You Don’t Need to Worry About the Raptors

You and the Raptors both knew the Cavs were coming and it’s time to dig in.

Look, this might be because I’m sitting at an airport bar with a glass of rose and the playlist on blast is clearly designed to enhance the mood of weary travellers, but, it’s fine not to be worried about the Raptors.

I don’t mean generally—as a Raptors fan the playoffs yield many moments ripe for a nervous breakdown of your choosing and you’d be completely within your rights to entertain one. I mean that right now, contrary to all the chatter that would have you thinking otherwise, there’s really not that much of a reason to freak out.

Toronto came out swinging in Game 1 against the Cavs, more than that, they came out tight and tough and together. They were organized and aggressive and the definitive onus was on attacking a tired Cleveland team that has shown itself susceptible to flopping if a competitive lead is gained on them early on. At some point LeBron drops out, knowing even though he’s the one person who can carry a team on his back to a win, there’s not much use in trying when that team is down by thirty. Early on in Game 1 it looked hopeful, like the Raptors were back to playing fast and fierce with a touch of that old scrappiness to boot. Playing like that, you could picture them handily pulling off a win that put the naysayers to bed along with a whole city’s cumulative cardiac episode. Playing like that, there would have been no problems. The problems came when the Raptors relaxed—when they stopped playing like that.

It’s not conceivable to go up against a team like Cleveland and not expect them to remember, at some point, how good all their disparate parts are and suddenly click. When Kyle Korver is all of a sudden a parameter threat again, when Kevin Love is flinging wild threes from near to centre court and they all somehow fall, and when Tristan Thompson is immune to the pettiness of Raptors fans chanting “KHLOE” at him as he neutralizes both Ibaka and JV. And LeBron, well James is a given. The propulsion of Cleveland might be based upon the engine that is LeBron James but the parts that power that engine, his supporting teammates, are what makes it possible for this team to sustain any staying power at all. The fact is that Cleveland had a good game. James may claim it was his worst in recent memory, maybe all season (a sneak dis if I’ve ever heard one, and I have heard a few), but it was one of the best the rest of the team had since the postseason started.

But right, this is the part where I’m convincing you that now is not the time to be concerned. I need to be honest, if the concept of Cleveland being good, on the spectrum of middling good to lucky good, the kind of good they were stepping into toward the end of Game 1, if that idea makes you nervous, I’m not sure what to tell you that will soothe or better yet, bolster you up. Similarly, before this series started, so much of the talk around Toronto—from fans, too—was that this was the inevitable death knell, it was just ringing a little sooner than some hoped. Toronto was always going to have to play Cleveland, if not now then perhaps in a more haggard semi-finals. If you were hoping to somehow put them off and be a bit more satisfied that the Raptors got a couple more games out of it against, like, Boston, honestly what would have been the difference? Equating Cleveland to this grim reaper role is getting old. Is Toronto’s best hope to play a few good games and then get put out of their inevitable misery, like some act of basketball euthanasia? Because that’s bullshit. This team can be a lot of things, and one of them is a rusty vice that your heart gets jammed into and spun quickly shut, but another is the kind of hope that crawls up your throat and chokes you with a fast break, a steal smooth as silk, and everybody on the bench jumping to their feet at once to celebrate almost anything, anytime, for no real reason than the joy they feel at showing up for each other.

So Cleveland had a game, so what? The fixes, for once, don’t lie in some mystery only unlocked on the 100th watching of game tape, or resorting to DeRozan or Lowry ISO. When Toronto came off the attack, Cleveland stepped into the available space, not even particularly deftly, only testing, and they found room where there shouldn’t have been any and exploited it. The Raptor’s defence was not the problem. There was one beautiful, yelling out loud moment when James was chased off the line by DeRozan, dogged as he’s ever been. James tried to ditch him on a screen and drive to the paint but DeMar stayed put, close enough he could’ve told you what setting LeBron shaved at that day, and forced him right back out. James might be untouchable but he sure as hell seemed frustrated by it, and there’s no reason that kind of thing can’t be cranked up going into Game 2. The Cavs pick and roll defence is spotty and they’ve shown it’s a sore point where they can come apart, the Raptors need to give them reason to unravel, and do the same anywhere else there’s room to wiggle, drive, pester, push and body their way into. And some shots falling would help.

Consider that the Raptors shot 20 per cent from the field in the 4th, beyond lousy by anyone’s standards but part and parcel for the kind of lurching luck that comes and goes with Toronto more than anyone would care to admit. The five or so seconds seen round the highlight world of VanVleet, DeRozan, Miles and Valančiūnas basically playing volleyball is an almost slapstick example of this, but it’s in no way indicative of something going off the rails with this team. Obviously, next time, JV would be better off wrapping his hands around the ball and simply placing it in the basket, but for how wild that sequence it was also completely out of anyone on the court’s control. The only thing it was missing was a Yakety Sax accompaniment.

The point is some things—consistent energy, pushing back, movement, saving waffling for breakfast—went wrong but the answers—easy adjustments and this team’s elastic quality of bouncing back—are apparent. Enough with for whomst the bell is tolling, you and the Raptors both knew the Cavs were coming and it’s time to dig in.