LeBron James dominates, Raptors bend the knee again

Raptors 110, Cavaliers 128, Cavaliers lead series 2-0 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Post-game news & notes | Reaction Podcast

The Toronto Raptors said all the right things initially. After two straight playoff defeats at the hands of LeBron James, a third time around would require respect but not too much respect, and perhaps a little disrespect. It took all of six quarters or so for the Raptors to pivot from there, once again bending the knee to the league’s best player and at least lending credence to the idea that James has permanent residence in their psyches. There was nothing quite so objectionable as “If we had LeBron, we’d win too,” but after a dispiriting 128-110 Game 2 loss that put the Raptors in an 0-2 hole in the series, the teams tone was far too deferential. James has made his point abundantly clear, and the Raptors have yet to show they are equipped to respond.

That’s not necessarily the case on the court, mind you. For all the talk of James’ dominance, which was fervent here, the Raptors knew James would be dominant. You’d be naive to think otherwise, and that dominance dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers kicking and screaming to four wins against the Indiana Pacers. This was supposed to be about executing around James’ dominance, making sure his teammates can’t go off in support, and acknowledging the tiny margins for error at play against James and taking complete care of them. For as much as Game 2 felt like James breaking the Raptors once again, they did themselves no favors on the defensive end with a litany of off-ball mistakes, counter-intuitive switches, and a general lack of composure once James began his assault in earnest.

“We’ve obviously got to be better than that,” Fred VanVleet said. “There’s no excuse, there’s no secret formula, just have to look ourselves in the mirror, everybody, and be better.”

That might not be enough. Even at their best, it would be tough to peg Toronto to win four times in five games. Especially since they’ve actually played well offensively in this series, shooting a 50/40/90 split in Game 2 that teams were 45-6 when shooting this year, as noted by Kevin Pelton of ESPN. They’re only the second team to do that in a playoff game and lose since 1980, as noted by your favorite inspo’s inspo. It’s incredibly rare for a team to shoot that well – they scored 121.1 points per-100 possessions! – and lose, especially with only 11 turnovers. Then again, everything James is capable of is incredibly rare, while the Raptors’ response to it is all too commonplace at this point. It would be reductive and disingenuous to chalk all of this up to James; the Raptors did not do nearly a good enough job taking care of the rest of the matchup in respect of how important James makes every non-James possession.

Despite the much different outcome by feel, Game 2 started out a lot like Game 1, with the Raptors playing incredibly well on offense and even taking a bit of control early on. There wasn’t a 10-point fourth-quarter lead this time around, but they opened up a small lead in the first quarter and settled into a back-and-forth they could live with for a while. OG Anunoby was great out of the gate, Kyle Lowry looked like he’d be going full KLOE early on again, and James sat back and worked primarily as a passer. He did, however, draw two fouls on Anunoby early, and the Raptors’ train of ineffective transitional lineups had to come in early. Cleveland continued to get James rest in the first quarter, made easier by the fact that Kevin Love got out to a tremendous start. The Raptors lost three non-James minutes by two, a small but unforgivable missed opportunity, and Love cruised to 10 points in the quarter and, eventually, 31 in the game.

“It’s been like, even last series,” Ty Lue said. “Kevin made a couple of shots early, the same ones he’s been getting. He was able to knock some down early tonight. That opened up the floor for LeBron, and have, I guess if they wanted to double-team or play him head-up. Kevin shooting the ball and playing with pace the way he was tonight. I thought he really moved the fast, spread the floor in transition, hard cuts on our elbow-curl-big. When he’s playing fast with fives guarding him, this is how he can play.”

It wasn’t all bad defensively – Cleveland shot 1-of-13 outside of the restricted area, they just got there way too much – and Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined for 19 points and looked like they were ready to establish their own imprint on the game. The all-bench group helped extend the league further thanks to a couple of very friendly bounces on the rim and some solid ball movement, including a great Jakob Poeltl find of a cutting Pascal Siakam. Siakam hit foul trouble early, though, and the Raptors were once again in scramble mode. They tried Fred VanVleet with the starters in place of Serge Ibaka, which was a reasonable attempt with Jonas Valanciunas playing as well as he was offensively, and were it not for a Lowry turnover and a big swing from a block-charge call that didn’t go Lowry’s way, they may have been able to enter half feeling confident. Instead, a “ref, you suck” chant was the last real noise the Air Canada Centre would make, and despite shooting 60 percent from the floor, the Raptors were ahead just two at the break.

The third quarter could not have started worse. Serge Ibaka lost the handle on a ball at half court again, DeRozan fouled J.R. Smith for an and-one, James began sticking jumpers, and Kyle Korver was lost beyond the arc. made for an 8-0 run in under two minutes, and Dwane quickly called a timeout and gave Ibaka the hook. Ibaka took it hard, though nobody is going to feel badly for him after the Raptors were outscored by 10 in his 12 minutes, he set the tone for each half with terrible turnovers, and he missed all five field-goal attempts.

I’m just so disappointed in myself in that moment,” he said. “It’s a moment where you start thinking a lot, ‘I wish I could be out there playing the best game I can to help my team.’ It sucks, man. It sucks.”

The run continued from there, though. C.J. Miles in Ibaka’s place didn’t work, so Casey tried more weird lineups looking for a spark. Cleveland kept piling on, and even when the Raptors got small breaks, like Cleveland not being able to capitalize on a defensive rebound Miles lost out of bounds, they couldn’t make anything happen the other way. Casey tried calling on the bench mob early with a sudden double-digit deficit, and after James decided he’d done enough in the quarter with 15 points, a James-less minute saw Toronto close the gap by only two points, to 11 entering the fourth.

“We were searching,” Casey said. “Serge wasn’t having his usual game, he was struggling. So we were searching, just trying to find somebody, something to get faster, get some more points on the board in that situation. Normally, we respond to those situations. Tonight it didn’t. Serge hasn’t been himself. I don’t know what it is. I think they went on, what, an 18-5 run to start the third and at that time, we were just trying to make changes to mix it up.”

It was more of the same in the fourth. James was hitting jumpers from all over, ending with one of the most prolific mid-range performances in modern NBA history. If there’s a silver lining here, it is that Anunoby never really broke as James rained down jumpers, and he continued forcing tough shots and turning James into a jump-shooter, which is the game plan. Still, the Raptors couldn’t help themselves as James torched every other defender they tried, and eventually the Raptors began over-helping out of desperation, allowing James to eventually tie a playoff career-high with 14 assists to go along with his 43 points.

“That drains you mentally and physically, ’cause I really thought OG was playing as tough as you possibly could,” Casey said. “I thought the second half was as much to do with our offense bogging down and us not keeping the pace going as much as anything. He was having one of those nights but we’ve gotta keep the scoreboard moving as much as possible at the other end.”

The Raptors kept trying, Casey kept mixing things up to find something that worked, and the lead kept extending. The Raptors would defend well and then lose Jeff Green for a corner three, or defend well and have James hit a long two over top, or execute well on offense and pick up an offensive foul to kill the possession. At one point, they pulled back within 13, and then Green and James both hit back-breaking shots. Casey looked exasperated at every timeout, one of which had Lowry simply shaking his head in disbelief as the Raptors sat down to find an answer.

“You always think you have a chance to get back into the game. Always,” Lowry said. “We were still down I think 11, still kind of there, just we need more effort, way more effort. Yeah, we gotta play harder. Somehow, some way.”

The answer never came. Maybe the answer is better effort or playing harder. It’s certainly not letting the Cavaliers get everything around James so easily. As James and the Cavaliers left the ACC in good spirits, it was hard not to reflect on the missed opportunity of Game 1 just as much as the loss here. A game like this is not entirely unthinkable. James is excellent, and he breaks teams with regularity. The ability to fight through that and bounce back over the course of a series, though, hinges on a team taking advantage of the opportunities where James is something less than other-worldly. Thursday looked much worse, given Toronto’s demeanor and the easy call-backs to how they went out in each of the last two postseasons. Things would feel a lot different if this were James pulling his own team from the brink to even the series 1-1 rather than putting the Raptors on ice to talk about “playing for pride” and potential lineup changes. That’s a tip-in from being the case, but instead the Raptors are in full desperation mode.

“We thrive off adversity,” DeRozan said. “Every single guy on this team, we thrive off adversity. We’ve been in tough situations before, and sometimes when you’re put in tough situations that’s what brings the best of you. That’s what point we’re at now. And like I said, it’s the first team to win four. We understand where we at, and we’re going to fight.”

That’s all they can say, really. They may thrive off of adversity in the grand scheme of things. They have not responded to it well when James is the adversary the last two playoffs – this is their eighth playoff loss in a row to Cleveland, and the Cavaliers just bookended a season in which Toronto never lost twice in a row at home with consecutive sweeps in Toronto – and while so, so much about what the Raptors are and how they operate has changed this year, they’re still yet to provide evidence anything is different against the Cavaliers. Their window to do so is closing.

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