This game looked exactly like you’d expect a road game on the second night of a back-to-back against a bad team with little seeding implication to look like. Sure, the Raptors have to legitimately worry about securing homecourt advantage in some potential NBA Finals matchups, but their odds of catching Milwaukee are low and the biggest challenge they’ll likely face over the final month of the season is the challenge of bringing “it” every night. They have just two games remaining against teams with a positive net rating, both of whom are Oklahoma City.
That and a .425 composite opponent winning percentage understate the schedule difficulty given how many of those teams are playing better of late and have their playoff lives on the line. Still, if the Raptors look like this against the Cavaliers and Knicks of the league, it will be a little more difficult to extrapolate results.
To wit, the Raptors dug themselves a 12-4 hole early thanks largely to defensive malaise, turned the ball over seven times in the first quarter and 11 times for 13 points in the first half and were still only down four at the break thanks in large part to Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard. By the time Ibaka got tossed at the end of the third, it was a 14-point deficit the Raptors didn’t have the energy to come back from. It’s understandable when a good team sinks down to their competition in a meaningless game, but this was a bit much.
The offence wasn’t the issue on this night, it was the defence. For reference, Cleveland ranks 29th (second-worst) in field goal percentage, 29th in scoring and 28th in assists. The Cavs scored 59 first-half points aided by 13 points off 11 Toronto turnovers.
The main defensive miscues came guarding the three-point line where Cleveland added another 54 points for the entire game to mark the Cavaliers’ 13th straight game where they’ve made 10 or more threes. Cleveland came in averaging 103.7 points but finished with 126 on Monday night.
The Raptors actually shot a better percentage from the field, hitting on 47.6 per cent of their shots in comparison to Cleveland’s 46.8 per cent. The Cavs, however, made seven more three-pointers (18) and 10 more free throws (20) and had seven more assists (27).
Against a plucky, aggressive young team with nothing to play for but pride, Toronto, completing a back-to-back following Sunday’s win in Miami, came out with little in the tank and was down 14 after the ejections.
The spark didn’t arrive from the scrap and the Cavs padded the lead in the fourth before the Raptors threw in the towel.
Rookie Collin Sexton had 28 for the Cavs, who shot 44% from beyond the arc and 20-for-21 from the free throw line. Kawhi Leonard had 25 for Toronto, Pascal Siakam added 15.
“They have nothing to lose, that’s when a team is dangerous,” Green told the Sun.
“You knew we were going to have some highs and I guess came in too confidently. But you have to respect that team. You know what they’re capable of.
We thought they’d give us an opportunity to get back into it, but they didn’t. We can’t turn the ball over that much.”
The Raptors had 20 turnovers, struggled from beyond the arc (28%) and even more from the free throw line (59%).
Cleveland came in with the NBA’s third-worst record, but had won 5-of-10 and gave Toronto a fight.
The Cavs frustrated the Raptors all night and pulled away for a 126-101 victory, snapping a two-game losing streak.
The Raptors won the season series 3-1, but failed in their attempt to sweep the Cavs (17-50) for the first time since 2000-01. The Raptors have not won a four-game series against the Cavs since 2011-12. The Raptors (48-20) trail the Milwaukee Bucks (50-17) by 2½ games in the East.
The game was marred by the fight, which came with one second remaining in the third quarter and the Cavs leading 91-77.
Norman Powell threw a length-of-the-court inbounds pass to Ibaka, who fell in front of the basket when contested by Chriss as the ball sailed out of bounds. Chriss threw up his hands, perhaps trying to show there had been no shove, then said something to Ibaka as he walked by him on the floor.
Ibaka jumped up and grabbed Chriss around the neck before throwing punches, pinning Chriss against the stanchion. After review, both players were escorted out, Chriss clapping as he headed to the locker room. After the game, officials told Cavs coach Larry Drew that Chriss also threw punches.
Instead of using the incident as inspiration, the Raptors fell even further behind as the Cavs boosted the margin to 98-81 with 9:22 remaining on a jumper by Jordan Clarkson.
Yes, the Raptors came in on the second night of a back-to-back whereas the Cavs had been off since Saturday. That absolutely impacted their quality of play.
But consider this: The Cavs were down Matthew Dellavedova, Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson and John Henson. Those are real NBA players who are good. The team struggled to get Love any open looks. At one point, Larry Drew played a lineup of Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Nik Stauskas, David Nwaba and Marquese Chriss for several minutes in a row on purpose. The Raptors had Kawhi freaking Leonard. It would not have been shocking if the Cavs had gotten creamed.
But they didn’t. The team fought for loose balls and nabbed offensive rebounds. It stayed resilient when the Raptors looked like they might be taking control of the game. Sexton was awesome. Ante Zizic outplayed Marc Gasol on both ends. Marquese Chriss really irked Serge Ibaka. Just about everyone on the team did something positive at some point too — how many times can that be said of this season?
This success will be fleeting. Toronto is headed to the playoffs. Cleveland is not. But for this game, it did not matter — the Cavs were a real life, well-functioning NBA team.
Elsewhere on the roster, though, the Raptors were looking for help. Marc Gasol started but scored just two points, as the team spent next to no time looking for him in offensive sets. Instead, it was the same old stuff the Raptors fall into when they’re struggling — Norm Powell driving into traffic, strong side isolations without a pick set, some uninspired cutting late in the clock. Apart from Kyle Lowry’s 14, nobody else for the Raptors scored in double digits. That says a lot.
Cleveland was up from the get-go. Jumping out to a 10-4 lead, the Raptors responded with a pair of triples from Lowry and Leonard, forcing the first timeout of the game. Cleveland answered with an 8-0 run of their own, as they built a lead they wouldn’t give up for the rest of the game.
A nice energy stretch from OG Anunoby kept the Raptors within striking distance, as a steal and a block led to a couple runout opportunities. Toronto wasn’t able to get an extended run going, though, as the Cavaliers went up 31-26 early in the second.
Late in the first half, both Danny Green and Serge Ibaka went down uncomfortably on the same play, with Green clutching at his ankle for a moment before walking it off. Green would play just 20 minutes in this one and may be someone to monitor over the next few days. Later in the game, Kyle Lowry would similarly go down with a twisted ankle — showing that the cost of a bad game might go a bit further than just tonight.
In the end, it was a bit formulaic. The Raptors did one or two good things, but never sustained. The Cavaliers would hit a big three to keep them at bay. In the fourth, they broke it open, giving the game its final score.
Where was the defence? The Cavs entered the night ranked 29th in shooting percentage (.441) and scoring (103.7 points per game). With standout defender Leonard returning to the lineup, the Raptors figured to keep the home team’s scoring down. Didn’t happen. Cleveland put up 59 first-half points on 20 of 53 shooting. They also converted 14 of 15 first-half free throws, while the Raptors made just four of eight shots from the foul line.
The rapid-fire catch-and-shoot three has become a fundamental tool for NBA offenses these days as teams look to maximize both scoring opportunities and possessions. Lowry, like many others, has adapted accordingly.
But whereas it was easier for defenses to zero in on Lowry in the past, with more weapons on the floor for Toronto this season, it’s become riskier for teams to keep a defender locked on the point guard, instead needing that extra body to switch off in help situations.
The result? Over 50 per cent of Lowry’s three point shots this season are classified, according to NBA.com, as “open” (a defender within 4-6 feet) or “wide open” (defenders six or more feet away).
And lately, Lowry has been making them pay. He started the season on fire from three-point land, but cooled down in a major way by December. Good timing to revert back to early-season form considering the playoffs are roughly one month away and a hot-shooting Lowry is absolutely capable of swinging a series or, at the very least, seriously disrupting an opponents’ game plan.
On Sunday against the Heat, the left corner three was his most effective weapon.
After disappointing from beyond the arc for much of the year — remember, on paper this was a team that projected to be lethal from deep heading into the season — the Raptors have not-so-quietly turned it around as of late.
On the season, Lowry is shooting just 34.4 per cent from deep — his lowest mark in a decade. However, the turnaround is under way, and over his last 10 games he’s shooting 41.4 per cent on his three-pointers. There’s more to suggest how important a locked-in Lowry is to Toronto’s success.
The Surprise: Pascal Siakam
Past winners: Boris Diaw, Zach Randolph
Decades from now, when you look up Most Improved Player in an encyclopedia, you may find a photograph of Pascal Siakam: In three seasons, he’s gone from a long-shot late-first-round pick to a high-energy reserve to an essential element in the starting lineup of an NBA Finals contender. The Raptors needed one of their draft picks to blossom to maximize their potentially brief window with Kawhi Leonard; now Siakam is so good that he could keep it propped open even if Leonard were to leave.
In his two seasons at New Mexico State, Siakam looked like an undersized big man who’d find NBA success by hustling his ass off in transition. Siakam’s rim runs have become folklore at this point of the season, channeling Tom Cruise in their elegance. It’s been his best skill since college, in addition to crashing the boards, diving for loose balls, and cleaning up around the rim. Siakam still does all the dirty work, but now he’s also an orchestrator of his own offense.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has empowered Siakam to take the ball coast to coast—something he did for only five possessions in 68 games in college. Siakam has also made significant strides in the half court, evolving into a player who can get buckets by himself instead of relying on others to create for him. Siakam is now a threat attacking closeouts, or even scoring in isolations and post-ups. This season, 56.7 percent of Siakam’s made shots have been assisted, compared to 72.3 percent last season. Against the Wizards, a game that Leonard sat out for “load management,” Siakam exploded for a career-high 44 points, scoring from all over the court, to lead Toronto to a win.
The system and personnel help, of course. Leonard is usually guarded by the opponent’s best forward defender. But the Raptors will use on-ball screens to get Siakam a preferred matchup, which is a credit to just how much of a stud he’s become. Siakam’s favorite way to get a bucket is still at the rim, where he finishes at a 69.4 percent clip. He’s also flashed upside pulling up from the perimeter, hitting a few surprising pull-ups and stepbacks, though it’s not currently a strength. For now, Siakam’s shot is best in spot-up situations. Siakam has hit 37.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, up from 21.9 percent last season. It’s critical that Siakam sustains this success into the playoffs, since Toronto is surprisingly lacking in shooters. In any case, he’s come a long way: Siakam couldn’t shoot from anywhere outside of the restricted area at New Mexico State.
Siakam’s numbers have nearly doubled across the board from 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game last season to 16.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists this season. And yet, despite receiving 5.4 more shots per game, Siakam’s scoring efficiency has risen and his defensive effort hasn’t waned. He’s quickly become exactly what any team would want in a role player: He excels within his role and can explode like he’s a star, which inspires hope for even greater rewards in his future.
On the most basic level, Siakam—a slasher by trade—will be forced to prove his shooting percentages. This is a premise that has followed Siakam and the Raptors throughout the season. Scouts and coaches around the league have kept tabs on Siakam’s spot-up shooting from afar this year, both out of professional diligence and genuine curiosity. They’ve found one of the biggest year-over-year improvements in the league: a 22% shooter from beyond the arc a season ago now converting at a remarkable 37%. If that number is a fair representation of Siakam’s actual shooting ability, every action Toronto runs will become that much more difficult to contain. Relaxing coverage of Siakam is one of the most viable avenues opponents have for loading against other stars and actions. Without it, the coverage could be stretched thin enough for Kawhi Leonard to puncture it at the point of his choosing.
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
For now, this remains a profound if. Tempting as it is to credit Siakam for his accuracy in general, it would be wise to remember him as the sort of shooter capable of fading to 29% for an entire month, as he did in December. Siakam’s improvement may not have the linearity it seems; three-point shooting is subject to higher variance in general, particularly for those so new to actually making shots. It would be unreasonable to expect Siakam, savvy as he may be, to hold that kind of percentage so soon. His February and March have seemed unseasonably warm for a reason.
The good news for Toronto is that the difference may not matter. Even the fact that Siakam can peak with this kind of run has the potential to change a series. Competition in the upper reaches of the East is so intense—and separated by factors so granular—that even a nice stretch could prove meaningful. A make or two at the right time has the power to shake things loose. Surrendering open looks to borderline shooters is rarely as simple as it seems. No player or coach wants to be made a fool of at the most visible point in their season, regardless of the mathematical tradeoffs. In the right circumstances, letting Siakam shoot could be both the strategically correct move for Raptors opponents and realistically untenable.
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There is no hard and fast calculus in cases as psychological as these. One could weigh the expected value of a Siakam three-point attempt against other alternatives, but team dynamics can often swing in unexpected ways. Softer coverage against Siakam might lull some other defender out of focus. Siakam could respond not by taking more jumpers, but by setting more screens—putting the defense in a bind on every occasion. On the other side, there’s just no way to fully account for the invisible toll of a player like Siakam missing four straight shots. Guilt can change the way even a professional shooter regards an open look, much less a part-timer without much experience in shooting their way out of a slump. Good theory can sometimes lose out to practical consequence.
Best Case: Kawhi Leonard re-signs this summer. Sure, let’s talk about whether or not this team exorcises its playoff demons and finally makes the NBA Finals. Sure, let’s talk about Kawhi proving to be the leader he’s claimed he is while the Spurs wonder where things went wrong. Let’s talk about the Raptors taking the step they’ve been waiting to take for roughly 2.5 decades. But nothing matters here if Kawhi leaves this summer. That’s all that matters with this season. Can Masai Ujiri convince Leonard that the next four years of his NBA career should happen in Toronto? That’s everything that matters with the Raptors this season and this offseason. That is the best case scenario.
Worst Case: Back to square one this summer. If Kawhi doesn’t re-sign this summer, the Raptors are in trouble in terms of mattering any time soon. Kawhi leaving means Marc Gasol leaves. It also probably means Danny Green is heading out of town. They’ll have $56 million tied up in Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka next season as expiring deals. Toronto could have close to $100 million in cap space in the summer of 2021 depending on cap holds and what they do this offseason in the event of the Raptors losing Leonard, Gasol, and Green. Now, they’ll have Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby still on rookie deals. But they won’t have much more than that. They’ll also be coming from a prior summer in which they couldn’t convince major free agents to re-sign for more money than anybody else can offer. So how do they attract top free agents in 2021 that brings them back to the forefront of contention?
This is no laughing matter, Kawhi.
Pascal Siakam has all but locked up the Most Improved Player Award. He has more than doubled his scoring output per game (7.3 to 16.4), while upping his true shooting percentage from 54.9 to 64.6. Yet more than statistically, Siakam has given the Raptors a scorer, playmaker and defender they can rely on unreservedly to make big decisions in big spots. — Arnovitz
Take advantage of the schedule.
The Raptors play teams below .500 in 11 of their final 15 games. The Bucks left the door open this week with a couple bad losses, meaning the top seed is still up for grabs if Toronto can close out the season hot. Worst case scenario, at least this is a chance to get players more acclimated with each other before the postseason.
It’s been a relatively rough season for the Raptors’ bench, and their loss to Houston on Tuesday may have been the nadir in that regard. Their starting lineup was a plus-17 in its 29 minutes, but the Raptors were outscored by an incredible 29 points in 19 minutes with at least one reserve on the floor against the Rockets. Coach Nick Nurse continues to try both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup and the Raptors have been good as long as they have multiple starters on the floor. They have three of the league’s top seven three-man combinations (in regard to on-court NetRtg) among the 258 that have played at least 100 minutes since the break. The Pistons have two of the top seven, and the Raptors will get another chance to beat their former coach when they visit Detroit on Sunday.
Masai Ujiri changed the Raptors’ definition of success in the offseason when he went for it and traded for Kawhi Leonard. Now everything rides on this season. In an East that looks incredibly stacked at the top, for the Raptors to consider this season a success, they have to either make the Finals or play in a hotly contested, six- or seven-game Eastern Conference finals. Basically, give Kawhi as much incentive as you can to return to Toronto. If the Raptors accomplish that and he still leaves, they will have done absolutely everything they could.
It may have been Lowry’s 10th assist of the night, but this wasn’t stat hunting. Had it been any other player streaking down the wing, Lowry would’ve taken the two himself. But he knew it was Lin, he knows he needs Lin for the playoffs and he wanted him to finish that play and see the ball go through the bucket.
Later in the same game, Lin pulled down a rebound with Lowry nearby. Instead of hollering at Lin for the rock as most point guards would’ve done, Lowry sprinted the other way and Lin came down the court with confidence. Julius Randle played off Lin just a tad and got a triple in his grill as a result. The way Lin stepped into that three was like if he had always had a neon green light to shoot transition threes. While Lowry doesn’t get the assist, or any mention in the boxscore, him simply staying out of the way on that play was enough for Lin to know it’s ok to take and make that shot.
On Sunday against the Heat, Lowry again showed his resolve to get Lin going. Midway through the fourth, Lowry caught a swing pass from Marc Gasol and couldn’t have been more open on the shoulder three. Instead of taking it, he sucked the defence in and found Lin in the corner for a three right in front of the Heat bench. Again it was Lowry’s 10th assist of the night, but once again he wasn’t hunting it and probably wouldn’t have passed up the look if it wasn’t Jeremy Lin standing there ready to shoot.
Kyle Lowry took a lot of flak midway through the season for his play and rightfully so. But as of late he’s playing great basketball, and once again making his teammates feel comfortable on the floor in a new situation.
The Raptors don’t need Jeremy Lin to bring back Linsanity. But with Kyle Lowry’s help, he’s starting to find his groove which couldn’t come at a better time for the Finals-minded Raptors.
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