Raptors squander lights-out 1st half, lose close one in Cleveland

A lot to learn, a lot of work still to put in.

Raptors 129, Cavaliers 132 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

Wednesday’s game between the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers had all the makings of a contentious post-game. The situation was such that no matter the outcome, there’d be easy spin in favor or against either side. You know the tropes with each team by now, and this meeting had the additional layer of the Cavaliers being down five players and the Raptors coming in exhausted after a very compressed stretch of schedule.

Those qualifiers aside, the two teams turned in a playoff-worthy battle that continued Toronto’s run of very fun games against top teams. It also continued Toronto’s run of having no earthly answer for LeBron James and their penchant for late-game struggles, and at the same time showed that if Toronto can shore up their defense at all, they can absolutely score with any team in the league. The entire night was an exercise in terrific shot-making, the 132-129 final highlighted by a 15-of-34 mark from long-range and 32 assists for the Raptors and a 60-percent mark from the floor and a 15-of-24 clip from outside for the Cavaliers. Both teams created open shots at will, hit a number of tough shots when they couldn’t, and traded blows for the bulk of 48 minutes.

There was anxiety early on. (Well, there always is for me. You know what I mean.) The Cavaliers ran through an early checklist of potential problems they can pose to the Raptors, even short-handed: Kevin Love attacked closeouts from Jonas Valanciunas, James lost OG Anunoby on or off the ball, and when the Raptors tried to tilt the center battle inside, they did so with cleared-out post-ups the Cavs could double rather than doing so more creatively. They tried some minor adjustments, to mixed effect. Valanciunas switched onto Jeff Green to see if he could punish in the same way, and he got more improvised touches on the other end. The Raptors also rained down from outside, with Kyle Lowry hitting a pair of early threes and Anunoby and Valanciunas (from the corner!) getting in on the act. Anunoby attacked from the corner, too. And, of course, they exploited their biggest on-paper advantage, the dearth of options Cleveland has for containing Demar DeRozan.

All told, the sides opened shooting a combined 23-of-28, Cleveland showing no ill effects from a starting lineup that had never played together before tonight and the Raptors showing no deference to James. It was an exhausting and exhilarating exhibition that saw the Cavs up 33-30 before either side even went to their bench. Said move to the bench included Pascal Siakam getting a quick look at the three and opposite James, a worthwhile experiment given his defensive acumen, though none of the young Raptors had much luck in that matchup early. Fred VanVleet also made his presence felt, hitting a pair of triples on nice DeRozan feed to help Toronto keep up in the shootout, sending them into the second quarter down 42-38 with a combined offensive rating in the neighborhood of 167.

If there was a clear window to carve out an advantage, it was against heavily thinned-out Cavaliers bench units without James or Love. The defense from that group did their part, forcing three consecutive turnovers to help key an 8-2 mini-run highlighted by a pair of great Delon Wright drives and another VanVleet triple. Love returned to engage in a fun back-and-forth with Siakam, and the sophomore acquitted himself quite well at either end, with similar contributions coming from his pal Jakob Poeltl. Dwane Casey didn’t leave too much to chance when James returned, answering with Lowry and shifting Siakam back to that assignment.

The momentum for both the team and Siakam continued, with a 13-4 run being punctuated by a Siakam corner three and a post bucket against Green. It’s really hard to overstate how good a half this was for Poeltl and especially Siakam, and the second-unit offense succeeded against a very playoff-like defensive approach (not in execution, but the Cavs overloaded the strong side in a way that will look familiar in April). James and the Cavs are James and the Cavs, though, and Casey called a quick timeout when it looked like the counterpunch may be coming and fatigue may be emerging. That move proved prudent, and Lowry quickly found Valanciunas, hit a three off of a nice inbound play, then hit another three for good measure. The Raptors would end the half with a franchise record for points in a half with 79, helping open up a 15-point halftime lead thanks to 12-of-18 shooting from outside, 17 assists, and an uptick in defensive attentiveness and execution.

Cleveland ‘s offense was once again a big problem in the third. They came out aggressive, quickly ripping off a 9-2 run to get the game back to a reasonable margin. The Raptors’ offense sputtered, too, missing their first five field-goal attempts and only producing offense on Valanciunas free throws. The defense perked up to help keep Cleveland from calling all the way back, with the switch to have Valanciunas on Green paying off and the star guards getting aggressive attacking Jose Calderon to get to the line. Lowry continued his heater, too, hitting another pair of threes as part of his full-blown KLOE act that to try to keep the Cavs from getting back within single-digits.

The Cavaliers would eventually draw closer, making an 8-0m run the Raptors couldn’t initially snap due to poor shot-making (Serge Ibaka missed a few good looks in this one) and an uncharacteristic charge from Poeltl. That brought them within five, and the hope had to be that the bench could once again provide a spark, especially at the forward spots. It didn’t play out that way, despite an aggressive drive-and-dump from Siakam and DeRozan taking Hill into the post – Cleveland kept chipping, the Raptors misplayed a two-for-one situation, and the lead had dwindled to one entering the fourth, down from 15.

Like in the first half, the brief James-less stretch at the top of the fourth would be Toronto’s last real advantageous minutes. The defense once again picked up, with VanVleet getting his hands on everything and Wright contesting shots everywhere. That, and a pair of tough scores on late-clock inbound plays, was just enough for the Raptors to add four points to the lead over three minutes before James checked back in. Love followed a minute later, and Casey sent Lowry to the table to take Norman Powell off after he left J.R. Smith open in the corner. The sides traded buckets, and then James took it at Poeltl for a dunk and the game’s first tie since early in the second.

Out of a timeout, Casey opted for the stars with VanVleet and the backup bigs, which worked on offense, as most things had on the night. It made for a great back-and-forth, DeRozan and James both throwing great passes, Lowry and VanVleet finding Poeltl inside, and Love beating Poeltl on a baseline cut, the lead swinging back-and-forth. Even around Siakam’s effort denying James position and the ball, James was masterful running the corner offense, cruising to 17 assists (with no turnovers) and splitting a hedge for an emphatic dunk.

The Raptors called a timeout to talk things over, and Larry Drew made the savvy move of calling one right after, giving James an extended breather as he nudged toward 40 minutes. It was a nice play-call out of the break, but Poeltl missed a corner shooter. DeRozan was blocked at the rim on the possession right after, and a James transition drive put them ahead five. DeRozan’s next trip saw him take a hard shot to the head, and with the game within three and under three minutes to go, Casey went back to his starting bigs, putting Ibaka on James. Ibaka immediately fouled James on a three, then missed one of his own. That was…not a good matchup all night.

The Raptors got back-to-back stops to stop the bleeding. Lowry attacked for free throws, and then DeRozan found Siakam – back on the floor for a more agile defensive frontcourt – with a great pass for a dunk to get back within one. Naturally, Love hit a corner three, meaning the Raptors had 28 seconds to make up four points. James fouled DeRozan on the floor, giving the Raptors two quick points, then Love split the pair on an intentional foul the other way. That gave Toronto possession down three with 16 seconds to go, and they went with the quick two-and-foul, a curious decision with no timeouts remaining. The Cavs responded by fouling while up three, DeRozan missed the second, and time was short enough that they’re last chance was a DeRozan heave at the buzzer that missed.

It’s a disappointing finish. Once up 15 on a night the offense reached near-historic levels, the Raptors came up short, befallen by some of the same crunch-time issues that have haunted them in their rare losses on the year. That it’s the Cavaliers magnifies everything, of course, and a number of the ways James and Love picked an underperforming defense apart are certainly troublesome. And this wasn’t even a Cavs team at full strength, down their head coach and five players. At the same time, the Raptors were also down their 3-point ace for key moments that would have been helpful and were playing their fifth game in seven days (and 10th in 16), some players showing obvious signs of fatigue. They showed some real positives at the offensive end, and until they gassed out, the reserve bigs looks solid. Cleveland also shot an obscene percentage and got a peak James performance.

Really, people are going to take from this game what they were inclined to take from it going in, and neither side is entirely justified or entirely off-base. The Raptors were fatigued, and the Cavs did overperform reasonable expectations for what their day-to-day would look like. The Cavaliers were shorthanded, and the Raptors did lose the final minutes in a much-too-familiar way. All of these things can be true, and while it can be frustrating and worrisome, the Raptors have at least built themselves the standings cushion to where they can take the loss in stride and try to use it to improve from here.

“Trash game by us. They shot 60 per cent from the field. It was a disgraceful display of defense by us,” Lowry said, holding little back.

The degree to which the specifics here are damning or forgivable won’t really be known until the playoffs – with an in-progress glimpse in two weeks – and if you need a silver lining, Cleveland winning makes it slightly more likely that series wouldn’t come until the Eastern Conference Finals. I can’t really dictate how you should feel here. Personally, the late-game decision-making and execution remains a real concern, as do some of the frontcourt rotations, while some of the other stuff – specifically the Cavs’ shot-making and Ibaka’s play – is at least a little easier to optimistically look past. There are more tests coming soon, with six straight against winning teams after Friday.