The Toronto Raptors showed the heart, physicality, grit, and toughness they’d been talking about for days. They fought back from down 17 points with their backs against the wall, finally drawing even with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time since 0-0 with just seconds to go. The comeback was capped by what could have been – and still may be – an identifying moment in the young career of OG Anunoby, as he calmly hit a transition three for the tie with eight seconds left. One stop, and the Raptors would be going overtime for the second time in the series, with momentum on their side (if it exists) and a chance to make what could have been a 1-1 series at least a 1-2.
As was the story in Game 2, unfortunately, the Raptors exist in the time and the path of the greatest player alive.
“You just get the ball to Bron at the end of the game,” head coach Tyronn Lue said in the most obvious statement in postseason history.
LeBron James, who already had 36 points and seven assists to that point, took the inbound pass deep in Cleveland’s backcourt. He sized up Anunoby as he crossed half, went to his left to avoid a potential Pascal Siakam trap (the C.J. Miles help never came off the strong-side corner with Kyle Korver standing there), rose up from nine feet out, his legs twisting in the wrong direction but his shoulders still somehow square to the basket, and unleashed a bank shot over Anunoby’s outstretched arm to win the game.
“The level of difficulty of that shot is very difficult,” James said after, before twisting the knife. “Don’t try it at home.”
Like that, it’s 3-0 Cavaliers, and the Raptors’ season is on life support.
“I thought there was some time on the clock left. I didn’t want it to be real,” Kyle Lowry, who was at the heart of the second-half comeback, said.
There’s not much else to do now. There were any number of ways the Raptors could have been better in this one that would have taken this situation off the board, and they are worth exploring once there’s been the benefit of a sleep – or non-sleep, if you’re Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey – and some time to come down. And even with all of those mistakes and areas they could have cleaned up, the Raptors fought back, which is at least admirable. James looked downright frustrated for stretches. The Raptors were who they said they were for 15 minutes of action or so. And then James hit a ludicrous game-winner that will be on highlight reels for years to come, and you shake your head, or sigh, or cry, or whatever it is you do in spots like that. It’s heart-breaking. At least it’s better than folding.
DeRozan as hard on himself as anyone
Of all the times for a star to go missing in action, this was a tough one. DeMar DeRozan has not been at his regular season level of play during the postseason, but he has been better than his previous playoff reputation would suggest, at least. Maybe uneven, and analytics haven’t been fond of him. Still, hardly the Playoff Raptors All-Stars joke level.
Here, though, he turned in what may have been the worst half of his career since he’s become this version of himself. He was ineffective offensively with his shot not falling, made poor reads and decisions, continued getting away from the pace that’s helped the Raptors succeed against defenses like this, and while he made a few high-effort defensive plays, he was as uneven as ever. Every push the Raptors made came with DeRozan on the bench, and Dwane Casey probably never gave much thought to putting him back on the floor in the fourth quarter.
DeRozan knows. Like Serge Ibaka a game prior, DeRozan was wearing the performance after the game.
“It’s extremely hard, extremely hard. You never want to be over there, watch, especially the competitor I am,” he said. “I just want to be out there, help my team, way more than anything. It definitely sucks to be watching. Like I said, we’ve got to give credit to those guys. We fought hard and gave ourselves a chance to to win…It was just one of them nights. For me, games like that, I always respond in a bigger way. In the moment, it definitely sucks, especially on top of us losing. You never want to have a shitty game like I had. Got another game, got another opportunity, that’s all that matters.”
That one hurts.
- My heart. And soon, my liver. Doubtful.
- The Raptors opted to start Fred VanVleet over Serge Ibaka to get a little more ball-handling and shooting on the floor and to match up better one-through-three. There was also the intention of getting Ibaka lined up with Tristan Thompson in the second unit, which had the byproduct of cutting Jakob Poeltl, who had been struggling some, from the rotation. It seemed to work for Ibaka, who had probably his best all-around game since Game 2 against Washington. That both players involved in the swap ended up closing speaks to it working at the individual level, at least.
- The starters didn’t get much time to figure things out. On paper, it’s maybe Toronto’s best five players, and they’d only played six minutes together all year, so in theory they probably needed some time to mesh. That’s at a premium here, and the group only got 10 minutes to figure it out, playing to a -4.
- Part of that was due to the play of DeMar DeRozan, who was -23 in 28 minutes. The Raptors were +21 in the game’s other 20 minutes. It’s never one player’s fault. It was a tough night, though.
- The fourth-quarter unit that nearly made the comeback happen – a mix-and-match unit of VanVleet, Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, C.J. Miles, and OG Anunoby that had played one minutes together all season – was +8 in nine minutes. That same group with Pascal Siakam in Anunoby’s spot was +7 in six minutes. It’s clear they got something going with a faster, physical lineup. It may have been more about energy and demeanor than personnel. It’s certainly worth seeing what they have Monday.
- That worked less well with DeRozan in those same groups. The Miles-DeRozan pairing that’s struggled defensively all year was -15 in 14 minutes, and with Jonas Valanciunas they were +2 in six minutes. Those groups have never been tenable defensively with much regularity, and they should probably only ever have two of those players out at once, even if the one variant worked out okay here.
- The Cavaliers starters were +2 in 17 minutes, struggling a bit against lineups that weren’t the Raptors starters in noisy transitional looks. They are still creating open looks at will, more or less.
- The starters with Jeff Green in J.R. Smith’s place were +14 in 11 minutes. Green’s strong series continues at the right time for the Cavs, and he was the only bench player who gave them much here, really.
- Related: The LeBron James-and-bench unit was a surprising -8 in four minutes. The Raptors only tying Cleveland in minutes where James sat is one of the many small things you can point to as the difference here.
- There was a funny moment during Ty Lue’s presser where he was asked why teams don’t double LeBron James and he said. “They shouldn’t,” but was smiling wryly and tapping the table. It’s hard to read the context from it. On the one hand, the look on his face suggested he’s glad teams guard him that way. Lue also conceded, though, that doubling him would let their shooters get going. The galaxy-brain takeaway from his comments and face may just be that he’s thankful he doesn’t have to deal with answering those questions.
- For what it’s worth, the Raptors did at least attempt to trap James briefly on the final possession, but he was able to split it without much issue and rip our souls out like Shang Tsung.
- Dwane Casey on Kyle Lowry’s tremendous effort in the second half (and most of the night): “Kyle was not about to let us go out without a fight.”
- Lowry on being at the podium without DeMar DeRozan for the first time this postseason: “I’m really lonely right now. I am. He’s my guy.”
- James wore a shirt made by a Canadian designer and a hate that was A) from an originally Canadian company, B) is alcohol, and C) has a crown on it. The dude’s messaging is always on point. Geez.
- Casey had a lot of comments about the officiating after this one, especially the overturned call on a would-be Serge Ibaka and-one. I don’t think he said anything worthy of a fine, but I know some of you will at least take solace in Casey making his case publicly with little veiling rather than toeing the line.
- The Raptors will play at either 8 or 830 on Wednesday if a Game 5 is required.