Even in a game in which the Raptors were outplayed in devastating fashion, the team proved that the results of the series will be in their hands. Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are who we thought they were: an offensive team with the overwhelming power and energy of a cocaine high coupled with a defense as porous as a nose overly abused by cocaine. The Raptors are a shimmering apparition – a mirage – unable to be defined or predicted. They are a better defensive team than the Cavs, and their offense can simulate the Cavs devastating attack when everything is clicking. Everything was not clicking tonight. However, even when the Cavs play well, the Raps can win. But almost every Raptor has to succeed at their mini-games within the larger framework of the game.
Too often, fans and pundits say that a team simply has to ‘play better’ or ‘make their shots’ in order to win. Let’s run in back, paying acute attention to the specific details which specific Raptors must accomplish in order for the team to avoid the embarrassment heaped upon their heads in Game 1.
The first quarter began – as many series seem to begin for the Raptors – with nerves taking a toll on the Raptors’ performance. DeMar DeRozan, who must be used to high traps on aggressive pick and roll coverages from the Bucks series, threw the ball away when trying to pass to Serge Ibaka out of a trap. The Raptors tried to make a point of feeding Jonas Valanciunas against Tristan Thompson, but Valanciunas took several seconds to prepare for each achingly-slow move. He looked like my dad playing basketball in the driveway: back down, back down, back down, paaauuuuse. Pump fake! Shockingly, he was ineffective.
These are details to which the Raptors must attend; DeRozan cannot turn the ball over facing a trap, and Valanciunas must be quicker and more decisive when he gets a touch. Less dad-like in general.
After a missed Ibaka 3, Lebron powered by the Toronto defense for a layup in transition. DeMarre Carroll just faced a similar monster on Milwaukee whom Carroll had to meet early in transition in order to change his momentum; Carroll failed to offer any resistance to Lebron, who had his way not just in transition, but also on simple back cuts. Kyrie Irving even threw Lebron a disrespectful off-the-backboard alley-oop in transition.
However, Toronto was working to get themselves easy looks on offense, which just weren’t falling. Lowry and DeRozan missed easy mid-range pull-ups in the first, and the Cavs lead ballooned to double digits. The first quarter ended with DeRozan electric sliding out of the way of Iman Shumpert, who fearlessly dunked on Ibaka’s head. Ibaka can’t fix everything, especially when he is pulled 30 feet away from the hoop by guarding Kevin Love. Another downside of starting Valanciunas is that he is guarding the rim instead of Ibaka.
Another detail that needs attention: DeRozan has to focus on every damn defensive possession. He missed easy rotations onto Lebron when Tucker or Carroll were sucked in by an Irving drive, got lost in transition, couldn’t contain his man when closing out, and was beaten repeatedly on drives from the perimeter. DeRozan has to make almost no mental errors on defense, which is difficult for even the best defenders.
In general, Irving and Lebron are so good at breaking guys down off the dribble, either 1-on-1, or with a screen, that the Raps were often forced into a complicated series of rotations. DeRozan and Valanciunas just weren’t good at recognizing and executing their rotation tonight. Those have to be tight and ingrained, without conceding a sliver of space. The Cavs saw as much space after Raps rotations as a college student going home on Christmas break and finding a king-size bed upon which to rest their weary head.
The second quarter finally brought life to the Raptors. The Kyle Lowry+bench versus Lebron+bench lineups offer a decided potential advantage to the Raptors. While the Cavaliers’ lineup offers offense as powerful as Seabiscuit, their defense with Channing Frye and Deron Williams looks like they’re defending with hooves for hands.
The Raptors’ Lowry+bench lineup of the night included Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, PJ Tucker, and Ibaka. They countered the Cavs with impressive offense and versatile defense. Lowry played urgent defense on Frye, almost forcing a turnover, then hit a step-back 3. After missed Lebron and Kyle Korver 3s, Ibaka hit one of his own. The Cavs lead was down to 10 with 9:16 left in the second quarter. After a Powell layup and a Tucker long jumper (foot on the line – theme of the night), Tyronn Lue pulled the plug on the matchup. For the Raptors to win a game against the Cavs, the Lowry+bench lineup must continue to outscore the Lebron+bench lineup.
Lowry alone played well in Game 1. He hit his jumpers, distributed the ball well, and played effective defense on the perimeter and even occasionally near the rim. Lowry is in a much better position to succeed against the Cavs than the Bucks, who seemed uniquely engineered to make Lowry’s life hell. Lowry alone hit the details tonight; he needs to sustain this level of play.
Back to the game, JR Smith and Kevin Love 3s stopped the Raptors’ run in the second and swelled the Cavs’ lead back to 8. Any momentum the Raptors gained was met swiftly and easily by timely Cavaliers’ shooting.
As Lebron and Irving pulled their team behind their broad shoulders, the Raptors could not find enough contributions across the board. The Cavs forced players other than Lowry and DeRozan to beat them, and nobody consistently could. Patterson especially failed to hit any of his open jumpers, whether from 3 or a few steps closer. He shied away from shots throughout the game that he needs to take (and make) going forward. The Raptors offense sticks in the mud when Patterson refuses to shoot his open jumpers and instead drives into a waiting defense.
Despite the Cavs lead, there were encouraging signs. DeRozan found easy buckets in transition, where the Cavs are uniquely bad defenders. The Raptors need to control the pace of the game constantly in order to succeed, allowing their transition game to thrive while stifling the muscle-bound titan that is Lebron James in the open-court. Easier said than done.
At half-time, the Raptors were down by 14 points. Valanciunas had only 1 offensive rebound and 2 points on 4 shots. When he doesn’t offer offense, he can’t play. Patterson was 0/5 from the field, and not even his cerebral defense can compensate for a poor performance like that.
The third quarter was opened with more missed details. DeRozan fouled Love shooting the 3. After the Raptors trimmed the score slightly, Thompson was gifted a dunk by Ibaka, who failed to rotate onto Valanciunas’ man while the Lithuanian was trapping high above the 3-point arc. Tucker again hit jumpers with his feet on the line – more mistakes that leave points in the grave instead of on the scoreboard where they belong. The Cavs pulled away in the third quarter, as the Raptors just couldn’t hang with Lebron once his jump shot started dropping. The man is a fully-formed, well-rounded basketball machine. For the Pokémon aficionados amongst you, Lebron James is the Charizard to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Charmeleon. I can’t decide if Rudy Gay or prime Josh Smith is the better Charmander. I’m thinking about this because I just don’t want to think about the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was garbage time. The fourth quarter need not have happened.
So in a game in which the Raptors succumbed to the curse of Game 1s (and also to the curse of playing Lebron James), there is a sliver of positivity: the Raptors can win on their own terms. They should be able to score enough points to let their defense win out. However, the small things need to start happening.
DeRozan needs to focus while playing defense and keep the ball whirring when the Cavs trap him. Valanciunas has to offer enough on offense to make himself playable, and he can only do that while playing decisively and actively on both sides of the ball. Every Raptor has to recognize rotations and get to their new men seamlessly, offering no space to the bevy of Cleveland cutters or shooters. Tucker, Patterson, and Carroll have to take and make enough shots to force regret into the hearts of the Cleveland defenders who double the Raptors’ star backcourt. 3-point shots should indeed be worth 3, without a foot stepping indiscreetly on the line. And finally, Lowry has to continue playing aggressively.
These changes start with Dwane Casey. He needs to sharpen his rotations. Tucker was a godsend in Game 1, somehow offering a +5.1 net rating in his 25 minutes, despite not padding his stats in garbage time. Tucker needs to be used more against Lebron, whether as a starter or earlier off the bench. Valanciunas needs to be given a shorter leash, snatched off the floor when he isn’t performing like an over-indulgent speaker getting the music hook on Oscar night. Casey needs to adjust to Cleveland’s offense, which features elite isolation scorers and shooters around the fulcrum of Lebron James. Casey has adjusted well in the past, but he can take too long. Game 2 will dictate whether the Raptors can play the Cavs on their own terms, or whether the familiar darkness of losing to the Cavs in the playoffs will again loom large.