opponent, but the Thunder's athleticism gives it at least a fighting chance. However, Oklahoma City's rotation players must do a better job of matching production with Golden State so that the Thunder isn't overly dependent on just Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to keep the team in the game.

— Barry Stavro

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