To say that the Raps’ offence was a tad behind the defence coming out of training camp would be like saying the Orlando Magic are in a bit of trouble with Dwight Howard wanting out.
The gap was huge, at least it appeared to be. But Jose Calderon wasn’t quite so sure. Calderon had Amir Johnson back in the starting lineup for Monday’s game — Johnson did not start either of the pre-season games — and it was like the two had never been apart.
The screen-and-roll game between the two was in mid-season form despite not connecting even once through the pre-season.
“We’ve played together for a while and we know each other really well,” Calderon said. “He knows me. He knows if he sets the screen and rolls, he’s going to get the ball. I love to play with him.”
And it showed, with the two hooking up for the better part of three quarters. Calderon finished the game with a game-high 11 assists while Johnson had 13 points to go with 13 rebounds. At times, it was like the two were playing their own little two-man game.
They did most of their damage in the first 36 minutes. It was at that point that the Cavs finally tweaked to the idea that it might be a good idea to eliminate the man rolling to the basket.
Calderon was ready for that, too, and with Johnson covered for most of the fourth quarter, started finding DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani with some regularity.
This was about the point in the game where the Cavs had reeled the Raptors back in from what had been a double-digit lead and had it down to two. Suddenly, DeRozan, who had only six points through three quarters, was getting the ball fed to him with regularity and he responded with a team-high nine points in those final 10 minutes.
DeRozan said his whole mindset in the final quarter came down to three words: ‘Just finish it.’
“Coach, as soon as he called my name, said: ‘Finish it. Go out there and do what you’ve got to do to finish this game.’” DeRozan said. “That’s what I did to help the team win.”
From a plethora of bigs, at least in number, to a dearth.
That is the situation the Raptors found themselves in on opening night with news that Aaron Gray was being held out of the opener for precautionary reasons following a re-occurrence of a rapid heart rate.
According to general manager Bryan Colangelo Gray first experienced the rapid heart rate during practice a week ago and was taken off the floor. Gray, a free-agent signing by the Raptors at the beginning of training camp, was subsequently examined and was cleared to play and did so in the second and final pre-season game in Boston.
The day after that game, he had a re-occurrence and, with the holidays and the short time frame before last night’s opener, there was no chance to get him looked at again.
“We’re just being very precautionary obviously with the sensitivity of that particular scenario,” Colangelo said. “The kid reportedly feels fine, but we don’t want to take any chances.”
“That’s the difference from this year and last year, I thought,” Casey said of the late-game offensive distribution. “No disrespect to last year but this is not a democracy offensively; we want to make sure we get the ball where we want it to go.
“It’s not a “my turn” game, it’s not a rec league game,” the coach added. “We want to make sure our offensive players who are our closers get the basketball and I thought Jose (Calderon) did an excellent job of doing that, getting the ball to DeMar and also Andrea at the right time in the right place.”
The Raptors were full measure for the opening-night victory, a game they had in control almost throughout.
It’s not as if they beat the Miami Heat or Dallas Mavericks or Chicago Bulls or any of the other giants of the league but they were effective and efficient at both ends of the floor against an overmatched Cleveland team.
“Even after a hard training camp, we still had all the new things, a new coach, a new mentality so it was kind of like everything worked out,” said Calderon. “That’s why it was so good. Now for the coach, everybody is on the same page, everyone is trying to add something positive for the team every time they jump on the court and I like it that way.
“It’s always good to win but this season it’s even more important to win early. It’s good for our confidence. We changed the whole team and guys were looking around going, ‘What’s going on.’”
Toronto had seven players score in double figures, doled out 35 assists, shot 53 per cent from the field and held Cleveland to just 41 per cent shooting. The Raptors held a 45-37 advantage in rebounding and committed only 12 turnovers.
And every time the Cavaliers made a run, Toronto buckled down on defence, one of the most glaring improvements over the recent past.
“We got locked down on defence, that’s what we did tonight,” said DeRozan.
“We didn’t let the game get away from us. They went on a run — every team is going to go on a run. It’s how you react to it. We reacted well, executed and got some spots.”
Yes, Amir Johnson had a very good game, 13 points, 13 rebounds, three blocked shots in his first start and, yes, he was quite bouncy.
But he also made two big plays that few might have noticed but were precisely what was needed.
Final minute, game’s probably over but you can’t be sure and not once, but twice, Johnson gets offensive rebounds, the second on a really nice tap-back of miss, that seal the win.
That’s the kind of extra effort that should be rewarded, and noticed.
Toronto, which went only 22-60 last season, won its first game under coach Dwane Casey. He was an assistant last season for the champion Dallas Mavericks.
DeMar DeRozan scored nine of his 15 points in the fourth for Toronto, which had seven players score in double figures. Jose Calderon scored 15 points with 11 assists, Amir Johnson had 13 points and 13 rebounds, Leandro Barbosa scored 14 and Andrea Bargnani 13.
“It’s one game,” Casey said. “I don’t want to get too excited on wins and I don’t want to get too upset on losses. There are 65 more games.”
Ramon Sessions led the Cavaliers with 18 and rookie Tristan Thompson, taken three picks after Cleveland selected Irving, added 12.
Alonzo Gee had 15 points and Anderson Varejao 14 points and 10 rebounds for Cleveland, which pulled within 82-80 on Daniel Gibson’s layup with nine minutes left, igniting a crowd at Quicken Loans Arena hoping to see the Irving era start with a win.
But DeRozan came up big down the stretch, scoring nine points in the final six minutes. His jumper from the right corner put the Cavs away in the final minute. Toronto seemed to make the right pass whenever it needed one, and more often than not, the shot went in.
As for Casey’s task at hand — improving the defence — there were mixed results. Cleveland shot just 41% from the floor, but rookie Kyrie Irving and veteran Antawn Jamison had a lot to do with that. They combined to go just 8-for-32 from the floor, missing a lot of open looks.
Casey gave his team a C grade for containing dribble penetration.
“We had a couple of slip-ups defensively. But for the most part, they made a run — and all NBA teams are going to make a run — and I thought we buckled down and got back into it with defensive stops,” Casey said. “For us, that’s what we have to hang our hats on.”
“It’s how you react to it,” DeRozan added about the Cleveland run. “We reacted well, executed and got some stops.”
This Raptors team might want to define itself with defence, and nine first-half blocked shots show that there is some potential there. In the season opener, however, 35 assists on 42 field goals and 53% shooting from the floor showed that this team has some offensive chops.
Indiana should provide a more formidable measuring stick in Wednesday’s home opener.
Northeast Ohio doesn’t figure to be one of the nation’s NBA hot spots in the Cavs’ second season of LeBron withdrawal. Nobody in their right mind should believe it could be otherwise.
The team is being rebuilt from scratch, and so far, owner Dan Gilbert and his lieutenants have elected to do it the right way, through the draft and without the use of free agents to fool the public into thinking that high-priced outsiders can be anything other than an expensive Band-Aid until the team is close to becoming a factor in the division race.
Sorry, folks, but this kind of thing takes time. But did General Manager Chris Grant make the right moves in drafting Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson as the first important building blocks in the club’s future?
I know the first game of the season already is history, but we’ll have to get back to you on that one. Of course, you could draw your own conclusions about Irving’s 2-for-12 shooting night, but I wouldn’t recommend it for obvious reasons.
After all, this was the first NBA game of his career, and he had only a short practice period and two exhibition games to prepare because of the rush to get the season going. Not to mention the fact that he is 19 years old.
“He looked OK,” said Cavs coach Byron Scott, making an effort to sound nonchalant. “That was probably his fifth game in a year.”
Irving was to be the centerpiece of Duke’s roster last season, but an early-season injury kept him out of action until the NCAA Tournament. Moreover, he was only a freshman, though he doesn’t seem fazed by his early arrival in the big leagues or the pressure of being the first pick in the draft.
“I tried to make some things happen when I got out there,” Irving said. “But my shots weren’t going.”
Irving is already anticipating the next game, against Detroit, so he can make amends.
He not only is wishing for a better result, he is counting on it.
“Every game I expect to play well,” he said. “It didn’t happen tonight. It’s a learning process.”
I don’t and won’t expect the Cavs to compete, let alone win, on a night-to-night basis. But they were facing the Toronto we-don’t-play-defense Raptors as their home opener. This game wasn’t a gimme (no games will be a gimme for this team) but it was certainly winnable. Seeing the poor defensive effort and stagnant offense was disheartening.
Did you know that last year the Cavs were the worst team at defending the three-point line? It wasn’t even close. The Cavs allowed opponents to shoot 41.1% from behind the arc last season, the second worst teams (Utah and Toronto tied) allowed 37.6%. On Monday night, Toronto made 9 of 21 from downtown for 42%. Not good.
But it wasn’t just treys. The Raptors finished the night 53% from the floor and had a whopping 35 assists on 42 field goals made. That’s fucking nuts. The Cavs got repeatedly beat on the high pick-and-roll and the help side D was non-existent. Every time the Cavs got it close, Toronto seemed to answer with a layup. It was frustrating, to say the least.
Toronto shot a whopping 53 percent from the field, going 42-for-79 in field goals. They had a number of uncontested shots, as well as dunks and wide open jumpers.
“I thought we came out a little soft the first two quarters instead of being aggressive and going after them,” Scott said. “We can’t afford as a team to dig ourselves a hole and be down double digits.”
The Cavs did just that, finding a way to trail by as many as 15 in the third quarter. While the Cavs rallied back with the help of Ramon Sessions and rookie Tristan Thompson, the team couldn’t stop the Raptors down the stretch.
It all starts and stops with defense, something that even the rookie Thompson heard loud and clear from the coach after the game.
“We had some times we missed some rotations and communication definitely wasn’t there, so coach was right about the defensive breakdowns,” Thompson said. “We just have to look at tape and see where we went wrong and improve on it tomorrow at practice.”
There’s another way to look at Monday night, and that’s to credit the shooting of the Raptors. Time after time down the floor, when the Raptors needed a shot – they got it.
“I give Toronto a lot of credit too,” Daniel Gibson said. “They made a lot of tough shots, and anytime we made a little push, they made a big shot.”
Other than Sessions, Anderson Varejao (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Alonzo Gee (15 points) were the home team’s best players. They can’t be the offensive leaders if the franchise plans to make a run at respectability.
The biggest problem, however, was a familiar one. The Cavaliers were shredded on defense, allowing the Raptors to shoot 53.2 percent, including 9-of-21 from behind the 3-point arc. Scott spent an entire season bemoaning the Cavs’ lack or trust and communication on defense. They were the culprits again on opening night.
"That is the biggest thing to me," said Scott, who made defending a priority in training camp. "We have to get better on the defensive end. That’s the bottom line."
The Raptors placed seven players in double figures, led by 15 from Calderon and DeMar DeRozan. Toronto used a 15-2 run early in the second quarter to build a nine-point lead. The Cavs cut the deficit to two points early in the fourth quarter, but that’s as close as they would come.
The team’s best defense of the night might have come after the game in the locker room as they rallied around their rookie point guard.
"I told Young Fella, you’ve just got to be patient," Sessions said. "You’ve got 65 more [games]. At the end of the game I showed him his assist-to-turnover ratio. The shot is gonna come. But that’s the stat you want when you run the team. He ran the team. Seven assists and one turnover? You’d take that any day of the week."
There were bumps in the road along the way but the Raptors for the most part gave 100% effort on both ends of the floor and were rewarded with a win for their efforts. Forget pounding the rock the Raptors were passing it and doing it well. They had 35 assists on 42 made field goals shooting 53.2% from the field. While the Raptors held the Cavs to just 41.2% from the field.
Give the Raptors credit for taking apart a team that they should beat. The home opener should be a step up in class with the much improved Pacers coming to town for the Raptors home opener on Wednesday. But if the Raptors can perform like they did tonight the ACC will be more filled than expected this year and fans will have a lot more to get excited about.
This was in it’s truest sense a team win. The Raptors are never going to beat to many teams any other way. If you were told that DeRozan would do little in the first 3 quarters of this game and that he and Bargnani would combine for just 28 points what would you think the result would be? Chances are a loss and likely a bad one. But the Raptors may have answered a question that I asked in the preview for this game. Who is going to be the third scorer for this team? The answer might be everyone. The simple fact is the Raptors will need a team effort to have any chance to win games. Against some of the better teams in this league even with that team effort it will be tough to pull off a win. But without it the chances are next to impossible.
Wow, Jose Calderon, that’s all I can say. Most of you know I’m not exactly the biggest Calderon fan, but a lot of the problems I had with him over the last few years (lack of defence, lack of consistency) can be attributed to nagging injuries. What I saw from Jose on Monday night might have been one of his best performances as a Toronto Raptor. He had a burst I haven’t seen from him in years, he knocked down his jumper when asked, he fought hard to keep his man in front of him on the defensive end and made some passes that left me with my jaw dropped. I’ve always thought Calderon’s impressive assist-to-turnover ratio was a product of usually opting for the very safe play and pass, but Jose threw some beautiful lobs and passes in traffic in Cleveland, and still ended up with just one turnover to go along with 11 assists.
While Jose’s ability to maintain an energy level even close to what he showed on Monday night for 66 games is unlikely, I have nothing negative to say about “Numero Ocho” after a magical performance.
Speaking of Jose, how about the Raptors’ ball-sharing? The Raps piled up 35 assists on 42 made field goals, an outstanding 83 per cent of their shots made. An offence that looked slow, confused and downright ugly in two pre-season games against the stingy Celtics, moved the ball around, made the extra pass, found the open man and flowed nicely overall in Cleveland. Scoring 104 points in Cleveland and beating the Cavs is nothing to brag about, but sharing the ball the way the Raptors did on opening night is impressive, no matter who the opponent is.