Kawhi show helps Raptors avoid let-down in Cleveland

This was, as they say, not one that’ll be on ESPN Classic any time … ever.

Bound to show some let-up after an emotionally draining overtime victory over the defending champion Golden State Warriors on their home floor, the Toronto Raptors exhibited just that in Cleveland. They showed just how hard they can pull at the rope in stretches and completely let go in others. Head coach Nick Nurse was encouraged by some moments, flabbergasted at some of the poor play. Such is life when you must play 82 games and not all of them can get the competitive juices flowing.

The Cavaliers came out with plenty of energy and perhaps a superfluous hope they could redeem themselves after a 128-95 defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics. Larry Drew will have been encouraged by his team’s effort to open the game, undoubtedly looking to muster up any kind of advantage before their legs got heavy on the second night of a back-to-back. The Cavs jumped out to a 10-6 lead early, challenging the Raptors to fight through a ton of screens and bring out a level of compete they probably didn’t feel the need to.

Offensively, the Raptors clearly looked a team playing in the absence of the head of their snake. Starting in place of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet struggled in the role of floor general early as the team looked clunky and disorganized to start. There were a couple of good possessions when Pascal Siakam was able to come away with the rebound and push for early looks, though.

Surprisingly, it was Larry Drew who called a timeout, giving Nurse another chance to rev up the engine, and they responded this time. Kawhi Leonard, in particular, showed that he was in no mood to let the worst team in the Eastern Conference get too excited. First, he pushed for a semi-transition opportunity after grabbing a defensive rebound, got himself into the paint for a post-up on Cedi Osman and kicked out to a wide open Siakam. The Cameroonian missed, but Leonard stuck with the play to get the offensive rebound and score after creating some separation with his strength inside.

One aspect of Leonard’s post-ups that has been interesting to watch thus far has been the propensity for opponents to semi-pull the chair or back away (I’m not sure which one it is because of how strong he is in there and so it could just be that), causing him to lose his balance and not go up with as much control. He was shooting a career-low 30.6 percent in the 3-to-10 ft. range entering this game, but showed much better balance of late, and showed why on this play in particular, taking that extra half-second to gather himself before going up to finish with ease. He is 5-for-7 in the paint, in the non-restricted area, over the last three games after shooting 22-for-56 (39.3 percent) entering the week. During his MVP caliber 2016-17 season, he made 51.4 percent of his shots in that region.

There has seemed to be more lift to his jumpers too of late, too — most noticeably against Golden State — so he may just be starting to round into peak form 18 games in. The lack of back-to-backs over this stretch should help him maintain a rhythm as well.

Unsurprisingly, the momentum shifted back when Leonard checked out of the game, Cleveland coming back from a 19-14 deficit to tie the game heading into the second quarter. Things remained virtually status quo until the Nurse had all his starters back in the game, immediately upon which the Raptors put up a 15-3 run that included 11 straight points for Leonard.

He hit a pair of three-pointers, scored a tough and-1 after drawing contact from Larry Nance Jr. and added a couple more at the line as well. This is what you want to see from a professional silent assassin. No mucking about, no time for fancy tricks because there’s a greater margin for error to play with against a weak opponent, just pure unadulterated domination at every opportunity.

Carrying a seven-point lead into the break, the Raptors effectively put the game to bed with a 21-3 run in the third quarter. Again, you knew the Cavs wouldn’t have the legs to maintain a high level of intensity for 48 minutes, and the wheels came off quickly. Such was the dominance of the Raptors during this stretch that Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong started showing off Raptors 905 R2D2 beanies that even seemed to leave the Raptors head coach a little puzzled.

I could go on about Leonard here as well, but Siakam helped the Raptors take over the ball game, too. First, Mr. Spice ducked in on a VanVleet drive to gain good inside position for a layup, forcing Tristan Thompson to help. Cedi Osman, initially guarding Siakam, failed to rotate, and so No. 43 zipped a pass to the weakside corner where Danny Green was waiting and knocked down the uncontested three.

Later, showing perfect control matched up against Rodney Hood right elbow extended, Siakam stayed low and took advantage of the lefty’s lack of lateral quicks to finish with ease at the rim. He served Hood with a spin move soon after, before both he and Leonard assisted each other on buckets.

After pushing the lead to as many as 21 with 2:37 to play in the third, Nurse showed some mercy and took out his key guys, but he would soon come to regret the decision as that was enough time for the Cavs to rally and cut the deficit to just 10 heading into the fourth. Nurse showed his frustration on the sideline after one timeout in particular, and the disappointment in the bench not being able to figure it out even against the cellar-dweller of the East was palpable.

With seemingly no choice but to open the fourth with Leonard on the floor, the Raptors got into a rhythm once again as he was able to abuse the Cavs running the pick-and-roll with Jonas Valanciunas. Obviously, this wasn’t a night where Nurse had the option of staggering his two best players, but when Leonard is in with the bench unit that includes the Lithuanian, it wouldn’t be surprising for this to become their bread-and-butter play.

There isn’t really much else to dwell on here, the Raptors closed out as you might expect even if it was a bit more begrudgingly than they might have hoped. Either way, it was nice to see the Cavaliers on the other side of things, completely helpless to a bonafide superstar pulling the strings and tugging them every which way. In a building where the Raptors have been at the mercy of LeBron James for three straight postseasons, it was very much the opposite on this night.

Tristan Thompson said before the season that the East still goes through Cleveland and that “we already know that story” when it comes to Toronto, but he must be a Stranger Things fan because that’s only the case in the upside down.

Toronto moves to a thoroughly impressive 20-4 and now heads back home to possibly watch the 905 play — since they won’t be practicing — before taking on the Denver Nuggets on Monday.

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