The Toronto Raptors talked it up as just One of 82, their usual pre-game parlance about marquee regular season competition. Down Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, maybe the Raptors wanted to give themselves some deniability if they couldn’t hang with a rested Cleveland Cavaliers team on national TV. Maybe in year five of playing at this level, they really don’t psych themselves up for proving-ground matchups.
Whatever the truth and however earnest the belief that they wouldn’t live or die with a win or loss at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday, the Raptors played like their lives depended on it. Up against an opponent who have a gear switch in either direction, up or down, the Raptors played exactly the type of game they envision themselves winning against elite competition with a few months from now. Even without Lowry, the ball whirred around the floor, a major issue in their first game without him. Even without Ibaka, the defense was energetic and stingy in the paint. Even against a team that’s beat them in two consecutive playoffs, the Raptors showed little deference to their reputation in running them off the floor with a 133-99 victory.
The game was a lot about seeing where they could take advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses rather than necessarily mixing things up themselves. The Raptors started smaller out of necessity with Serge Ibaka suspended, and that seemed to work well against the Cavaliers’ porous defense. Not only did C.J. Miles added a necessary element of spacing, but even small the Raptors were able to dominate the offensive glass. That wasn’t the only byproduct of Cleveland’s pick-and-roll strategy, either, even as they more or less ignored OG Anunoby. Jonas Valanciunas was masterful early working with what the Cavs were willing to give him, hitting Kevin Love with a pump-fake and drive, looking for Miles out of the 4-on-3, and pulling up in the short-roll for mid-range jumpers. He nearly had a double-double when he had to sub out with a second early foul, a soft one on LeBron James in transition.
And really, James “something something” was the counter for everything the Raptors did. Anunoby and Delon Wright did a nice job frustrating Isaiah Thomas as he works his way back into a comfort zone, and Thomas even looked hesitant against Valanciunas drop-backs. James is James, though, and he put up 11 first-half points mostly on will alone. Add in Tristan Thompson working over Jakob Poeltl on the Raptors’ glass – a byproduct of Poeltl being asked to use his mobility to over-help on James – and the Raptors’ defense wasn’t quite where it needed to be. Still, they held a 30-24 lead after a quarter, as good a place as they could have hoped to be.
Delon Wright went coast-to-coast and got the Aubrey Graham seal of approval pic.twitter.com/D75lCsupM7
— Dime on UPROXX (@DimeUPROXX) January 12, 2018
The point guards contributing made a difference, too. Wright had a number of his usual heart-eye-emoji plays in the first, then ceded the reigns to Fred VanVleet, who canned a three and scored on a tough cut thanks to a good pass out of a trap from DeMar DeRozan. Lorenzo Brown factored in, too, after playing 34 minutes earlier in the day, promptly finding VanVleet for three. VanVleet was really good leading the all-bench group here, and with Norman Powell hitting from deep and Pascal Siakam making two nice finishes around the rim, they managed to outpace Cavaliers hybrid groups by six in the four minutes James sat.
“I was really proud of the way he came to play tonight,” head coach Dwane Casey said of VanVleet. “I was talking to him before the game about the young guys playing and producing and him stepping in. I didn’t think we approached the game against Miami the way we normally do. But tonight Fred came in ready to go. I thought JV set the tone with his rebounding which was our Achilles’ Heel the other night against Miami. We got killed by I think it was 20 offensive rebounds. Tonight Jonas did a heck of a job. Jakob did a heckuva job and that kind of set the tone the rest of the night.”
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) January 12, 2018
It was just a massive win, and the fact that James was back in so soon in a January game without Ibaka and Kyle Lowry says a lot about the vibe there. It might also raise a longer-term questions of just how much the Cavs can trust their bench against better benches in April and May. Of course, even as James came in, every bench player to a man continued rolling, and a Poeltl mega-block on Jae Crowder fueled a Powell attack the other way that put the Raptors up 17 and sent Ty Lue running for a timeout. It’s hard to overstate just how well all five bench players played here, and when Siakam finished a tremendous individual stretch by stopping James on a drive, hitting Love with an up-and-under in the post, then blowing by him for a dunk, the Air Canada Centre felt ready to explode.
“I think that was one of our advantages tonight, especially the second unit, was just playing fast,” VanVleet said. “We were able to get stops. The first unit did a good job of setting the tone defensively, and we came in and continued that, got stops, played in transition. You know, Pascal’s running, me and Norm pushing, spotting up, some of those threes go down and then the lead gets a little bigger and bigger. We gotta use that as one of our advantages, is our youth and speed and fresh legs, and we gotta take advantage of that.”
Drake may have even spilled his drink, I’m not sure. Literally the only negative about the second quarter was Valanciunas picking up a third foul, and even that didn’t come until he already had a double-double. James looked genuinely annoyed at his team’s performance, then fairly checked out himself. And yes, the usual caveats apply with the Cavaliers (Cav-eats, get it?) about their effort – James chewing out his teammates is an argument against, anyway – but any stretch of play like that is going to be a huge confidence boost for a young group, especially against the odds of coming in shorthanded against a quality team. If nothing else gets taken away from it, that confidence can, and that’s not nothing.
Raptors starters: 27
Raptors bench: 36
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 12, 2018
The third didn’t start much differently, with DeRozan picking up where he left off after seven first-half assists and the Cavaliers needing a timeout two minutes in on the wrong end of a 10-2 run. DeRozan hit a three, too, a relative footnote on a night like this where he so seamlessly found his teammates, offered up an array of pretty passes, and showed just how great a distributor he can be against increased defensive attention (he also had a solid defensive game).
“He did a GREAT job,” Casey said. “That is one of the best jobs of DeMar just taking what the game gave him. He let the game come to him. He was inviting and embracing the double teams and then picking them apart. ”
Games aren’t going to be raging runs forever in most cases, and so some regression set in and the Cavaliers took advantage of some Raptors sloppiness for a mini-run to close the gap some. Valanciunas was stripped in the post twice, James got the give-a-damn meter off of zero, and the Raptors got into the penalty early despite some nice individual efforts (particularly from Anunoby and Valanciunas). Cleveland picked up some energy as a result, and because of the extra gear they possess, it felt a little worrisome when the lead came down from 33 to 23. The Cavs got into the penalty, too, though the whistle cost Toronto more, specifically when Valanciunas picked up another soft one to prevent him from a three-quarter 20-and-20.
Any remaining doubt about the outcome was put to rest at the end of the third, when Anunoby and VanVleet hit consecutive threes, the former snapping a tough 0-fer night to that point and the latter pushing to a career-high in scoring (19 at that point). DeRozan nailed two late, as well, pushing the lead to 100-72 entering the fourth.
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) January 12, 2018
The fourth quarter was about how you’d expect for a near-30-point game with one side clearly checked out and the other possessing the kind of young bench that only knows one effort level, anyway. There were a handful of more positives here, like VanVleet pushing to 22 points with a Curry-deep three, Poeltl nudging to a double-double, Powell continuing a palate-cleansing game, Malcolm Miller minutes, and Brown actually shooting (a dunk no less!). On top of all of that, DeRozan only had to play 29 minutes, finishing with a quiet 13 points and eight confidence-inspiring assists. Plus, a Jose Calderon appearance! By the final buzzer, the Raptors had hung a franchise-record 133 regulation points on the Cavs, the end of the bench never once letting up.
the raptors can't even play a garbage time lineup, because the garbage time lineup is the same one that been washing the cavs all night.
— Norm (@BoooooUWhore) January 12, 2018
From what I gathered, the TNT broadcast was heavy on excuses for the Cavaliers. They’re without pieces, Thomas is being worked back in, and so on. The real culprit might be a few too many nights in Toronto. Really, though, the Cavaliers can feel apathy toward this game without it taking away from Toronto. Whatever Cleveland had going on, the Raptors were still down two of their three best players and absolutely hammered a team they’re fighting for position with in the Eastern Conference. Weird though it sounds, games are zero-sum in the win column only and not necessarily in spirit. The Raptors proved to themselves that they can hang even without key pieces, and the bench showed with some level of emphasis that they have the tools to be a problem against good teams. It’s not like the Cavs are getting younger when they start trying harder in April (though they will, I think, be trying much harder).
“You know, any time you get a national TV game – we don’t get many up here – in the States, obviously you wanna take advantage of that,” VanVleet said. “But we’re not looking at as the Cavs or anything. Obviously, they’re a really good team, but we know the real trophies are handed out in June. It’s just a good win for us after a pretty bad feeling we had the other night dropping that one to the Heat the way we did. It was a good win for us and we’re looking forward to trying to come out again and try to do it again on Saturday.”
JV photobombed VanVleet with “52” scratcher our from DeMar’s game and “22” written on it.
VanVleet also said he woulda got 30 if he wasn’t trying to get Norm going, and Norm hasn’t congratulated him, so “I’ll go for the points next time.”
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 12, 2018
The Raptors get another good test Saturday, armed with some pretty heavy momentum. DeRozan will have played 29 minutes in the four days preceding, Ibaka none. Lowry doesn’t sound like he’s going to be ready, but it’s a long time away in soreness terms. However that goes, it will be the best first half in Raptors history, and they’ll have turned in one hell of a performance on national TV on at least one leg of their big midseason showcase against contenders.