The Toronto Raptors have tried and failed twice to beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. After a sweep at their hands last year, the Raptors took a long look in the mirror and decided they needed to change if they were to ever manage to topple James and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Through 88 games, there’s good evidence that they’ve changed their makeup. They are a fundamentally different team. The Cavaliers are the measuring stick, though, and the Raptors will soon find out whether all of that change has put them in a better position to beat Cleveland. So, has it?
“No question. No question. And I feel it,” DeMar DeRozan said at practice Sunday, shortly after the Raptors learned their second-round opponent. “We all have that confidence in ourselves. And the way we play now is the mistakes that we had from them series. You know? Going down in them. That’s what made us better, that’s what made us, at this point, where we at now, of being top of our conference, having the confidence that we have, and the style of play that we go out and play with.”
Throughout DeRozan’s availability, the idea of past mistakes came up a number of times. The playoffs are chess, not checkers, and there’s no room for mistakes. The mistakes of recent years have informed the team’s current identity. The encouraging sign from their two losses to Cleveland was that they were close despite some of those mistakes.
One mistake they’ll try not to make this time: Being deferent to James’ stature as the league’s best player. The Raptors have challenged James at times but also kneeled to him, especially in the postseason last year. There is a fine line to walk between recognizing how good he is and anticipating it, and letting that reality dictate your entire attitude toward the series. The Raptors are trying to walk it.
“You have to respect them, but don’t over-respect them,” head coach Dwane Casey said.
“For me, the most respect I can give him is to not give him any respect,” Fred VanVleet added. “In terms of going out there and just trying to challenge him and take him down, and that’s our job, and that’s what we need to do this week.”
The Indiana Pacers winning may have offered an easier path through to the next round. James and the Cavaliers present the bigger challenge and the better redemptive arc. For the ultra-competitive, getting a pass around the player who’s taken you out in consecutive years maybe wouldn’t have been as fulfilling, and so while the Raptors were sure to show the Pacers plenty of respect for their effort (and are likely a little thankful for seven games of tape), they also seem eager to step on the scales once more.
“Gotta go through the best to get to that trophy,” DeRozan said. “Every step of the way we’re going to come across somebody. So why not the guy that’s been in the finals the last X amount of years? Why don’t we want to be the team that knock that team off? That’s what it’s all about. As a competitor you want to be in the moments. you want to thrive in the moments, and we have the opportunity again to be able to do that.”
“You know, it’s a new year,” VanVleet said. “Those past experiences are in the past, and it’s a new year, a new team, feels different, looks different. And we’re going out there to make the outcome different.”
James played 288 minutes in the first round against Indiana, more than any other player has played in the postseason so far. After his 45-point, 43-minute performance on Sunday, James looked and sounded exhausted.
“I’m burnt right now. I’m not thinking about Toronto right now. I’m ready to go home. I’m tired. I want to go home,” he said.
That is a massive difference from in recent meetings. The Cavaliers were coming off of a sweep the last two times they met the Raptors, while the Raptors in one year had played 14 games through two rounds and in the next were coming off of a six-game series. Here, they’ll have a rest advantage, both in terms of days off and the workload their stars have been under – DeRozan and Kyle Lowry barely rank in the top 25 for playoff minutes so far, and Lowry’s minutes were cut significantly in the regular season while James led the league.
“You can talk about rest. That’s what the league did for the players as far as staggering the games during the season — for this moment, for this time, to make sure everybody was fresh,” Casey said. “Neither team looked tired today. We have to go in and play basketball. A lot of times you get caught up into that and you outthink yourself.”
His message was pretty resolute as multiple players spoke, too. The Raptors are appreciative of the extra time to recover and heal, and they believe in their depth, but they know better than to underestimate James, get too comfortable, or believe that whatever fatigue advantage might exist right now will last all series.
“Rest is definitely always beneficial,” DeRozan said. “You know, usually we always been on the back end of it, have to have a day to prepare to get ready for them. We had a couple days, they’re coming off a hard-fought series, but still in all, we gotta go out there and be prepared, understand what we got to do, how great we feel when we play at home, and stick to what we know.”
In other words, it’s business as usual, and if rest brings an advantage, it’ll be shown in the results and not the process.
“You would hope, right? I hope he’s tired, I hope they’re all tired, but you can’t depend on that,” VanVleet said. “We’re not going in changing any of our gameplans just because we had a few days of rest and they didn’t. It’s not really gonna have that big of an effect on what we do. Hopefully it’s an advantage, but I don’t put really any stock into that.”
- I’ll be posting some updates/quotes/T-shirt news/etc regularly on my Instagram story throughout the playoffs.
- Fred VanVleet is still working through his right shoulder/AC sprain and was pretty sore following his appearance in Friday’s game. He’s not anticipating missing any actual game time, but the treatment of the shoulder will likely remain ongoing throughout the playoffs. Here’s his full explanation on uits status:
- “How did I feel? Sore. Really sore. Really sore. I don’t know what to expect, you know what I mean? It’s just kinda one of those things. But a lot of discomfort, like I said. It’s part of the journey, nothing serious, there’s no long-term technicalities or anything, implications. But it’s just one of those things that’s gonna bother me for a little bit. A lot better today. Did some more treatment, get ready for Tuesday.”
- A good out-of-context Dwane Caseyism: “I haven’t learned anything. i’m just an old knot on a log.”
- The late practice lent itself to a bit of a different vibe. Some players had gathered early to watch Pacers-Cavs, others watched it at home before heading to the facility, and DeMar DeRozan asked told us ,”Don’t mind them pyjamas,” as he was leaving (in his PJs, clearly).
- The Raptors opened as -240 favorites in the series, which carries an implied probability of about 70.6 percent. Given the amount of underdog money that’s likely to come in on Cleveland, that number will probably smaller by the start of the series. Still, it’s telling that Vegas is inviting such a position potentially paying out on Cavaliers bets. They’re not doing that for no reason. The Raptors also opened as 6-point favorites for Game 1.