The Raptors came into this series against the Cleveland Cavaliers with a clear plan for how they wanted to defend James. Their goal was to deny him his passing options, and force him to beat the Raptors through his own scoring, for him to have to be a dominant enough scorer and have faith that their own offense would be enough to outscore the Cavaliers without those secondary guys going off.
Through two games that gameplan has been a partial success, and a complete failure. The Raptors have scored effectively, with a 113.6 offensive rating in the series, the third best of any team in the second round of the playoffs. As well, LeBron has been carrying a large load offensively himself, with just a 53.8% true shooting percentage on 35.9% usage. Unfortunately for the Raptors, as far as taking away those other options, they just haven’t got it done. JR Smith, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green have combined to go 18/30 from three-point range, nearly equaling the Raptors total of 21 threes by themselves. The Raptors held Kevin Love to just 3/13 shooting in game 1 before he went off for 231 points on 11/21 shooting in game 2.
Moreover, it’s not just that those players for Cleveland are hitting shots, they’re getting high quality looks with consistency, and the Raptors coverage just hasn’t been up to par off ball. It’s easy to point fingers, whether that’s Serge Ibaka, who has struggled throughout the series at both ends of the floor and only managed 12 minutes in the second game due to his ineffectiveness, or the wing defense of DeMar DeRozan and CJ Miles, who have both had a hard time tracking shooters and also spent time guarding Kevin Love, where Love has dominated them both.
It’s hard to list all of the offensive weapons that LeBron James brings to the table to challenge a defense, but one of the ones that’s been on full display in this series against the Raptors is his ability to locate and attack the weak links in a defense. When the Raptors have placed one of their smaller wing defenders against Love, the Cavaliers offense has immediately shifted to emphasize Love, whether finding him in a post-up where he can create his own shot, or leveraging the help defense that comes because the Raptors aren’t comfortable with their matchup there to find an open shooter, as he did when DeRozan guarded him in the post towards the end of game 1.
Some of that is simply personnel limitations for the Raptors. With Jakob Poeltl having struggled defensively throughout the postseason and Serge Ibaka also looking ineffective, the Raptors have to place more of the burden on their perimeter players, where their options are limited. OG Anunoby has been excellent guarding LeBron, despite the success of James, but with him in that matchup it means he can’t be used to chase shooters, and Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are both smaller players who are limited in the matchups where they’re suited. That, plus Norman Powell’s struggles all season to find consistency in the defensive role where he’s excelled in past playoff runs, puts a burden on DeRozan and Miles to be the answer to the problem posed by the shooters who allow LeBron the space he needs to work.
Essentially, in this series, although the Raptors remain one of the deepest teams in the playoffs, they are lacking in effective depth, as Cleveland has managed to neutralize many of their defensive weapons. The temptation now for the Raptors will be to change up their defensive priorities and try to shut down the scoring of LeBron through bringing traps and forcing the ball out of his hands, but that path probably won’t fare better against this potent offense. James is a more than capable passer and is hard to trap because of his court vision. If Cleveland spreads shooters around him and the trap comes, that undoubtedly leaves at least one man open from behind the arc, ready to punish the defense for leaving him.
The problem isn’t that the Raptors system of taking away the shooters hasn’t worked, it’s that the Raptors simply haven’t effectively employed their strategy yet in this series. At times it’s been Cleveland finding mismatches, or LeBron’s domination over every defender except Anunoby to create space, but more often than not it’s simply been the Raptors defense making mistakes. All season, despite the Raptors strong defensive ranking, one of their worst defensive habits has been their tendency to switch assignments unnecessarily. Watch any defensive minutes with Toronto’s starters in this series, and you’re likely to find several possessions where the Cavaliers offense is lined up with mismatches because of changed assignments prior to even attempting an action, and when they do use screens to try to create those matchups, the Raptors surrender them far too easily.
You can definitely succeed defensively in the NBA with limited defensive players, but you need them to be both attentive and lined up in matchups where they can be used effectively, despite their limitations. This is why most offenses in the league have now become so adept at forcing the defense to switch, to allow a lane of attack against even a capable, stalwart defense. When you surrender that without making the offense earn it, you leave more time on the shot clock for them to take advantage of the surrendered opportunity. It’s hard to isolate a single player who is responsible for this, as nearly every Raptors player has been guilty at times this season, but in the starters vs. starters minutes in this series, it definitely tends to begin with Ibaka and DeRozan, who often seem to be matched up on each other’s assignment, or can be seen off-ball calling for a switch when there isn’t a reason to do so.
This compounds against LeBron, with his affinity for finding mismatches for his teammates, and this is one of the easiest places for the Raptors to improve their defensive execution in this series. Simply making the Cavaliers work harder to force those switches, and forcing them to use a little more clock to get a good shot can improve the Raptors defense. Toronto this season, offensively, has been at their best when they are a team that can push the pace, and it’s easiest to do so off turnovers and rushed shots from the opponent. They’ve forced little of either from the Cavaliers so far in the series, with Cleveland having just 8 turnovers and shooting 41% from three-point range.
It is important for the Raptors to be better, but changing personnel without changing execution is akin to shifting deck chairs on the Titanic – it’s change, but it won’t keep the ship afloat. There are definitely moments that haven’t been great at the offensive end, but they have been good enough on that end, if Toronto had been adequate defensively, which they haven’t. Avoid switching, and hold to your assignments, or if the switch is inevitable, at least make Cleveland work to get that opportunity, don’t give it away freely.
The series isn’t yet lost, even though it definitely can feel that way when you’re in a 0-2 hole against one of the greatest players in the history of basketball, but it’s important for the Raptors to remember that they were the better team throughout the regular season, and also remember the things that got them there, including their defensive execution. One game won’t win them the series, and it’s going to be a long road back to having the chance to advance, but locating the Cavaliers shooters and keeping them from finding space might win the Raptors one game.