The best season in Toronto Raptors history could come to an end Monday night. Down three games to none against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors know very well that their backs are against the wall and the odds are against them. No NBA team has ever come back from down 0-3, and the Raptors would have to beat the best player in the world four times to become the first. The goal, then, isn’t to win four games at once. It’s to win one, an then you’re coming back from 1-3 with two home games. Then win another, and you’re coming back from 2-3. And so on. That takes a certain level of mental toughness, and the Raptors believe they possess it.
After all, this is the first time they’ve lost three in a row all year, and they’ve won four straight countless times, devoid of, uhh, LeBron James context. They’ve also been through this with the Cavaliers before and have a different feeling about things this time around, not coming off of three consecutive double-digit losses.
“I think we have a group of guys that are warriors,” Dwane Casey said at shootaround on Monday. “I know they’re going to bounce back. As far as the fight, I love what we did the other night. You know you’re down 3-0 but you don’t give up on this group because we’ve been resilient the entire season…Different feel. Different group. Different confidence level. Different experience level. We still know we’re the third-youngest team but still it’s an air of confidence, even with the young guys, that they know what we’re up against. I don’t see any doubt in their eyes or feel any doubt from them.”
Helping maintain that attitude is how close two of the games have been. Games 1 and 3 could have swung on any number of small factors – a gust of wind, a call, one more shot made or shot stopped – and while that does absolutely nothing for anyone once the series is done, it does serve the Raptors a reminder that they’re as good as the Cavaliers and certainly capable of beating them.
“100 per cent. That’s what we talked about,” C.J. Miles said. “There’s no lack of confidence. We don’t feel over-matched or anything, there’s none of that. It’ just about knowing where we have to draw the line in some of the things we need to do to get over that hump. All three games have presented different plays that would have to be done at certain points of the game to get over the hump. We see them, it’s not like there’s no door to get out of the room, you know?”
If the Raptors can find the door, they’ll get to return home for at least one game and begin chopping the series into smaller and smaller comebacks. If they can’t, this it it. I’m not really ready to call it a season.
The game tips off at 8:30 on TNT (Ian Eagle, Brent Barry, and Allie LaForce) and TSN on TV and Sportsnet 590 on radio. You can check out the full game preview here. Your officials are Marc Davis, Tony Brown, and David Guthrie.
Note: I’m not on the road, so thank you to the regular beat writers passing on quotes from practice/shootaround these last few games.
Here’s what you need ahead of Game 4, assuming you haven’t been keeping up.
- Game 3 recap, Game 4 preview.
- All the news & notes from each pre-game, post-game, practice, and shootaround.
- Over at The Athletic, I wrote about the potential trap on LeBron James’ game-winner and made a few other tactical notes.
- Raptors Republic readers can get 20 percent off a subscription by using this link.
- Over at Vice Sports, I wrote about the soul-crushing dominance of LeBron James.
- Zarar lays out why Game 4 still matters, Anthony calls for some adjustments, and I spin my wheels about some defensive issues.
Toronto changed it’s starting lineup for Game 3. The starters weren’t a resounding success in their 10 minutes – their net rating in a small series sample is quite poor – and it took more than a half to find the right touch with rotations, but the team generally seemed pretty happy with the changes. Fred VanVleet played well as an aggressive extra ball-handler, Serge Ibaka found a spark off the bench, and shortening the rotation seemed to suit them well.
“We had a rough start,” Dwane Casey conceded at shootaround. “But I liked the aggressiveness that Fred brought to the table. I thought he set the tone full court. Going down, picking up George Hill. And the other four guys behind him saw that. I thought it got us going.”
Whether they change back for Game 4 is still unclear. VanVleet said he didn’t know and “probably wouldn’t tell you if we did, anyway,” because VanVleet is great. There’s an argument to be made either way, really. The Raptors’ starters have been great as a fivesome all year, were good in round one, and haven’t even been that bad as a fivesome in this series. The team’s defense has actually been at its best when Jonas Valanciunas is on the floor, and it’s mostly size-advantage mismatches Kevin Love has exploited. Still, they may want to stick with what kept them close on Saturday.
Check back before tip-off to confirm.
UPDATE: The Raptors are starting small with Serge Ibaka drawing back in and starting at center while OG Anunoby moves to power forward and C.J. Miles starts in the place Fred VanVleet occupied last game. The thinking here makes some sense. Jonas Valanciunas has been good all playoffs and the team has been fine with him on the floor, but Ibaka at center helps them match up better opposite the James-Love frontcourt. Miles injects some spacing, too, although one of him or DeMar DeRozan having to guard Kyle Korver means James has a clear switch to try to attack and exploit. Valanciunas, meanwhile, can still see ample run against units with Tristan Thompson at center or even the Green-James super-small frontcourt where he can check Green. The starters, by the way, played just seven good minutes in the regular season and six bad ones together in the playoffs.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet,Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: C.J. Miles
PF: OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
INACTIVE: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie
As good as things have been going for Cleveland, Tyronn Lue hinted that tweaks to the bench rotation could be coming. That’s not surprising, given that he’s only really gotten contributions from his five starters, Jeff Green, and Tristan Thompson. Jordan Clarkson has been downright bad and Rodney Hood invisible, and any minutes they share the floor together should be positives for the Raptors. It’s not like Jose Calderon is a lock-down defender or Cedi Osman is a sure bet to provide a boost, but Hood and Clarkson have struggled all postseason.
It hasn’t really mattered because those other seven rotation players have been really good for Cleveland. They’re shooting significantly better than against Indiana – there have been real Raptors mistakes on defense but Cleveland is also shooting better on almost every single shot type than in round one, something Toronto can’t control much – and the spark in play for Kevin Love and George Hill, in particular, has to be really enocuraging for the Cavaliers moving forward.
“They’re NBA players, too. Guys don’t stay in slumps forever,” Fred VanVleet said. “I think Kevin Love has been an all-star however many years in a row. He’s gonna find his rhythm eventually. We can be better defensively, for sure. Give those guys credit as well. LeBron demands a lot of attention from your defense, and he’s gonna find guys. We’ve just gotta find a way to cut some of those guys off. At the end of the day, they’re NBA players too.”
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
Pre-game news and notes
- I want to say this was LeBron James’ way of saying that the Cavaliers need to do a better job on DeMar DeRozan and that he expects DeRozan to have a bounce back game, but the wording from shootaround is painful: “DeMar DeRozan has missed a lot of easy opportunities against us, as well. We just try to make it a little bit more challenging, that’s all. He got into the lane four or five times and missed some floaters, missed some layups, missed a couple wide-open threes that he’s been making. So it’s easy to say the job we’ve done but when you playing against an All-Star starter and the caliber of player of DeMar, you just try to make it challenging on him and then hope that he misses shots.”
- I’m not going to expand on it much, but way too much has been made of DeRozan sitting the fourth by outside media since Game 3. This has happened before, Dwane Casey and DeRozan have that level of trust in their relationship, DeRozan was playing quite poorly, and he took 100 percent accountability for his play and his benching afterward. Don’t try to make drama where there isn’t any. It was the right call and DeRozan is an absolute pro for how he handled it.
- Here’s Casey on OG Anunoby possibly changing the accounting for James on defense: “One byproduct of OG making shots is him roaming around and we found that. We’re making him make decisions. And they were making decisions to leave OG quite a bit and we’re finding him.”
- And Fred VanVleet expanding: “Yeah, for sure. He does a good job of having good presentation and being in a stance and switching and stuff, but there are definitely opportunities to attack him and make him work on that end. A guy playing that many minutes with that kind of load, he’s going to take plays off in between there sometimes and you have to make him pay. I thought we did a good job of attacking him. It’s like I said, some of those shots didn’t go in. We are going to continue to be physical…For me I’m going at him every chance I get. When he is guarding other guys like OG, OG has been able to cut backdoor and find some places to shoot the three. We just got to keep him working, keep him honest. That has been my approach.”
- And Casey on Serge Ibaka’s bounce-back Game 3: “I loved his intensity. I thought that was one of the, even though he didn’t score a lot of points, I thought that was one of his well-played defensive games. Blocking shots, running the floor, having a presence down in the paint, rebounding, doing all the dirty stuff, battling the post-ups with physicality. All those things that he brought to the table I really liked. And I thought he played with a pure heart from that standpoint.”
- A great quote from Tyronn Lue on the Raptors potentially letting Casey go after the series: “I mean, that’s absurd. That’s crazy. I mean, to change a team who they said played ISO basketball, to being top three, I guess, in offense and defense this year, the second best record in the NBA, like, it’s just, I don’t believe that one bit. I mean, it would be absurd to make a move like that.”
- I’ll be posting some updates/quotes/T-shirt news/etc regularly on my Instagram story throughout the playoffs.
- The viewing party in Maple Leaf Square opens up at 7.
- In case you missed it, Masai Ujiri was fined $25,000 by the NBA yesterday for coming on the court to confront officials at the end of the first half of Game 3.
- The Last Two Minute Report was clean but did show three missed travels by Raptors that were observable in enhanced video.
- Zach Lowe mentioned on The Lowe Post today that a feature he was working on about Jonas Valanciunas probably won’t see the light of day now given how the series is gone. Free that piece. The people need to see it.
Game 1: Raptors -7 (series price -200) (Cavaliers 113, Raptors 112, OT)
Game 2: Raptors -6.5 (series price +135) (Cavaliers 128, Raptors 110)
Game 3: Cavaliers -4 (series price +550) (Cavaliers 105, Raptors 103)
Game 4: Cavaliers -5
Series: Raptors +3300 (implied probability of 2.9 percent)
The Cavaliers are favored even more heavily than in Game 3, and that would seem to be a slight bet on them just wanting to take care of business and wrap it up or on the Raptors folding up shop. That’s maybe not a safe assumption with Toronto given how they played in Game 3 and that Game 4 last year was the closest game of the sweep. The series has been genuinely close despite Cleveland winning every game. Still, there’s no historical precedent for the Raptors completing the full comeback, so even if they take one here, it’s likely to be a dabbling in moral victory. The over-under is set at 214.