This was probably not what the Toronto Raptors needed.
Losers of four of their last seven, their hold on the Eastern Conference’s top seed dwindling, and free from the burdens of a compressed schedule and the fatigue that comes with it, the Raptors had a chance to steady things. Not necessarily for a panicking fanbase worried that the team is tailing off against top competition at the worst possible time, or for the general NBA universe ready to make far too many Raptors-in-April jokes, but for themselves. They are steadfast that their body of work all season long says the most about them. Continually losing to playoff teams right before the playoffs is something that could reasonably toy with a team’s confidence – they did not sound particularly worried after the game, mind you – and with a crucial back-to-back looming, this was the time for the Raptors to get on track.
Tuesday’s game went in something of the opposite direction, the Raptors dropping a second consecutive meeting to the Cleveland Cavaliers. This one, a 112-106 final that wasn’t really that close, didn’t get the caveats a schedule-alert meeting last time did. The Raptors were flat, they got shaky-or-worse performances from several key players, somehow lost the point guard battle, and had their biggest edges (their bench and their bigs) largely neutralized (by the Cavs and their rotations, respectively). The final score was only close because the Raptors went on an unlikely garbage-time run with their bench emptied out to force Cleveland into bringing their starters back in. They needed a bounce-back, and it wasn’t there.
The Raptors got off to a strong start from a process perspective, at least. With Cleveland opting to downsize in their starting lineup (despite Larry Nance and Tristan Thompson being available), Jonas Valanciunas drew Jeff Green as he did last time, while Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby split LeBron James duties. James was less aggressive initially, and he committed a pair of turnovers early on after not committing even one in the last meeting. At the other end, the Raptors went to Valanciunas to tilt the size mismatch in their favor and were getting plenty of good looks attacking in the pick-and-roll, with DeMar DeRozan got middle consistently and found shooters as help game (he had five first-quarter assists). That process didn’t turn into results immediately, with Valanciunas starting 4-of-5 but the Raptors hitting just 1-of-5 on threes and Kyle Lowry getting out to a very shaky start.
The point guard battle really went in Cleveland’s favor as Jose Calderon got going, driving for a layup after beating Lowry, then hitting three jumpers against the Raptors sagging deep against the Calderon-James pick-and-roll, and then getting to the rim once again. Calderon had 11 points in the quarter and Lowry responded with another turnover and another missed open corner three, and after Nance and James stuck jumpers, the Raptors were down five and scrambling a bit. Dwane Casey promptly went to his DeRozan-and-bench look after Nance turned Ibaka away at the rim, and the lead nudged to seven before Fred VanVleet settled things down with a pull-up three, a great contest against Jordan Clarkson, and a find of Jakob Poeltl on the dive.
That kept Toronto within four after a quarter, and the bench battle at the top of the second presented an opportunity to make up ground. The Raptors rolled the Cavaliers when James sat in the last meeting, and it took just a little more than three minutes for the bench to erase the lead and send the Cavaliers to a quick timeout. They responded with a number of non-James starters, and Rodney Hood worked the dribble hand-off game before Kevin Love drilled a pair of threes from Calderon in the pick-and-pop, quickly putting the Raptors back in a hole. That was a crucial minus-stretch for the Raptors’ bench, and while the Poeltl-on-Love look was questionable over Pascal Siakam, it was in large part a matter of shot-making, of which the Raptors did precious little all quarter.
The Raptors went back to their starting bigs, then their All-Star guards, and they did little to slow Cleveland’s momentum. Calderon continued cooking them, a Love-James pick-and-roll led to a foul on a cutting Nance (while neither Anunoby or Siakam were on the floor to try to slow James), and the Raptors missed a number of looks in close to fall behind 16. Lowry eventually got on the board with a three, DeRozan got to the rim and the line, and Anunoby helped at least slow things down on the defensive end with a great effort against James. An Anunoby three at the buzzer cut the lead back to eight, capping a really important final minute or so that made the halftime gap seem a lot more manageable, especially if the Raptors could start finishing better or could find the appropriate gear out of the break.
And they did, initially, looking much more spry and aggressive. Lowry found Valanciunas early again, then screened for him to set up an eventual Ibaka put-back, and Ibaka added a three and free-throws on a post-seal for good measure. Cleveland is difficult, and despite some continued solid defensive effort from Anunoby, they countered. Naturally, it was a Calderon corner three – matching his season-high in scoring early in the third quarter – sending Toronto to an early timeout to try to regroup. The adjustment was apparently to leave Calderon so open that he thinks the play is dead, and while that worked for a possession, defensive breakdowns all over gave the Cavs an unneeded boost to their already-torrid shooting. Lowry, meanwhile, went back to struggling on both ends, something that just can’t happen in this matchup.
Toronto tried to go smaller, which is understandable but negates one of the team’s advantages (size) and came against a Cavaliers lineup without the main reason you do that (Love). The results were mixed. Cleveland held the Raptors around a 10-point arm’s length as both sides staggered to their benches, with James taking a tough Miles charge to help account for a few missed threes against aggressive pick-and-roll drop-backs. Having had enough, he then barrelled into Miles for an and-one, the Cavaliers continuing to win the battle to initiate at both ends. The Raptors were “only” down eight entering the fourth, with James about to rest, and so despite some lackluster play, the game wasn’t out of reach.
VanVleet got that off on the right foot with a three. The momentum didn’t last long, with Miles commiting a turnover and failing to bait a 3-shot foul at one end and Green going on a personal 5-0 run at the other. Siakam struggled on cuts to the rim he normally feasts on, too, and when James checked back in, the Raptors hadn’t cut into the lead at all. A Lowry-and-bench unit got a look – you could call it too late if Lowry were having a normal Lowry game – and then the Raptors looked to close smaller with VanVleet, Siakam, and the three primary closers. No matter the group, there was no answer for Green (sigh), and James attacked both Lowry and DeRozan on post switches for seamless buckets.
The close-out would have been rote from there were it not for the Raptors’ emptied-out bench going off in the closing minutes. With Norman Powell and Lucas Nogueira getting the garbage-time nod down 14 with two minutes to go, the Raptors ripped off a speedy 10-0 run. Hilariously, the Cavaliers had to bring their starters back in to close out in the final seconds, putting it away in the intentional-foul game. Credit the Raptors for playing hungry enough to make life tough on the Cavs, and for some group finally showing some urgency. It was obviously too little, too late, and shouldn’t be necessary in a game the Raptors should have wanted to show some better fight in.
It is not the end of the world, of course. The larger body of work is still more predictive, and the Raptors actually had a better night defensively (113.4 defensive rating) than last time thanks to the Cavaliers cooling off late. Still, it is difficult not to look at some of the consistencies in the losses of late – with the Raptors rarely playing good at both ends at the same time, with some old habits creeping into their tactical approach, and with the team playing tight when adversity strikes instead of trusting their strengths – and be at least a little concerned. The timing isn’t ideal, even if there’s reasonable faith they’ll play better when next weekend rolls around.
It’s a good bet that anxiety will be high at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, when a visiting Boston Celtics team can take the season series and a potentially crucial tiebreaker atop the conference, made all the more valuable because Cleveland won this one Tuesday.