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Pre-Game

Gameday: Cavaliers @ Raptors, Game 2, May 3

It would be nearly impossible for this one to hurt more, at least.

Anyone expecting the Toronto Raptors to break after letting a pivotal Game 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers get away with them would have come away disappointed from Wednesday’s practice. A team saying the right things before they get a chance to do them isn’t going to convince anyone of anything, of course, but gone are the passive, rattled Raptors of the last three postseasons when things went wrong. If nothing else, they’re sticking on message and preaching confidence, and as William Lou wrote about for theScore, this is how a team is supposed to carry itself after a coughing up a game.

“I detect the guys are very confident” head coach Dwane Casey said. “There’s no dejection or defeated attitude where there’s been times in the past in playoffs where guys, you can’t do this. But I don’t detect that at all. I feel like I sense that our guys feel like there’s situations we can clean up, plays we can make, plays we can take away, just our completions at the rim, I think our numbers were 16 for 36 at the rim. Those are numbers that we gotta get up. You’re not going to go 100 per cent, but you can get those up, those type of plays…A lot of things we can turn up, and in a one-point game, and again, they’re going to come out with a determined attitude and we are too. So Thursday night will be another battle.”

Fred VanVleet put it much more succinctly, saying only that the Raptors are “pissed off” that they let that one get away. In terms of what happened on the court, both teams could reasonably expect Game 2 to go better for them. For Cleveland, they’re unlikely to get a 12-of-30 game from LeBron James and next to nothing from Kevin Love again. For Toronto, they won’t miss handfuls of bunnies and tip-ins. For both, there were a lot of areas on defense that could be tightened up, though one team is better suited to lock in at that end. Both teams come in Thursday thinking they’re in a good position to do a lot of the same things and end up with a better result, with the usual adjustments and counters mixed in.

The pressure is firmly on the Raptors. Cleveland has stolen home-court advantage here, and if the series goes back to Ohio at 2-0, it’s really, really difficult to see the Raptors (or any team) taking four out of five against James. A split at least insures the series is coming back to Toronto and could buoy Toronto’s confidence heading into Cleveland, where they’ve really struggled the last few years.

“For us, it’s a really, really important game, a really big game for us as a team,” Kyle Lowry said. “But we keep with our confidence that we’ve had all year. We have that confidence at the end of the day. We have the confidence to go out there and win anywhere, especially on our home floor. So I think that’s what we take into the game. We learn from our mistakes, we learn from the things that we did. I’m sure they’re happy, they didn’t play their best game but they still won. I’m sure they’re happy and they’re going to come out differently. But we’re going to come out and be us, be a better us.​”

The game tips off at 6 on ESPN and Sportsnet One on TV and on ESPN and TSN 1050 on radio.

To help recalibrate the series and gain some Washington perspective, we traded questions with Justin Rowan of Fear the Sword.

Blake Murphy: The Cavaliers have to be incredibly happy to be up 1-0 given how Game 1 went, right? I know there was a ton of talk about all the little ways in which the Raptors could have been just a point better and the outcome would have been different – and those are true – but Cleveland has to be looking at a road win in a game where LeBron James and Kevin Love shot poorly and they didn’t get to the free-throw line and be ecstatic, right?

Justin Rowan: Yeah, it’s hard to not be optimistic at this point. The thought process among a lot of Cavs fans was that Game 1 would be a write-off, with a rested Toronto team, and that Game 2 would be the litmus test. While I expect Toronto to have a bounce-back game in Game 2, Cleveland is in a really advantageous position where they can get a stranglehold on this series. LeBron, Love, and Hill all went 17/50 from the floor, the Raptors had 10 more free throws, and they still managed to steal a game they had no business winning.

Blake Murphy: So, Tristan Thompson being shaky most of the season. Was this just a ruse to make everyone sleep on him? Because he’s been terrific for them the last two games. You can’t even chalk that up to him being able to get Island Foods now that he’s home. The most ethnic food they had in Indiana for Game 7 was whole-wheat bread. What’s gotten into Thompson, and how big for Cleveland is his return to form?

Justin Rowan: The return to form is a very big deal. The funny thing with Thompson is that he actually looked pretty good at times this year when he was rested. Playing through injuries during deep playoff runs has really taken a toll on his body. But with this time off, he looks fresh again and he has been one of the biggest reasons for the last two wins. Managing his minutes moving forward is going to be key, but he’s definitely worked himself back into the rotation.

Blake Murphy: Related: Is Ty Lue going to change the starting lineup again? He mentioned specifically after the game that he liked Thompson’s energy off the bench, but between Thompson playing well, Jonas Valanciunas going off against smaller lineups, and Kevin Love not sounding like he’s particularly in love with playing heavy minutes at center, he probably considers a change at some point, right? The Raptors starters won the battle of those two units decisively.

Justin Rowan: Ty has traditionally only changes the starting lineup after a loss. I think it would be smart to start Thompson, as reducing the load defensively on Love may help get him going on the offensive end. In addition to that, if Love keeps struggling offensively with his torn thumb you no longer are able to play Valanciunas off the floor. So while the theoretical advantages are there for Love playing center, until his offensive game makes that a reality it may be time to go back to playing a center.

Blake Murphy: The Raptors played a pretty good Game 1. For the bulk of it, anyway. They got a ton of shots at the rim and couldn’t finish them. Kyle Lowry was really good for three quarters. DeMar DeRozan made the right play on two potential game-winning possessions. In all of this, is there anything that worries you especially about how Toronto handled Game 1?

Justin Rowan: I wouldn’t say it concerns me, as I know there are things Toronto can/will do that the Cavs don’t really have an answer for. This Cleveland team isn’t a lockdown defensive squad and never will be. I will say, the Raptors slowing the game down in the fourth quarter and relying heavily on isolation possessions does make things a whole lot easier for Cleveland, as it is something they are used to defending against Toronto. But ultimately the Cavs are going to need to get going offensively, as they can’t rely on stopping the Raptors.

Blake Murphy: We both predicted Raptors in 6 in this series. Are you amending your prediction? Will the sweet release of death come for me sooner than we thought?

Justin Rowan: Yeah I’ve pivoted to Cavs in 6. There were two possible outcomes to this series; either Toronto does what they were supposed to do and handle the Cavs in 5 or 6. Or, the Cavs get in the Raptors head and LeBron helps them beat themselves. I think Game 1 falls into the latter category and there’s now a mental mountain the Raptors have to climb.

Raptors updates
Toronto will approach things in much the same way again here. There may be two things worth keeping an eye on, though. The first is how Dwane Casey times the usage of the all-bench group in comparison to his star-and-bench groups. Cleveland tweaked LeBron James’ rest pattern so that he sat against the usual DeMar DeRozan-and-bench slot and played against the all-bench unit, and while Toronto may be fine with that, playing minutes against James with neither DeRozan nor Kyle Lowry on the floor could be dicey. Casey moved away from his regular pattern late in the third quarter on Tuesday and may need to consider shuffling things further to maximize the minutes where James sits. It’s smart of Cleveland to get James his rest in a spot the Raptors aren’t normally as effective, and Toronto has to be at least exploring doing things just a little differently.

The other area is the play of Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl has been largely ineffective in the postseason so far (he has by far the worst net rating of any rotation regular), and while Lucas Nogueira or smaller lineups aren’t exactly clear fixes, he could really use a good game to stabilize his role. The Raptors may have to consider limiting his minutes, or at least tethering him only to Pascal Siakam rather than other bigs. The issue is that Jonas Valanciunas probably shouldn’t be asked to play deep into the 30s for minutes since he hasn’t been used that way this year, and playing bench groups with Serge Ibaka or Nogueira at center won’t help with defensive rebounding issues or familiarity. The easy answer here is to hope Poeltl starts playing like the Poeltl we saw all year.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
OUT: None
INACTIVE: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie

Cavaliers updates
Over at The Athletic, I broke down why Cleveland might be hesitant to start Tristan Thompson despite two strong games in a row. In short, his offensive rebounding is a big problem for a Raptors bench that has struggled on the defensive glass. For his part, Ty Lue sounded Wednesday like he’s going to stick with his starters from Game 1. That presents an opportunity for Jonas Valanciunas and the Raptors once again, but they’ll need to be even sharper defensively to make sure Kevin Love doesn’t get going on the fair number of quality looks he got Tuesday. Toronto’s starters played really well for the most part, the room for error is just slim, and too often they ended up with Valanciunas on Kyle Korver and DeRozan on Love in the post, neither of which is tenable. Cutting down on unnecessary off-ball switching will help.

Outside of the starting frontcourt, there are more interesting questions for Cleveland. They shortened their rotation to nine in Game 1, and Larry Nance, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon all theoretically loom at options. Calderon might be the guy to watch from that group, as Jordan Clarkson seemed to be doing what he could to help the Raptors out. The Raptors will target Calderon on defense if he’s out there, and that might be worth it for Cleveland to have a backup point guard on the floor who has thrown at least 1 (one) pass in this postseason.

PG: George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Jose Calderon
SG: J.R. Smith, Rodney Hood
SF: Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman
PF: LeBron James, Larry Nance
C: Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Ante Zizic
TBD: None
OUT: None
INACTIVE: Kendrick Perkins, Okaro White

The Line
Game 1: Raptors -7 (series price -200) (Cavaliers 113, Raptors 112, OT)
Game 2: Raptors -6.5
Series: Raptors +135 (implied probability of 42.6 percent)

The Raptors are nearly as a big a favorite here as they were in Game 1, coming in with a 6.5-point edge. That’s certainly notable given how Game 1 played out, and because Tuesday was presumed to be Toronto’s biggest opportunity to win a game. Clearly, the oddsmakers haven’t been all that affected by Tuesday’s outcome in terms of projecting each individual game. The series, though, has shifted – the Raptors are now underdogs to come out of it, and the same analytic models that had them as roughly 70/30 bets to win are now down around 50/50. Game 1 was a big swing. The over-under here is 212.5.

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