Doppelganger: Fred VanVleet did his best Lowry impersonation with a career performance off the bench. FVV hit 8–11 with 6 threes, many of which extended the lead in the second quarter where the Raptors obliterated the Cavs by a score of 35–16. FVV was confident in every move he made, whether it was finishing over soft interior defenders or pulling up from three in transition. He even cuddled up to DeRozan on the bench. He’s really Lowry without the booty.
But THIS was disrespect. Cleveland had been in town for two full days before Thursday, and were playing a Raptors team without either the injured Kyle Lowry or the suspended Serge Ibaka. The Cavaliers could have come in and done the Raptors the courtesy of a screw-you game. Instead, Toronto scored the most points in regulation in franchise history, and the Cavaliers should have been fined for resting all their players on national television.
“We’re so fragile,” said LeBron James, after a 133-99 Raptors blowout. “I don’t know where it went wrong, or whether the switch went back. But we have to go back and find it.”
“I never really get concerned. We’ve got to be better, we know that. But until we play better defensively, offensive, sharing the basketball,” said Cavalier coach Tyronn Lue. “If guys have agendas, we’ve got to get rid of our agendas and play the right way.”
No, no, no. Not buying it, guys. The Cavaliers do this every year. They stop caring for a while, because caring is hard, and playing 100 games a season is hard. They fool around. They got drilled 127-99 in Minnesota in the game before this one, by the way. They have lost six of eight. Asked what concerned him most about those two games, LeBron said, “That I haven’t played in the fourth quarter, and we’re getting our ass torn up. Excuse my language.”
There was a lot to ask forgiveness for. Thursday night on a nationally-televised U.S. broadcast, Cleveland mostly looked like a 40-and-over league team playing the first run of the night in a cold gym at the Y. Last year, the conversation about the Cavs hitting the switch didn’t really get going until March. Spring comes earlier every year.
t was only one game but the Raptors’ astounding 133-99 win over the Cavaliers, who rinsed Toronto from the playoffs in a sweep a year ago and in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before that, will be at the very least a reassuring touchstone should the Raptors’ season run through Cleveland again.
Can it be a template?
That would be ideal. The 133 points was the most the Raptors have ever scored in a regular-season, regulation-time game. The Cavs looked demoralized and confused.
That the Raptors did it without two starters – Kyle Lowry missed his second game with a bruised tailbone and Serge Ibaka was serving a suspension – only made the point even more powerfully.
“It should give them confidence,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “It should give a guy like Norm Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl – all those guys confidence, to know ‘Hey, I belong. I’m a big part of this team,’ which they are. I think it sends a message to everyone in the locker room.”
They held the Cavs to 38 per cent shooting and 23 per cent from three after Cleveland shot 46 per cent from deep against them in the playoffs last year. James had 26 points, but was held well below his season averages in rebounds and assists while Toronto shot 50 per cent from the floor, made a season-high 18 threes and out-rebounded the Cavs 63-35.
DeRozan said the team was shell-shocked without Lowry against Miami, but figured things out from that debacle and used it against Cleveland.
C.J. Miles, the best quote on the team, with apologies to DeRozan, weighed in eloquently on DeRozan’s improvements this season:
“He’s continued to add things to his game. Everybody talked about the three-point thing, I don’t think he did it for them, I think it was more for him but it feels good to shut people up. He’s continuing to just excel,” Miles said.
Miles shooting the ball well and turning in what might have been his most complete peformance as a Raptor so far was a good sign, as was Norman Powell looking a little bit looser.
Jakob Poeltl was fantastic.
In a matchup usually dominated by stars such as DeRozan and James, some of the lesser-knowns made the difference. Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Norm Powell, Fred VanVleet and Lorenzo Brown (who played 35 minutes in the G League Showcase earlier in the day) were the engineers of a game-turning 18-2 run in the second quarter.
“It should give them confidence,” Casey said of his second unit’s performance. “It should give a guy like Norm Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, all those guys confidence to know that, ‘Hey, I belong, I’m a big part of this team,’ which they are. I think it sends that message to everyone in the locker room.”
The Raptors’ desire was apparent from the get-go, as were the holes in the Cavaliers’ lethargic defence. Jonas Valanciunas dominated early, putting up nine points and nine rebounds in little more than six minutes. He would double that rebound total by game’s end while finishing with 15 points.
But it wasn’t until the backups assembled in the second quarter that the possibility of back-to-back blowout losses for the Cavaliers, who lost by 28 points to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday, took shape. Powell and VanVleet put up eight points each, with Siakam reaching double digits; the crowd, growing more excited with every dunk and rebound, gave Poeltl and Brown a rousing sendoff when they subbed out with five minutes left in the quarter.
When the Cavaliers pushed, the Raptors pushed back; their slimmest lead of the quarter was 23 points, boosted by an 11-point push from DeRozan and VanVleet reaching a career-high 19 points — he wound up with 22. The Raptors drained 18 three-pointers, the most the Cavs have allowed this season.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Cleveland Cavaliers came out flat against a team missing it’s key players. The Toronto Raptors eviscerated the Cavaliers 133-99 without the services of Kyle Lowry or Serga Ibaka.
With Lowry out with a tailbone injury, and Ibaka suspended, the Raptors still had absolutely not trouble scoring on a porous Cavs defense. Even with DeMar DeRozan scoring just two points in the first half, Toronto still breezed to a 25 point lead in the first half.
Isaiah Thomas followed up his 3-11 performance against Minnesota with a 0-10 first half and just four points overall. But he wasn’t the only one that struggled. Jae Crowder, J.R. Smith, and LeBron James all offered up no resistance on the perimeter, while Kevin Love struggled to get going offensively.
Things didn’t get much better for the Cavs in the second half. The defensive effort was terrible, as Toronto’s younger players stepped up in a big way to make up for the absence of their veterans. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam in particular were impressive, as their energy routinely lead to easy baskets against a disengaged Cavaliers defense.
Each and every Raptor played to their best selves tonight against the Cavaliers. The final score, an impossible 133-99, somehow does not even capture how thorough and fun this game actually was. LeBron James did what he could, he led all scorers with 26 points — but it was not nearly enough to stop the entire Toronto squad.
Without Lowry, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet needed to step up — and so they did. For his part, Delon stranded the Cavs’ Isaiah Thomas on an 2-for-15, 4-point island; meanwhile VanVleet dropped a career-high 22 points, on 6-of-8 from deep shooting, and became the catalyst for the team’s offensive explosion.
Without Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas took to laying down all kinds of abuse on the Cavaliers undersized starting frontline of Kevin Love and James. He had nine points and nine rebounds in the first, a double-double at the half, and finished with 15 points and 18 rebounds in a mere 18 and a half minutes.
Buddies Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam did what they do best, running the floor, picking their spots, hustling into every corner. They finished with a combined 28 points and 19 rebounds, while shooting 5-of-8 and 7-of-10 from the floor. Both got to have their breakouts (along with FVV) on national TV too. (Cheers to Jak getting the classic Kevin Harlan call.)
The Raptors certainly looked more equipped to threaten the three-time champs on Thursday night.
During the 34-point blowout, the Raptors canned 18 triples, the most Cleveland has allowed all season. It’s not a one-game outlier either. With a new philosophy and some roster tweaks, the Raptors rank top 10 in both makes and attempts from long range. They were 21st and 22nd in those respective categories last season.
Last May, Toronto’s predictable, isolation-heavy offensive attack couldn’t even take advantage of a flawed Cavaliers defense, averaging just 101 points.
On Thursday, Toronto scored a franchise-high (in a regulation game) 133 points — even without starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.
DeMar DeRozan, the Cavs’ primary target, was blitzed constantly, just as he was last postseason. Only this time, Toronto’s supporting cast made the Cavs pay for the risky strategy. Seven players reached double figures in scoring, showing more balance than last year’s series.
DeRozan, one of the league’s leading scorers, tallied just 13 points. That should’ve led to a blowout. It did. Just not the way many expected. The added attention opened outside shots for teammates and gave Toronto’s bigs second-chance opportunities. Starting center Jonas Valanciunas had six offensive rebounds. Jakob Poeltl pulled down four.
DeRozan only had two points by the half, but was leading the Raptors with seven assists through the first 24 minutes. He would go on to finish with a modest 13 points and a team-high eight assists. More impressively he had to play just 29 minutes in a game in which many expected him to have to carry his team.
The scoring came from everywhere on the roster, first Jonas Valanciunas who had nine points and nine rebounds six minutes into the game before he had to sit down with some early foul trouble. He would return briefly in the second quarter to reach a first-half double-double with 11 boards and 11 rebounds until a third foul put him back on the bench.
The Raptors merely turned to the next guy whether that was Fred VanVleet leading the second unit with a career best 22 points or Pascal Siakam looking to atone for a couple of key defensive gaffes earlier in the week with a 16-point performance.
The Cleveland Cavaliers coming off their worst defensive performance of the year having lost by 28 to Minnesota is normally not a team you want to face. Take two key players out of your lineup and the anticipation would have to be even less.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives to the net against Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (3) during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Thursday, January 11, 2018.
But as talented as this Cavs team, and it is talented although not as much as it was a year ago, it’s very clear they are not close to making that talent work for them just yet.
So, what happened? Role reversal broke out. Casey’s Raptors played the part of the playoff Cavaliers. And the Cavs played the part of last spring’s dismal Raptors. Toronto basically won a hugely one-sided game without the injured Kyle Lowry, without the suspended Serge Ibaka and with minimal contribution from the pending all-star DeMar DeRozan.
They crushed the disinterested Cavs without their three best players, in essence, and there was a certain symbolism as the first half came to an end. The Raptors led 65-40 at the half, and from the three-point line, where the Raps were embarrassed into change last playoff season, Toronto had scored 21 points from three, the Cavaliers had scored none.
There is not a lot of real interpretation that can come from a night like this, but those numbers still have to mean something. When they were more than 100 points down to the Cavs from three last May.
It means something when Norm Powell, missing in action, starts hitting threes.
It means something when C.J. Miles hits four threes in the first half. Only once in the past two and a half months has he been anywhere near this effective.
And the spunky Fred VanVleet knocked down three from three-point land in the first half. He tied LeBron James in first half scoring, the game’s top scorers, two names rarely found in the same sentence.
While Delon Wright has benefitted most directly from Lowry’s two-game absence, VanVleet is the Raptors point guard who’s made the most of the extra playing time, following up a quietly strong outing against the Heat with the best game of his career two nights later.
The undrafted NBA sophomore delivered an immediate impact off the bench in the first quarter, sneaking behind the Cleveland defence and making a great in-air adjustment for a nifty layup under the net before pulling up for a transition three-pointer moments later. And he brought all kinds of energy in the next frame, quarterbacking Toronto’s bench unit as it starched an overwhelmed Cavaliers lineup.
“I think that was one of our advantages tonight, especially the second unit — just playing fast,” VanVleet said. “The first unit did a good job of setting the tone defensively, and we came in and continued that — got stops, played in transition.
“We’ve got to use that as one of our advantages — our youth and speed and fresh legs. We’ve got to take advantage of that.”
That effort from VanVleet — he had 13 points in the first half — and the rest of Toronto’s second unit made the biggest difference in this one, as the Raptors went to the dressing room at halftime with 36 points off the bench while the Cavaliers had 40 as a team.
And when you’re shooting like VanVleet was Thursday, the last thing you’re going to do is stop. He added three buckets from distance in the second half, finishing 6-of-8 from three-point range with a game-high — and career-high — 22 points.
And as the game wore on, VanVleet made it his mission to get teammates involved, particularly the slumping Norman Powell, who enjoyed his best night in weeks with 14 points and a plus-23 in 27 minutes. Late in the game, VanVleet told Powell he probably could’ve scored 30 if he wasn’t being so generous with the ball.
Of course, any GM or front office leader wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t pursuing the best talent available. For example, the Golden State Warriors have been reported to be expected to pursue Paul George in free agency this summer even if they know their chances to ink him are invisibly thin.
It remains to be seen if a player of that calibre will be available at the deadline this season— Clippers centre DeAndre Jordan is the one marquee name that comes to mind— and more importantly whether or not a team like the Raptors, who have seen efficient and consistent production from their homegrown talent en route to the second-best record in the East, would be wise to part with a package of prospects and picks for a player they may not need.
To trade for the sake of trading, rolling the dice on a fresh face or two, may have made sense for Raptors teams of the past, but not one that is carving a real identity built around the depth and development of it’s young pieces.
“Growth is what we preach,” said Ujiri. “How are we getting better? Is OG [Anunoby] getting better? Is Pascal [Siakam] getting better? How are those guys going to be next year? What experiences are they gaining? How are they going to play, knock wood, when we make the playoffs? How do Jakob Poeltl or Delon Wright or those guys, how do they continue to grow? Sometimes we are looking for something outside that’s actually inside with us.”
Playing their first game on national TV south of the border this season, did the Raptors turn some heads with their blowout win over the Cavs? Does Toronto have the roster to knock off Cleveland in the playoffs should the teams meet again this year? ESPN’s Dave McMenamin and Josh Lewenberg discuss.
TSN NBA analyst Sam Mitchell breaks down the Raptors’ statement win over the Cavaliers, and discusses the dazzling performance of Toronto’s bench players. Mitchell also weighs in on LeBron James showing his frustration in the game and what Cleveland needs to do to turn things around.
In Episode 259 of Locked on Raptors, Sean Woodley and Sahal Abdi (Raptors Republic) jovially recap the Raptors’ 133-99 curb-stomping of the Cleveland Cavaliers, pick out their favourite Toronto performances of the night, and try to pinpoint any aspects of the game that will be meaningful in the event of another Raptors/Cavs playoff series.
It was the latest impressive performance from a Raptors team that is on pace for the best record in franchise history, and the latest clunker from a Cavaliers team that has now surrendered its three highest point totals of the season in its last three games, and sits 29th among the 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency halfway through the season.
It would be easy to look at the details of that last paragraph and decide that this year will be different; that Toronto will be a force come playoff time, and that LeBron James’s run of seven straight trips to the NBA Finals will not extend to eight.
The truth, though, is that despite the very different ways both teams performed Thursday night, they find themselves in exactly the same place: toiling through an 82-game regular season with the knowledge that nothing that happens before the playoffs begin will truly change how people view them.
“You are talking about the regular season and the playoffs, and they are two different things,” Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said when asked about the psychological effect of a victory like this one. “I’m sure the next time we play them, they are going to remember this game.
“It’s going to be a whole different type of game, and we have to be ready for that.”
The fact that Toronto hasn’t been ready for that the past several seasons left the Raptors determined to make changes heading into this season. In recent years, it felt like Toronto was replaying the same season over and over: excel in the regular season behind the individual brilliance of Lowry and DeRozan, then fall apart in the playoffs as each crumbled under the weight of opposing defenses over the course of a seven-game series.
DeRozan credited a strong offensive flow for how the game unfolded. He revealed some concern about the potential “shell shock” of not having starting point guard Lowry in the lineup, but the entire team contributed in his absence. The Raptors bench provided a season-high 76 points, and the team had 31 assists on 53 field goals.
“The guys did a great job, ” said DeRozan, who scored 13 points with eight assists and three rebounds. “We all passed the ball extremely well, we got a lot of great looks, back doors. We were moving the ball. It showed that we all came together and we understood what we had to do.”
The nature of the victory was an encouraging sign for the Raptors, but DeRozan reiterated it’s merely one regular-season game on an 82-game schedule. After an abundance of personnel changes in the offseason and beyond, the version of the Cavaliers who lost on Thursday is different from the team that bounced the Raptors from the playoffs in consecutive years.
Time will tell whether this game was a flash in the pan or if the Raptors will consistently get the better of the Cavaliers this season. DeRozan knows LeBron James and company will be out for vengeance next time around, and he said it’s on the Raptors to be prepared.
“You can never overlook them, underlook them no matter how they play, no matter what the score of a game is,” DeRozan says. “At the end of the day they’ve got their experience to be able to turn it on. They’ve got a guy on their team that understands what it takes. So, really, we can’t feed too much into it. They’re continuing to be themselves, continue to get better, and next time they come around, be prepared.”
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