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Raptors outclassed by streaking Cavaliers

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Too little effort from the Raptors, too much LeBron form the Cavaliers.

The Toronto Raptors dropped a frustrating contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday against the backdrop of a night of celebration.

Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors honoured the one-year anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing, which attracted luminaries like Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson to make appearances in Toronto. The Raptors also honored Tracy McGrady as part of their 20th anniversary campaign. To a man, a sold-out crowd showered each legend with a rousing round of applause.

On to the game.

The Raptors were blown out for the first time this season, losing by 14 points to a well-oiled Cavaliers squad riding the high of a six-game winning streak.

Let’s start with the main reason for their loss: a lack of defensive pressure. It’s become something of a trend for the Raptors, who don’t have enough raw talent to win without out-working loaded squads like Cleveland.

The team was plagued by a general malaise, but youngster Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas’s defensive lapses epitomized Toronto’s struggles. Let’s tackle each player individually.

Ross had the excuse of checking LeBron, but it wasn’t necessarily James’s overwhelming physical advantage that left Ross in shambles (though it most certainly didn’t help). LeBron’s size didn’t account for Ross’s missed rotations and his general lack of hustle. Unfortunately, disappearing into the background instead of playing with grit and intensity has quickly emerged as the most glaring blemish in Ross’s young career.

Take this play, for example. The Cavaliers’ veterans wisely made a point of attacking Ross and Valanciunas (more on him below) in the pick-and-roll, knowing that they were unable to reliably react on defensive rotations.

Ross makes no effort in getting around a screen by Anderson Varejao. Instead, he curiously turns his back to the screen and ends up trailing behind the play. That leaves Valanciunas with the impossible task of guarding a driving LeBron, while also checking a rolling Varejao. The end result is an easy floater for James.

Weak defensive play prompted Ross to sit. He went on to finish with six points on 2-of-9 shooting in over 30 minutes of play.

Valanciunas fared no better. He played a hand in almost every Cavaliers basket to start the game. His footwork was poor, his rotations were slow and Valanciunas provided little to no rim protection. His counterpart Varejao thoroughly outplayed him.

Take the play below. The Raptors’ defense is in scramble mode after the Cavaliers push in transition. Shawn Marion makes a cut across to the weak side while Love sets up shop on Ross. Marion is really not in a position to score, and Lowry is on his hip. However, Valanciunas oddly decides to concede the lane and shade over on a wholly unthreatening Marion, which gives way for Varejao to come thundering down the lane uninhibited for the slam. Valanciunas realizes this too late and is forced to foul. Plays like this drives coaches crazy. Valanciunas was soon benched thereafter.

The Raptors did manage to make a game of it at various points in the second half. The Raptors twice took a one-point lead in both the third and fourth quarters thanks to triples by Kyle Lowry, but the Cavaliers responded each time with counter punches to restablish their lead.

No surprise here, but James was the Cavaliers’ catalyst. He struggled with his jumpshot in the first half, but managed to finish with 24 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds. He repeatedly made the right reads on defense, and found a counter to every tactic the Raptors’ lazy defense threw his way. He played the two-man game to perfection with Varejao early on, and finished the game feeding Tristan Thompson for easy baskets, as the Raptors desperately sent double-teams his way to stem the tide.

It should be noted that Amir Johnson played one of his best games of the season, especially on the offensive end. He finished with a season-high 27 points while also chipping in with seven rebounds (five offensive) and four assists. He looked mobile and springy, and consistently positioned himself in advantageous spots for the Raptors to capitalize. His performance, and thereby the Raptors’ interior presence, seems to hinge on his wonky ankle.

I wrote about this following play for theScore. Amir cleverly short rolls to provide Lowry with an outlet from the Cavaliers’ trap, which ultimately culminats in a easy basket for Valanciunas.

Once again, Lowry tried to take the reins, but was stifled by the Cavaliers’ timely help defense. Lowry’s go-to option, it seems, is to relentlessly drive into the lane coming off a high screen, which is becoming increasingly predictable. The solution was to keep help defenders waiting at the rim to play the game of verticality. Even a normally substandard help defender in Love managed to thwart Lowry on occasion.

The Cavaliers also threw a series of traps on Lowry, exemplified by the play below. The goal was to force Lowry into passing to a lesser threat, and although Johnson succeeded at times, his lack of shooting (similarly, Patrick Patterson’s off-target shot) permitted the Cavaliers to cheat over as much as they wanted without fear of reprocussions.

Ultimately, it’s a loss that could have been expected, especially given the Cavaliers’ recent rounding into form, and the absence of DeMar DeRozan. Even a healthy Raptors squad would struggle mightily against this Cavaliers team, who seems to be figuring things out after a shaky start, much like James’s last big-three experiment that went 9-8 in 2010-11 before finishing with 58 wins.

The takeaway from last night’s loss is the disappearing act of Ross and Valanciunas in big games.  They continue to struggle on defense, to the extent that they rarely manage to command minutes in the clutch. The trend, as it pertains to Valanciunas and Ross, were elucidated by Tim C. and Matt respectively. The potential is there, but the consistency isn’t up to snuff for a team looking to contend.

At the end of it all, the Raptors move to 15-5 on the season, which still tops the East. The Raptors have the remainder of the weekend off, before taking on the Nuggets and Cavaliers in a back-to-back starting next Monday.

Photo credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

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