I was apprehensive going into last night’s game between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. After all, the Raptors were going to be missing both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and the bench had been struggling of late. Jakob Poeltl had a rough outing on Tuesday against Bam Adebayo, Pascal Siakam’s scoring touch had been missing for a while, and Norman Powell had looked out of place in almost any role he was asked to perform. The Cavaliers had also had the Raptors number in the last two playoff runs, and they were coming off a bad loss, losing by 28 to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night.
As inconsistent as LeBron James led teams can be during the regular season, historically it’s a bad idea to be in the path of an angry LeBron James, and those type of blowout losses have tended to bring that out in him and inspire his team to their best regular season performances, to show the dominant side of the team that is otherwise reserved for their playoff runs. It’s no secret that Cleveland at time looks lackadaisical during the seasons, generally playing disinterested. That will likely be the largest media narrative coming out of Thursday night’s huge Raptors win too, that the Cavs just didn’t play interested enough and didn’t have the intensity to win that game. The Raptors wanted it more and the game just didn’t matter for Cleveland.
I’m not sure that’s what I saw in this one, though. Cleveland’s defense definitely looked exposed in this game, often giving up line drives to the basket from Delon Wright and Fred Van Vleet, among others, but they took away DeMar DeRozan quite successfully for most of the game. Cleveland came out with a gameplan to trap and double team him every time he touched the ball, and they managed that successfully, with DeMar having just two points at half-time.
The other narrative you’ll hear a lot of coming out of this game is that the Raptors are a good regular season team, but not one that gets it done come the playoffs. That they struggle and their stars fall apart under the pressure in the postseason, and the rest of the team can’t pick it up when DeRozan and Lowry don’t have it, while the stars will force their game and try to simply play through the defenses designed to stop them. Historically, this isn’t wrong either. The last four years of playoff runs, stopping the All-Star backcourt did amount, in large part, to stopping the Raptors. It brought the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat to a 7th game each before falling to the Raptors, and got Milwaukee two impressive wins over Toronto a year ago, and it allowed the Cavaliers to dominate Toronto both of the last two years in their matchups.
So for Cleveland, that game plan made sense, and it was executed well. The book on the Raptors is that they’re basically a really great joint project between two fantastic scoring guards in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and the rest of the team delivers some great features on that album, but it’s the Lowry and DeRozan show. What Cleveland found out last night though is that this isn’t that team anymore. This is now a team that you have to beat, as a team, and the rest of the guys can carry weight when needed. To further the analogy, last night’s game was the Raptors’ Enter the Wu-Tang, and Delon Wright put Isaiah Thomas through all 36 Chambers.
More importantly than their ability to shoulder the load though is that DeRozan last night demonstrated the trust in his teammates to do so, and he ran that perfectly last night, passing out of double teams and trusting his teammates to get it done. At the same time, because he’s done that consistently this year, those teammates knew that trust was going to be there, and were ready and capable because of that. Last year’s DeMar did, indeed, sometimes start passing out of doubles, but the guys he was passing to typically looked unprepared for those passes, and that’s the most important change in his game this year, that the guys around him know he’ll be there making plays for them when they need it.
My ask of the media here is to look past the simple narratives, the easy headlines that almost write themselves about another bad, lazy Cleveland loss where they didn’t put forth the effort, or about the regular season Raptors who disappear in April. To look a little bit deeper at a different Toronto team that’s seeking the answers to the questions posed by those postseason struggles. Also, at a Cleveland team that might not be deep enough this time, that has some real defensive issues that they might not be able to just erase at a moment of their choosing.
That said, the narratives aren’t completely wrong, the Raptors do need to showcase this in the playoffs. They need to deliver a convincing series win, something that has thus far eluded them, and to really reach that next level of expectation they might need to pull off an unlikely upset against a LeBron-led squad. The thing is, all good things eventually come to an end, and that will apply to LeBron at some point too. He has made the last seven NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference, but that’s a history, not a promise. Just because LeBron hasn’t been beaten before the NBA Finals doesn’t mean he can’t be, it’ll just require a different type of Raptors team to do so. Thus far, this looks like it might be that team, and if it is last night will be remembered as their coming out party.
The task of the Raptors isn’t to evolve who they are anymore, they’ve done that part. That’s the hardest part too, to change something that works and turn it into something new, to ask players who’ve found accolades and success being one thing to become something else and give up part of what’s made them successful for the group. What DeMar DeRozan has done this season is really remarkable, it’s not often in this league that this far into the career of someone who has built his game on being a one-dimensional scorer that he adds an entirely new dimension. The task of this team is to remain what they now are, no matter what adversity comes in the future. They can’t revert to who they used to be, because that didn’t work in the postseason. This just might.