The mental game

As the crowd starting to slowly file out of the ACC last night as early as the 5:00 minute in the fourth quarter, it all started to sink in. This was the moment where the Raptors had officially waived the proverbial white flag. It was official – any so-called belief that this team had left, was officially lost. Kyle’s face showed it, the fans showed it, and the killer instinct of the Cavs began to emerge.

The Cavaliers were capping off an epic run to begin the fourth quarter. After a pretty valiant effort by the Raptors to keep the game close for most of the first 3 and a half quarters, despite playing without their all-star point guard and emotional leader in Lowry, the Raptors showed their fan-base some fight. They showed what was desperately missing in Games 1 and 2 in this series – a defensive disposition spearheaded at the point of attack by Cory Joseph, and a scoring punch added by the mid-range maestro DeRozan who finally seemed to be turning a corner. DeMar was doing it all for the Raptors on the offensive end, shouldering a scoring load that consisted of a mostly mid-range assault. He was shaking JR Smith and Iman Shumpert for long 2’s, driving to the rack challenging Tristan Thompson at every opportunity, and making ‘em count from the stripe. But deep down, there was an empty feeling.

That empty feeling was something that’s hard to put into words. For so long, as Raptors fans enjoying the past 3 or 4 years of basketball, we’ve seen this team bounce back. So much so, that it became a undeniable mark of the team. When times got tough, we saw DeMar or Kyle, or the unlikely hero like Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, or Terrence Ross bring us back to a certain level of respect. But last night…felt different. Kyle was out of the lineup, the Raptors were facing the daunting task of winning 4 of 5 games against the Cavs, most of the general fan-base and media had written the team off, and with Cleveland hanging around for most of the contest at the relatively quiet and nervous ACC, things just felt uneasy. It felt as though an avalanche was coming, and perhaps this time around…there was no bounce back imminent.

That avalanche came. And there was nothing the Raptors could do. Kyle Korver cleanly came across screens, and punctured the Raptors’ souls with long-range daggers that swished so loudly, you could hear it on the broadcast. The Raptors, who entered the fourth quarter down just a point (which seemed like a mini-victory on its own), had shown some early signs. But once Korver started going, the Raptors had ZERO response. Their offense fell flat on its face. When Dwane Casey gambled early in the fourth quarter trying to buy DeMar and Cory just a few minutes of rest, LeBron and the Cavs pounced on that mistake hard. And even with DeMar and Cory back in the game just a minute later, it was too late.

In that time period, so many struggles that we’ve seen from this team throughout mid-season materialized. The offense suddenly came to a grinding halt. The ball wasn’t moving. The Cavs had figured out the DeMar-centric offense, and worst of all,  the Raptors could hit NONE of their open shots. Even in the first half when things were close, that was pretty much the story of the game.

The Raptors started the game missing their first 4 wide open 3’s, and that was the tone-setter. From Ibaka, to Tucker, to Cory, the Raptors clanked open jumper after open jumper. This is National Basketball Association – the highest level of basketball there is. In this league, open jumpers are like nuggets of gold. It’s a lapse in defensive coverage that equates itself to a free-throw in the modern NBA. It’s a mistake that the offense needs to capitalize upon, especially in the playoffs where possessions are magnified, and those nuggets of gold are so hard to come by.

But basketball, my friends, is a game of a belief. As someone who’s played at the high school level, rep level, and in the occasional rec-leagues after that, I’ll say that even at the highest level, basketball is really about 60% talent, skill, scheming, game-planning, etc. and about 40% mental. Even after manufacturing an open shot using the fanciest of schemes, actually hitting the resulting open shot is so much about belief and confidence than anything else. And while the Raptors claimed to have all the belief in the world in this series, every fan in the building last night knew that this team didn’t really believe they could beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was blatantly obvious.

If you’ve ever played basketball competitively, you may remember playing that one team (or several teams in my case) that just intimidated the crap out of you. Even before the ball tipped off, they’d have the height advantage, guys that can dunk during layup lines, fancier uniforms, and a coach that just had a mean game face. Right then, despite the fact that you claimed to have belief when your friends would ask you about the game, you’d know deep down in your heart of hearts…that game was probably over before it even started.

So when the Raptors came out in this series missing open jump shot after open jump shot, especially in the first quarter of all 3 games, there was something clearly off. Just like an accurate free-throw shooter missing a free-throw in the clutch, this thing was in their heads. They knew that if they missed the shot, it was going to be run back for a humiliating dunk or an and-1 that was just going to be too difficult to emotionally recover from. While this sounds pathetic for an NBA franchise to be going through, especially one with a roster full of depth and playoff experience, it really speaks to the level of superiority exhibited by their opponents – King James and the Cavs.

When LeBron said that his Game 2 “spin-the-ball” free-throw routine before hitting a 3 in Ibaka’s face was a “mental thing”, he really meant it. Just like the sipping-of-beer incident, the constant smirks at the Raptors bench, and the kind of commentary we’ve been getting from the King, it was the kind of mental thing that took their opponent right out of the ball game. It meant that in the mental category of the game (the approximate 40% I’m talking about), the Cavaliers had the clear edge. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m not trying to be too pessimistic here, since the series still could still be extended, with some optimism maybe salvaged, but it’s pretty clear that the rest of this series is simply academic. So what does this mean for Raptors fans? Where do we go from here? Since we have all summer to talk about the specifics around the roster etc., I’ll restrict the discussion of this piece to just pondering one thing – change. The kind of change that’s as much philosophical, as it is strategic. Because as we have come to realize in this playoff series, having a deep roster on paper, simply isn’t enough against the best of the best. It requires a mental makeup founded upon a strong philosophical makeup. It’s not enough to draw up open shots, if the mental makeup of players can’t seem to knock ‘em down.

That’s not to say our roster isn’t filled with great players. They can obviously win 50+ games in the regular season, win you a playoff series against average opponents, or even overachieve and beat the best once in a while. But to get that next level that the Raptors have been striving for so long to reach, it may require a mental shakeup. Excuse the cliché nature of all of this, but to be a consistent winner, you’ve got to believe like one. And while it’s hard to prove exactly what will or should be done by Masai Ujiri this off-season, what is abundantly clear is that this is a league where top-tier talent, innovative coaching, and creative offensive flair is almost always the difference. So regardless of what happens on Sunday in Game 4, when it’s all said and done, the Raptors will have to go back to the drawing board and make the kind of changes that remove that inferiority complex and make them – you guessed it – believe.

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