LeBron James occupies a strange place in the world of basketball narratives. He’s a force of nature, a wrecking ball that influences the entire landscape of the league, and has shaped most of the last decade of the NBA. Even these Golden State Warriors, a dynasty with real claim to being one of the greatest teams we’ve ever seen, flinched just for a second in the face of James two seasons ago, and went and found a second MVP, a fourth All-NBA player, just for security for that matchup. Yet, we keep looking for answers to LeBron, despite the mountain of evidence that there just might not be any, at least not that simply, and faulting teams for not having those answers.
The Raptors clearly felt like they need to make adjustments coming into game three, and they didn’t seem to have the answers early on. Starting Fred VanVleet in the place of Serge Ibaka had a certain kind of sense to it. VanVleet had been one of the Raptors’ most important players all season long, and Ibaka had been struggling all series. The reality didn’t meet the expectation, however, as the Cavaliers jumped out to a 14-4 lead to open the game, and the Raptors quickly reacted by shifting OG Anunoby to the bench and bringing in CJ Miles, a move that worked a little better than the data said it should’ve, but still wasn’t enough for the Raptors to even the score at halftime. As the game went on and the Cavaliers held the lead, the adjustments kept coming, and it still didn’t feel like enough. Whether it was going to smaller lineups, as Jakob Poeltl, who has struggled throughout the postseason, remained on the bench, or more minutes for CJ Miles, the Raptors kept the game close but it still fell just out of reach.
There are certainly on-court Xs and Os things to talk about with that game as well, with the Raptors defensively still struggling with keeping track of shooters off-ball and allowing the Cavaliers to dictate the switches they wanted to get and Toronto biting on way too many jump fakes from Cleveland shooters unnecessarily, instead of simply closing out strong.
On the offensive end, the Raptors’ best offensive shot creator this season, DeMar DeRozan, struggled and ended up benched for the fourth quarter. It wasn’t his night from an execution standpoint, with his shot not falling and him struggling with turnovers, just never looking comfortable. However, more than whether or not what he was doing was working at that end of the floor, it felt like he sucked the air out of the offense frequently, opting to slow things down. That’s DeMar’s nature as an attacker, the part of the game that the team tried to reduce with the culture change this year. He’s methodical, opting to take a long look at the defense given before choosing his avenue of attack.
It’s not necessarily a fault either, when you are a player who can create your own shot effectively through doing so, but with the players around DeMar, you need to keep a defense in motion to create openings, especially against a defense like the Cavaliers. Cleveland’s defense wasn’t good this year, but they struggled largely with communication and execution, and when you slow down your offense, you limit the impact of those issues for the defense. Thus, there was a visible difference in last night’s game between the slow, patient attack of DeRozan and the aggressive, almost at times frantic, attack of the other Raptors ball handlers, and the numbers showed the effectiveness of each approach. The Raptors had a 170.6 offensive rating in the 20 minutes that DeRozan sat last night, and a 77.0 offensive rating when he played.
At the same time, despite all of this, the Raptors nearly managed to make a game of it at the end, thanks to the heroics of Kyle Lowry, CJ Miles, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, who showed signs of the team that won 59 games in the fourth quarter with their resilience, with Anunoby hitting a three-point shot with 5.5 seconds to go to tie the game. They were aggressive offensively, actively searching out seams in the Cleveland defense and finding lanes to attack, creating points on nearly every possession and posting an absurd 199.2 offensive rating for the quarter, and although the numbers weren’t great defensively, they did enough to keep the game in reach while also being present and active rebounding, grabbing 57.1% of their own missed shots.
Here, though, we come back to the greatness of LeBron James. The past two series defeats to the Cavaliers, the games were largely blowouts, over long before the end of the actual game, and this series has been different in that the games themselves have been closer. The lesson the Raptors are learning this time, painfully, is that you cannot leave LeBron room to break your heart at the end of the game, because he will do so. The Raptors managed to find answers in the game last night, found ways to fight back despite all the adversity they were facing, but those solutions needed to be earlier, they needed to be fighting at the end not to put the game back in reach, but just out of reach.
It’s hard to keep going back to the well of saying that LeBron was just too much, because that answer still feels insufficient. The last five years have been the best of the Raptors franchise history, and have felt like they’re building to something, and this just feels insufficient for the joy that this team has brought. Something this fun and enjoyable shouldn’t end this badly, but the margin was always small against LeBron, and the Raptors keep leaving the door open just enough.