Haven’t had a one-point loss at the buzzer in a while so I’m glad Kyrie Irving fixed that for us. My money was in him tying the game and losing in OT, but the gods have a funny way of kicking you when you’re down. It was entertaining one to watch and you saw a lot of games within the game as two different styles of basketball were intended by the sides.
Let us not beat around the proverbial bush and get to this and conclude with Irving’s jumper. You thought this would’ve been an easy weekend win for the Raptors by the way DeMar DeRozan started, picking up right where he left off in Orlando. Cleveland had game-planned for him and were bringing in help off screens, and even being cognizant of him as he dribbled out of the initial threat. DeRozan was more than comfortable with his jumper in the first and that’s where he made Cleveland pay. Ten early points, mainly from the perimeter drove the Raptors offense.
Jose Calderon’s been a bit of a Cleveland-killer this season and he also garnered the attention of the Cavs defense with Alonzo Gee, a small forward, checking him. Nobody on the Raptors was made to work harder than Calderon, who found his paths to the rim blocked with Cleveland throwing different looks at him – sometimes big pressure, sometimes simply a show. It rattled Calderon who found himself passing the ball up.
The Raptors hot start built up an early 10 point lead which of course means nothing. In essence, this was a game of two styles. First, Cleveland’s focus was to drive using Irving, Waiters and Gee in one-on-one situations, often helped by a screen, whereas Toronto’s was to run the pick ‘n roll with Calderon and see what it yields. Second, Cleveland wanted to push the tempo and keep the Raptors on their heels, whereas Toronto wanted to play in the half-court (we’re dead last in the league in fast-break points).
As DeRozan and Calderon were to Cleveland, Irving was to the Raptors, and I’d say in the first half they did an excellent job of team defense on Irving. Turning him into a jump-shooter is obviously the better strategy and when interested in doing so, the Raptors big/guard combos are pretty good at keeping guards at bay. It’s when the ball is swung out of the primary set that the Raptors defense is late to reset, thus allowing attacks from the “sides” by guys like Ellington and Gee. Even when the ball was dumped to someone like Thompson as part of the “secondary” play on the possession, the Raptors defense was late.
The Raptors were up 6 at the end of the first and watching Lowry and Anderson in that second quarter, I realized what a valuable resource Bargnani can be as a bench player. There’s not much I like about Anderson jacking up shots, and certainly not when he’s 3/8 in the quarter. They’re usually jumpers which is exactly what Cleveland wanted so that they can rebound and get on with it. From my point of view, the game that the Raptors were having quite a lot of success with is simply putting Davis and Johnson in good positions underneath (something they did in the first half, Davis was 6-6 FG). Both are having a stretch where their finishing is phenomenal and they’re usually high-percentage shots. Whether it be through early post-ups, drive-and-dumps, or simply running some hi-lo action, those were the plays where the Raptors troubled Cleveland the most.
In the second, the Raptors got into the penalty halfway through the quarter, and even though Cleveland didn’t live at the line, it affected the way the Raptors defended as they turned passive. DeRozan, who scored 10 in the first was benched for about 10 minutes, came in late in the second ice cold, and managed to only score 5 points in the final three quarters. He took 9 shots in the first and only 8 for the rest of the game, despite Cleveland not really doing anything different on him. How can the Raptors not go through him given his start, and how can Casey let DeRozan become such a non-factor without as much trying to revitalize his game in the second half. I realize this is ultimately on the player but it bugs me that we let effective players having good games become complete non-factors later in the same game!
Lowry played the second and what sticks out for me in his 1-7 game isn’t the poor shooting, it’s that one play where he left Quincy Acy hung out to dry on a screen. Basketball 101: you can’t start your drive before the screener has set because otherwise you’re tempting the screener to set a moving pick. The assist count is respectable at 7, but I didn’t really see him put any pressure on the Cleveland defense at any point. Certainly not the way Gee, Waiters, Irving or even Ellington did for the Cavs.
After a second quarter where the Cavs ended strongly, notably due to their unrelenting persistence for driving the ball, the Raptors were up 4 at the half. A telling stat in this game is the 50-48 Cleveland PITP advantage. When you look at the quality of their big men and the way ours our playing, this should not be the case and for this game at least, the issue was man-defense on the perimeter, where Lowry, Calderon, DeRozan, Anderson, and to a lesser degree, Ross, failed to provide cover.
Some measure of control was regained in the third by the Raptors, despite the Cavaliers making a concerted effort to get Irving in isolation situations against Lowry and Calderon. He went 3-7 in the quarter and was stretching the Raptors defense enough to cause concern for when the fourth would come and legs would tire. I thought at this point the Raptors should have put Ross on him, who I felt had the best combination of size and quickness to deal with Irving. The Raptors response when Cleveland had cut the lead down to 4 again with 2:33 left came through Alan Anderson, who scored 7 points in that span, one in which DeRozan and Lowry deferred to him which is quite a statement. Raptors up 9 going into the fourth and you’re thinking the deal is closed.
Two thing happened early in the fourth which changed this game: 1) Speights burned Acy in isolation situations and on the other end it didn’t help that Lowry ran the show with the discipline of a mouse stuck in a maze, at one point passing the ball for a jumper to Acy at the end of the shot-clock (airball, of course), 2) Ellington was able to go at Ross and get two clean looks for threes, both setup by Shaun Livingston (yes, that Shaun Livingston).
An 11 point lead was turned into a one point deficit with 8:47 left to play and momentum had swung. During this 12-0 run, the Raptors offense consisted of a terrible early-in-the-shot-clock Lowry three, an Acy jumper (failed assist by Lowry), an offensive foul, Alan Anderson trying to do too much and turning it over, and to close things off, another Lowry three. Acy was quickly removed in favor of Davis, and at 4:15, Lowry in favor of Calderon. Just how bad the Raptors looked in that stretch quarterbacked by Lowry where the unit was -11, I cannot convey. You can call it Lowry’s fault, you can say the plays that were called were ad-hoc and not designed to put away Cleveland (ahem, no bigs involved at any point), or you can question some sub-pattern. I’d simply say the Raptors executed poorly and did not play inside-out.
Once Calderon came in, much like in the first half, his options were sealed off by Cleveland’s defense throwing multiple looks at him. I saw this game on the Cleveland feed and I can tell you, their coaching staff was focused on slowing down two guys: Calderon and DeRozan. They did not care about Anderson because they know that Anderson cannot win you a game. Pure and simple. By this time, Irving had come in the game after a nicely managed rest by Byron Scott and everything was going through him. He was killing Calderon, destroying him, and the Raptors interior defense was late, presumably tired. There was no double-teaming either. Irving had 12 points in the fourth, and this game would’ve been over sooner hadn’t it been for Ross coming up big with 8 in the quarter, including two threes.
You knew this was going to come down to the wire and when at the wire, the Raptors will always have a disadvantage due to the lack of a go-to player. With the Raptors up two with 39 seconds left, Amir Johnson had a chance to seal the game but I felt he hesitated underneath the basket after being found. He was open for a split second, probably should’ve gathered and gone up strong but instead through twice, maybe even thrice, and got blocked by Thompson. Irving next scored on an easy drive. Tie game. The Raptors went with Calderon on the next play, a solid screen set by Johnson sealed off one defender and Calderon split two more for the layup. Phenomenal play under pressure. Up two with seconds left.
The final play you know. Irving walked up, defended by Anderson and launched an uncontested, albeit deep, three. Game over. Could the Raptors have sent help early and get it out of his hands? It was an option given how hot Irving was, but at the same time the Raptors were not defending Cleveland’s secondary guys in the fourth either. For me, the problem was that Irving was under no pressure, not even a mild contest. Considering that the old adage goes that you go for the tie at home and win on the road, Anderson and the Raptors should have seen this coming, especially with Irving being 2-4 from three at the time.
Related: Byron Scott on going for the kill
As for the Raptors chance to win it with .7 left, I agree with this.
When you shoot 49% and lose, as the Raptors did, it’s the defense that has to be questioned and it really is everyone. The only player that I can point to and say had a superior defensive game is Amir Johnson. Even Ed Davis finds himself too committed to on-the-ball and is caught napping underneath as players cut across the paint. Lowry’s man-defense has been terribly disappointing, and DeRozan and Calderon were typically bad. I don’t think it would’ve even mattered if the Raptors had played zone extensively given the way Cleveland was attacking. I would conclude that there wasn’t enough of an overall game-plan to slow down Cleveland’s perimeter guys, and that the Raptors failed to adjust in the fourth when Cleveland’s clear strategy was to milk Irving.
This was one of those games that you’re circled to win, and when the bookies have you laying 7, you better deliver. With Golden State, Atlanta, Miami, Boston, and Indiana coming up, things have the potential to get ugly. Let’s hope the Raptors continue playing the competitive basketball they’ve played in January, which ultimately has been the silver lining in all of this.
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