The margins for error are too small.
Even as the favorite, as the best team in the Eastern Conference, and as the home team in their second-round series, the margins the Toronto Raptors are operating within against the Cleveland Cavaliers are too small. All of the objective measures, analytics, and odds that suggest the Raptors are the better team can not control for one primary factor in the series: Who each team is. For the Cavaliers, that’s a known despite plenty of roster overhaul. They are LeBron James’ team, the league’s best player and a supporting cast built around him. The Raptors are still trying to figure out who they are, though they’ve made a convincing case all year that they are different and that it matters. Because there is some uncertainty there – or rather, uber-certainty on Cleveland’s side – Toronto has to operate as if there is no room to make egregious and series-shifting mistakes. They can and should believe in themselves resolutely, and still they need to recognize what playing against James and the Cavaliers entails.
What it does not entail: Squandering a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, missing a hair-greying number of potential tip-ins at the buzzer of regulation, missing another game-winning look in overtime, ripping my sweet son’s soul from his body, handing the Cavaliers a 1-0 series lead and effective home-court advantage by, in the words of Dwane Casey, shooting themselves in the foot, or welcoming all-too-familiar ignominy because no, so far, this time is no different. The margins for error are too small to miss great opportunities in each game, too small to lose eminently winnable games in the series, and too small to lose sight of the culture change in general. The latter is not a concern, yet, but Tuesday’s heartbreaking 113-112 overtime loss brings to the forefront the usual and tired Playoff Raptors questions. The AZoNano will be aimed at how the Raptors respond on Thursday in Game 2, and it may wind up the defining game of their season, assuming Tuesday won’t be.
To back up: It’s unfair to say “so far, this time is no different.” What’s perhaps most frustrating about the loss is that there was a lot the Raptors did better and the result was still the same. OG Anunoby helped keep James in check as a scorer. The Raptors took a lead early and held it until the final seconds of regulation. They played the Cavaliers tougher than they had in any game last year, and they answered runs and counter-pushes and adjustments for the bulk of the night. They welcomed mismatches and tilted them in their favor, cut down on turnovers after an iffy start, and ironed out some defensive issues that popped up in a nearly disastrous second quarter. Short of maybe the 3-point volume coming in south of where they’d like in this series, they operated like the new Raptors, and they should have won as a result.
“We definitely stole one,” Ty Lue said. “And they know that as well.”
They sure do. And it was entirely preventable if they could have gotten out of their own way just once in a number of opportunities.
Things started out well enough. Encouraging, even. The Raptors attacked Cleveland’s porous pick-and-roll defense, Jonas Valanciunas was a presence inside against a smaller opposing frontcourt, and Kyle Lowry got started on what would eventually be three-quarters of a very good night. A 10-4 Raptors lead led Lue to call an early timeout, and as that held steady to a 17-10 marker, the James-Kevin Love frontcourt was abandoned for the half. Tristan Thompson brought a decent spark, but not a big enough one to overcome DeMar DeRozan aggressively turning the corner on screens and getting more or less where he pleased in the pick-and-roll. The Cavaliers sat James in the first instead of the second, and it helped the Raptors nudge that early lead to 14 after a quarter, their 10 assists setting a terrific tone.
“We just attacked,” Lowry said. “J.V. played big early, and just attacked and were aggressive to start the game. That’s what helped at the beginning of the game, we really were super aggressive, attacking, attacking, attacking, we got out in transition, got stops and were able to run.”
The all-bench group answered their call, too, playing opposite a James-led group as Lue looked to neutralize the bench’s advantage some. James began to get going with Anunoby off the floor, the Cavs’ screens coming higher up the floor to combat Pascal Siakam trying to pick James up full-court and the Raptors’ attention to detail outside of that matchup becoming uneven. A quick third foul for Jakob Poeltl saw Valanciunas extended further, the Raptors tried Anunoby at the four against a very small James-at-center lineup, and Toronto’s transitional lineups struggled as they often do. The lead slowly evaporated, and while J.R. Smith and Jeff Green shooting at obscene rates didn’t at all seem sustainable, the Raptors also started struggling on offense, their ball-movement drying up and careless turnovers giving Cleveland’s defense an unnecessary edge. By halftime, the lead was down to three.
“I thought OG, I said you’ve gotta live with some things, I thought he did as good a job as you can do with him,” Casey said. “The other areas are where we broke down, and lost (Kyle) Korver, we lost J.R. Smith in a few situations, some things we had talked about. Those things we can clean up, take those off the board.”
Toronto got right back to the aggression that helped them build an edge in the first place, with Valanciunas absolutely going off. He finished the quarter with 13 points and five rebounds, clearly said “can’t guard me” about Love, and was flexing his way back on defense. It was exactly what he needs to be in this series. Cleveland did their best to take advantage despite Love having a tough night. They continued to lose Korver, with Valanciunas even ending up switched on to him a couple of times, and James finished a lob on an inbound play to nullify a great defensive possession from Valanciunas. The work inside pushed Cleveland into the penalty early, and again it was Thompson checking in to change the tone and give Valanciunas a different look. Another Korver three followed, and the bench – playing earlier than normal after DeRozan-and-bench sputtered – couldn’t extend the lead against a James-less group despite the best collective efforts of Pascal Siakam and Jordan Clarkson.
“I thought Jonas played really well. We made ’em pay for the small lineup,” Casey said. “He’s gotta continue to do that. He’s got that advantage as far as his post-ups, his tip-ins, his driving to the basket, and getting to the free-throw line, and rebounding. He did a heck of a job at that position.”
A five-point lead entering the fourth quickly became 10 on a Delon Wright pump-fake-and-three, and a point-a-minute seemed like a reasonable arm’s length to have the Cavaliers at. The energy changed shortly after that, though, as Love scored in the post, C.J. Miles missed a good look at a three, and Love hit a three the other way, a pretty monumental swing. The lead was eight and some starters returned, and then it was six and more came, and eventually it was down to three and the fifth returned, Anunoby playing his first fourth-quarter minutes of the postseason. Things got worse, still. Valanciunas missed an out-of-timeout look at the rim, and the Raptors needed a timeout just to commit a five-second inbounding violation shortly after. The Raptors got a pair of gifts with Korver – who took more shots in this one than he has since 2007 – missing an open three and Serge Ibaka being fouled on one. They also may have gotten away with a foul on Love fighting for a rebound but took the worst of it, as Love clocked DeRozan with an elbow that wasn’t reviewed. It was a very, very bad offensive stretch, and it allowed Cleveland to get back within a possession.
Despite all of that, the demoralizing stretch was still to come. James hit a mid-range fade-away to tie the game, and Toronto had a chance to win with 18 seconds left. DeRozan made a great decision and pass to find a still-ailing Fred VanVleet for three. It missed, and DeRozan, Miles, Miles again, and Valanciunas all had chances to tip it in. They all failed, emblematic of a game in which the Raptors took a 97th-percentile rate of shots at the rim and hit at a fourth-percentile rate. That’s the ultimate case of results not fitting good process and a really good sign that the next games should be better. Here, it meant overtime.
“Offensively I thought we had opportunities down the stretch. What’d we have, three tip-ins down the stretch to win the game? A lot of things we did to ourselves,” Casey said. “It’s nothing special, nothing that we didn’t expect. Some uncharacteristic things that we missed, some shots we missed, I thought was the difference in the game. I think we’re a better team, we just didn’t make the shots down the stretch. I know it sounds simplistic but we had our open looks, had our opportunities that we didn’t cash in on.”
Things got no better there. Cleveland got out to a quick lead, DeRozan and Lowry made nice plays to pull back within one, and another shot at a game-winner saw DeRozan find VanVleet again. He missed, and the Cavs were winners.
“Without a doubt,” DeRozan said when asked if they felt like they let one get away. “We had many opportunities to close this game out. We couldn’t buy a bucket, we got some great looks, we had a lot of shots point blank at the rim that were in and out, Freddy got two great looks, we can name countless things. But it should never came down to pin on none of those. But it happens, now we understand what we’ve got to do next game.”
What they have to do next game is basically play the same game, weird though that sounds. They produced a lot of looks at the rim, tallied 26 assists, only surrendered 12 wide-open shots the whole game (a very good mark), and handled a lot of the potential matchup issues well. If they play that same game six more times, the Raptors would win the series on a balance of probabilities. And they know that.
“We have confidence. We have confidence going to Game 2 and winning it,” Valanciunas said. “It’s tough game. We lost by one. It’s not like they were way, way better. We’re still here. We’ve just gotta clean up some mistakes and make some shots and we’re good.”
The thing with all of those little things that can or can’t and do or don’t go your way in a given game is that they don’t have to be repeatable in a playoff series. That loss happened, and there is no getting it back. The favorite in a series is supposed to have breathing room, a sort of insulation from a loss like this because they can lean on faith that the degree to which they are better will still win out. The Raptors do not operate with that insulation. They are bare to the winds of variance, and they are unshielded from the whims of a generation’s greatest player. There’s room to lose, but there’s little room to lose like this, a victory flittering through their fingertips and to the feet of James’ immense shadow. There’s no room to set new marks for indignity like becoming the second team in 20 years to drop a postseason game after never trailing in regulation. There’s no room to come out on the wrong end of what James called “probably one of my worst games of the season.”
So for all the good and positive – and to be clear, there was plenty, and you are welcome to extrapolate and maintain optimism accordingly – that the Raptors could take from this, all they’ll really take is the loss. Whatever comfort they held as the No. 1 seed, with home-court advantage, with renewed faith in their system, those cushions are worn already. Alarmist though it seems one game into a best-of-seven, the Raptors’ backs are against the wall heading into Game 2. The margins are that small, and they’ve shrunk further here.