What began so optimistically on Tuesday morning is now on the verge of being the Toronto Raptors’ worst nightmare by Saturday night.
A sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers after all the good work they’ve put in to get to this point would be a devastating blow. The Cavs sucked the soul out of the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night, so one can only hope being in another arena may actually help the Raptors. Considering the two losses at the Quicken Loans Arena this season on top of the five heavy playoff defeats that have preceded it, Toronto has it all to do.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Raptors still have a long way to go in this process of becoming a quality road team, going just 8-14 on the road against plus-.500 teams during the regular season and dropping two straight against the Washington Wizards before finally cracking through.
If they are to pull off the upset, though, it starts with Serge Ibaka. Playoff Serge seemed well in truly alive after the first two games with 16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 4-of-7 shooting from three. Since, he’s down to 5.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.5 blocks and 2-of-11 from beyond the arc over the last six games and everything that he theoretically presented as a method of defending the Cavaliers has been thrown out of the window. I had dreams of an Anunoby-Siakam-Ibaka frontcourt, but that’s just impossible to turn to with his current struggles. In case you’re wondering, the trio only played 18 minutes together during the regular season and was a plus-11.
There’s been a lot of talk about why would anyone root for playing the Cavs as opposed to the Indiana Pacers and I was firmly in the camp of playing LeBron again. Not because I believed in the whole revenge is sweet thing (I did pick the Raptors to win in seven), but rather because this process needs to be tested against the best. The ball movement, the improvement of Valanciunas, the playmaking of DeRozan, the Bench Mob, none of that happens without Cleveland and LeBron forcing the Raptors to take stern, honest look in the mirror. This Game 3 is another moment for them to seek out the truth about themselves and fight to be the team they think they are, because, let’s face it, they’ve said all the right things coming into this series and during it.
The game tips off at 8:30 p.m. EST on ABC and Sportsnet on TV and TSN 1050 on radio.
To help set the stage for Game 3, Jesse Blanchard, editor-in-chief of BBallBreakdown was kind enough to spare some time and in addition to getting set for the game with this preview, be sure to check out his latest piece on the LeBron-Raptors conundrum. You can also follow him on Twitter @blanchardJRB.
Vivek Jacob: As a neutral, does this series come back to Toronto? What do you make of the head coach of the East’s top seed admitting after a 2-0 deficit that the team is playing for pride?
Jesse Blanchard: I suspect the series will go to a Game 5 but not beyond that. This is a team with no answer for LeBron James, but it spent so much of the season finding answers for so much else.
Those fadeaway jumpers will fall more often than not, but probably not to the same extent it did in Game 2. A team can budget for some of LeBron’s production but no one can deal with the shots he was making on Thursday night. And so much of the rest of the Cavaliers are so inconsistent it seems reasonable the Raptors can find some foothold in at least one of the next two games.
So far as what Dwane Casey said, what does it matter? The Raptors have been here before and know whats’ at stake. If they have to be told or not told something, they have no business staying in the playoffs.
Vivek Jacob: The Cavaliers finding a way to win two of the five potential games remaining in the series seems a formality. How do you weigh the undeniable success Toronto experienced with a new style this season vs. their inability to solve LeBron?
Jesse Blanchard: What was it Mike Tyson said? Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. And no one punches harder in basketball terms than LeBron James.
This culture reset is a process. It’s easy to stick to during the regular season and when things are going well. But it takes more than a season for a system to take hold enough to maintain under intense duress.
I think back to the San Antonio Spurs and when they first switched to their own high octane offense. The Memphis Grizzlies dismantled it completely in 2011, the Oklahoma City Thunder broke through it in 2012, and the Miami Heat pushed it past its limits in 2013. It wasn’t until 2014 that the system was so refined the Spurs could practically run it in their sleep.
These Raptors will never be that, so it’s unfair to suspect they’d hit a higher level in their first season trying.
Vivek Jacob: Is it fair to weigh the performance of the Raptors in this series against Indiana’s performance against Cleveland? Why or why not? Does this need to be an important consideration in evaluating Dwane Casey;s performance this season?
Jesse Blanchard: It’s fair to look at the Raptors’ performance as disappointing, especially in light of how vulnerable the Cavaliers looked heading into the series. I’m not sure how much it should factor into evaluating Casey’s season. Younger players took big leaps this season and the team took to completely retooling its style of play. Casey might never be enough, but with this group—and I believe the window is the contract they signed Kyle Lowry for—who can you bring in who’s going to do better in the time you have?
Vivek Jacob: As someone who has watched a master tactician in Gregg Popovich for years, what are your thoughts on Casey’s X’s and O’s and in-game tactical management?
Jesse Blanchard: I’m not a writer who identifies different sets. In the past, I was always disappointed in how stagnant the Raptors’ offense was and the few counters it offered. This season? He’s been fine. In Game 1, his coaching didn’t miss all those easy shots in the lane. Just one or two of those and the series is tied 1-1 In Game 2, what do you do against LeBron James on fire? That man can take out the Golden State Warriors at their peak when he’s on like that.
There are adjustments to be made, for sure. The Raptors can’t keep getting stuck with guards on Kevin Love, for one. But this is the first game where, really, it’s time to look at major adjustments.
Vivek Jacob: The Spurs owned Mike D’Antoni’s Suns for a time and it seemed as though anything that could go wrong for Phoenix, did. Do you believe one team can have a mental block in the face of an opponent that has handled them year after year?
Jesse Blanchard: Sure? I mean, I think those Spurs and these Cavaliers (well, LeBron James) are just better. But it certainly takes its toll. You could see it in a crowd that refused to get ahead of itself in Game 2. Or the nervous energy it seemed the Raptors played in down the stretch of Game 1.
Casey suggested tinkering with the starting lineup, but because of how important Ibaka is to any Toronto plan that involves being successful, it would be a little surprising if he changed it up. A shorter leash? Absolutely, and we saw that in Game 2 with Ibaka never returning to the court within two minutes of the second half.
My brother, Jakob, where art thou? The team leader in total blocks in the regular season has offered little resistance at the rim in the postseason. He has combined with Ibaka to make us all wonder why Nogueira can’t be dusted off for even a few meaningful minutes.
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
INACTIVE: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie
LeBron is doing LeBron things, Kevin Love is playing like an all-star again, and the role players are doing what they need to. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
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
INACTIVE: Kendrick Perkins, Okaro White
Game 1: Raptors -7.0 (series price -200) (Cavaliers 113, Raptors 112, OT)
Game 2: Raptors -6.5 (series price +135) (Cavaliers 128, Raptors 110)
Game 3: Cavaliers -4.5
Series: Raptors +575 (implied probability of 14.8 percent)
Oh, how this series has shifted. After being solid favorites to take each of the first two games, the Raptors are staring at the most daunting of tasks ahead. The
Thanos engaged LeBron effect is as real as it’s ever been, and if the Raptors plan on just playing for pride, there’s every chance the Cavs cover the spread. The over/under is set at 216.