Morning Coffee – Mon, Feb 27

Raptors 5 game win streak ends in a whimper; Cavs demonstrate how far away this team is

Raptors get reality check vs. Cavaliers as playoff push continues – Sportsnet

The win improved Cleveland to 39-25 a kept them firmly in grasp of a home seed when the playoffs start while the Raptors fell to 30-32 as their season-best four-game winning streak was halted at four games.

“We have been doing a much better job of everything defensively and we were just a step slow tonight on everything,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “They got us back on our heels on everything: transition, guarding the ball screen and rolling [to the rim]. It was a a big difference I think just in energy and intensity.”

The Raptors were playing without second-leading scorer Fred VanVleet who missed his third straight game after the birth of his third child, and it showed.

Sure the Raptors had their hand’s full defensively against Cleveland as Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland were able to get to pretty much where they wanted, with Mitchell unloading for 35 points and eight threes on 13-of-21 shooting and Garland finished with 18 points and 11 assists. Helped by Jarrett Allen’s 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting, Cleveland was shooting 53.8 per cent from the floor and 17-of-32 from three before garbage time kicked in with Cleveland leading by 30 midway through the fourth quarter.

“They hit some really tough shots, and their both really quick guards that are able to get in the lane and can kick out and create shots, but they also create their own shots,” said Barnes, who spent a fair bit of time guarding Garland, but ended up doing too much chasing and not catching. “We messed up some coverages early and they made some open shots and that’s how they got going early.”

Before the game, Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said the Raptors defensive physicality was a reason his club had lost three games this season to Toronto. That wasn’t a problem Sunday night. Mitchell seemed exceptionally comfortable, even with Raptors defensive ace Anunoby assigned to the task.

“He’s a great player, he’s very quick,” said Anunoby. “All you can do is keep trying to make it difficult for him.”

Turns out it wasn’t very difficult.

So Toronto’s defence was an issue. But the Raptors’ struggles to score against the NBA’s third-ranked defence was a factor too. A day after Toronto couldn’t crack the century mark against the bottom-feeding Detroit Pistons, that the Raptors couldn’t keep pace with Cleveland offensively is worth noting. They were stuck on 85 points after 42 minutes when the coaches subbed out their respective starters. For the game Toronto shot just 30 per cent from the floor and made just nine threes.

Pascal Siakam led the Raptors with 25 points but needed 24 shots to do it even after going 4-of-7 from deep, but he had no help. Scottie Barnes stalled out at 12 points; Gary Trent Jr. was 2-of-13 and O.G. Anunoby took only seven shots in 34 minutes. Poeltl was fine, with 13 points, nine rebounds and three assists, but he wasn’t acquired to solve Toronto’s shaky half-court offense.

Fixing that will likely determine the Raptors’ fate as they try to pull themselves up from ninth place, an issue no different than before the trade deadline.

“We’re going to need to probably score to get our defence set up,” said Nurse. “But there was just not enough offensive makes. We got it to the rim a bunch, we had some great looks at three, we just didn’t capitalize.”

The Raptors were running into Cleveland at a bad time. Beating a team four straight times is never easy in the first place, but especially since the Cavs were coming off a pair of disappointing losses coming out of the all-star break – a hard-fought one at home to Denver and then a blowout out on the second night of a back-to-back against Atlanta in the Hawks’ first game after their head coach Nate McMillan got fired.

Takeaways from the Cleveland Cavaliers 118-93 win over the Toronto Raptors – Fear The Sword

Tightening the rotation
Something to monitor going forward: The size of the Cavs’ rotation.

Against Toronto, J.B. Bickerstaff kept the rotation to a lean eight players — the size the Cavs are likely to use in the playoffs. It was the five starters — Mitchell, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen — plus Ricky Rubio, Caris LeVert and Dean Wade off of the bench. No one else played before Bickerstaff inserted Danny Green with 5:46 to go in the fourth quarter. At 4:42, Raul Neto, Robin Lopez and Lamar Stevens came in to play with Green and Dean Wade. That was the signal that the game was officially over.

This might not be an every night thing. Bickerstaff sometimes likes to throw fresh bodies out on the floor when the Cavs don’t have it on a given night. There’s still one back-to-back to play this season too and that might mean Rubio isn’t available for one of those games.

But this feels like the clearest look at how the Cavs’ top-eight will be when the playoffs start. Maybe Cedi Osman — who didn’t play on Sunday — gets minutes again. Maybe Danny Green finds his way in here or Lamar Stevens sees some spot minutes. Maybe foul trouble to one of Jarrett Allen or Evan Mobley leads to some spot Robin Lopez minutes. But an eight-man rotation is a sign that things are getting serious.

Containing Toronto off of rebounds
The Cavs were significantly better on defense against the Raptors than they had over their last three games. Toronto finished shooting 38.7% from the fielding, including 50% at the rim and 39.7% on two-point attempts.

The biggest improvement for Cleveland may have been its defense off of live rebounds. Per Cleaning The Glass, Toronto had an offensive rating of 92.3 off of live rebounds. For the year, league average is 120.8 with the Raptors 2.5 points better than that.

The Cavs, though, contained that. Against both the Nuggets and Hawks, the Cavs were lit up in those spots. Being better on Sunday changed the game.


Donovan Mitchell responds to J.B. Bickerstaff’s challenge, helps Cavs end three-game losing streak against Raptors, 118-93 –

“The approach was outstanding,” Bickerstaff said. “Knowing your opponent, understanding how physical the game was going to be and exceeding that, doing it together, all things that our guys have done the majority of the year on full display tonight.”

After getting behind early, with the Raptors racing out to a spirited 7-2 edge in the first few minutes, the Cavs quickly responded with a 10-0 run to pull in front. They never trailed again.

Even though the Raptors opened the second half with the same zest, forcing Bickerstaff to call timeout just 44 seconds into the third quarter, the Cavs answered the push and eventually built their lead to a game-high 30 points. Forty-five minutes of dominance.

Bickerstaff was able to empty his bench around the midway point of the fourth quarter and then sit in his rarely used chair on the sideline until the buzzer sounded.

“We didn’t allow their physicality to rattle us,” Bickerstaff said. “We turned that into a strength and started playing downhill and playing at speed. We had conversations like we always do about the importance of what’s in front of us. This was a big game for us just to get ourselves back on track and get our feet under us.”

In the hours leading up to Sunday’s game, Bickerstaff had a separate heart-to-heart with Mitchell, the Cavs’ marquee player and leader. It was brief. It was straightforward. It was about setting the tone.

“I got you,” Mitchell said.

He backed up those words. Mitchell poured in a game-high 35 points on 13 of 21 from the field and 8 of 12 from 3-point range in three quarters of work.

With the game out of hand, Mitchell didn’t even play in the fourth quarter. He is now second on the franchise’s single-season 3-point list, trailing just former marksman JR Smith — a record Mitchell should have no problem breaking if he stays healthy and continues on this pace.

Cleveland Cavaliers’ backcourt buries Toronto Raptors, Raptors lose 118-93 – Raptors HQ

Anunoby still doesn’t quite look himself since returning from his wrist injury, which showed up big time on both ends of the court. Mitchell managed to both blow by Anunoby and create space against him for jumpers. On one possession in the first half, Jarrett Allen set a screen for Mitchell. Anunoby fought over the screen — but Mitchell lost him by going the opposite direction and knocked down the wide open three. On another possession, Anunoby bit on an Isaac Okoro pump-fake from three-point range (Boucher made the same mistake against Evan Mobley), leading to easy points. Of course, the Raptors’ defensive issues tonight ran deeper than just Anunoby, as most of the team played below what they’re capable of. Anunoby did have a nice possession early on where he pressured Mitchell and funnelled his drive into Poeltl’s help defense, with Poeltl closing in for the block.

But Mitchell was far and away the best player on the court, and he picked apart the Raptors’ defense to consistently score at all three levels. Without VanVleet, Pascal Siakam was the Raptors’ only reliable source of creation. He scored 10 of the team’s first 12 points, and finished with 25 points, eight boards, five assists, and four three-pointers. On top of his usual diet of paint scoring and some tough mid-range shots, Siakam also comfortably knocked down catch-and-shoot threes. But the team just didn’t do enough to support him: only Jakob Poeltl and Scottie Barnes reached double-digit points, with Anunoby and Trent scoring seven apiece. Barnes was quiet for stretches, though he came on at the end of the first half with some nice assertive takes, including a post-up on Evan Mobley.

Despite the Raptors’ rough offense, it looked like a real ball game when Siakam hit a step-back three to make it 68-64 during the third quarter. But Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell turned on the jets, gashing the Raptors’ defense and creating lobs, floaters, catch-and-shoot opportunities, and a flurry of Mitchell threes. The deathblow came when Mitchell, feeling himself, launched a quick three that banked in and put the Cavs up 20. That was that. The Raptors were unable to contain Garland and Mitchell, but they also lacked the firepower to make the game a shootout.

The team’s offense has looked a bit lost these past couple games without VanVleet (we are all craving more of the Fred-Yak pick and roll combo). With Trent ice cold (2/13 shooting) and Anunoby fading into the background (seven FG attempts), anything less than stellar play from Siakam and Barnes just wasn’t going to cut it. Nick Nurse threw Joe Wieskamp onto the court to get some shooting, but Wieskamp missed his attempts, and the team’s dearth of shooting was not solved. (A fun side note: more good Jeff Dowtin minutes!)

The Cavs took a commanding 30-point lead just a few minutes into the fourth quarter, prompting Nurse to sub Malachi Flynn and Thad Young into the game — before inexplicably putting the starters-minus-Trent back in for another five minutes. I guess the players need to meet their (minutes) averages?

On the heels of the team’s first four-game winning streak of the season, and with the fanbase still basking in the post-Poeltl trade vibes, this was a disappointing result. The Raptors looked helpless at times trying to set up their offense, and were short on outside shooting threats to open up the floor. The positive takeaway? Fred VanVleet will help with that when he returns.

Raptors playoff drive hits dead end in Cleveland | The Star

To say nothing went right for the Raptors would be an understatement. They couldn’t get open shots against one of the best defensive teams in the league, were unable to guard shooters in the open court, and it was just one of those nights that pop up every now and then.

Pascal Siakam had 25 points for Toronto, and Scottie Barnes added 12.

The Raptors now face one of the most significant three-game stretches of the season with a home game against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday and back-to-back road dates with the Wizards in Washington on Thursday and Saturday.

The Bulls and Wizards are right behind ninth-place Toronto in the Eastern Conference play-in race. If the Raptors harbour any hopes of putting some distance between the teams and moving up the standings, they almost have to sweep the three games.

They should have veteran guard Fred VanVleet back, which will calm down an offence that committed 13 turnovers in Cleveland, eight in the first half. VanVleet missed the last three games as he became a father for the third time, but is expected back in uniform for the Chicago game.

The absence of VanVleet was glaring and costly Sunday, not necessarily because of what Jeff Dowtin Jr. did as a replacement. But Dowtin does not have near the command of the offence that VanVleet does, particularly when it comes to getting others involved.

O.G. Anunoby was a non-factor offensively — seven points on 3-for-7 shooting — and Gary Trent Jr. struggled with just seven points (2-for-13). VanVleet probably could have got them into more comfortable offensive positions.

This week’s games will be a test, but after the disappointment of the first 50 games of the regular season, the fact that the Raptors have a chance to determine their own fate has to be at least a little comforting.

“I’d like to see our defence get up to the level where it feels sometimes like you’re just not going get a good look, and we’re going to take the ball from you a lot, and we’re going to limit you to one shot,” coach Nick Nurse said last week. “Teams know that it’s coming at you with some serious intensity.

“Big picture, my goal is to get us to max that out, play really good, become a great defensive team like we were a year ago in this stretch of the season, and continue to shape and polish our offence. If we do that, the big picture takes care of itself.”

Nothing took care of itself in Cleveland after the Raptors cut a 12-point halftime deficit to four early in the third quarter. The Cavs immediately went on an 8-0 run to take control and were never threatened. Both teams cleared the benches with about five minutes remaining to end the night.

Raptors Get Exposed in Tough Test Against Cavaliers – Sports Illustrated

Save for a very brief run to start the second half, it was never particularly close too. The Cavaliers were quicker, bigger, more level-headed, and exerted their talent advantage on a Raptors team that looked a tier or two below the league’s true title contenders.

Toronto had no answers for Cleveland’s backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. O.G. Anunoby struggled on the Mitchell assignment as the Cavaliers superstar nailed tough pull-up threes one after another. At one point in the first half, Mitchell even split Toronto’s double-team out of the pick-and-roll, driving through the two defenders and throwing down a one-handed slam.

Unlike earlier in the week against Jonas Valanciunas and the Pelicans, the Raptors struggled with Cleveland’s size. Poeltl got Mitchell for a block in the first half playing drop coverage against the pick-and-roll and broke up a lob at the rim early in the third quarter as Toronto pulled within four, but Cleveland didn’t have much trouble getting to the rim otherwise. Jarrett Allen dominated the restricted area with 23 points on 10-for-13 from the field.

Pascal Siakam was once again the only Raptors player to find any sort of rhythm Sunday. He nailed a pair of threes early in the first quarter, added two more in the third quarter, and tried his best to keep Toronto close with 25 points.

But nobody reliably stepped up to help Siakam. Anunoby hasn’t looked right since coming back from his left wrist injury, Gary Trent Jr. had a rough shooting night, and Scottie Barnes was a little too up-and-down.

Mitchell, meanwhile, never let up, dropping 35 points including eight buckets from three-point, sticking Cleveland to a 20-point second-half lead from which the Cavaliers never looked back.

The loss won’t change much for the Raptors standings wise as they’ll remain in the ninth seed thanks to a Washington Wizards loss Sunday afternoon. They’ve fallen a game and a half back of the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed and five games back of the New York Knicks for the sixth seed.

More importantly, it gave the Raptors their first semi-realistic look at what the playoffs may be like. No, they won’t have to play on the second night of a back-to-back in the post-season but they will face teams as good as Cleveland and Sunday showed they might not be ready for that quite yet.

Raptors get an eye-opening drubbing courtesy of Cavaliers | Toronto Sun

The Cavs are one of the four best teams in the Eastern Conference and despite a three-game losing skid coming into Sunday night’s game with the Raptors (and maybe because of it) and the fact the Raptors had won all three previous contests this season between the two teams, the Cavs dominated them for all but a handful of minutes.

It was the first loss for the Raptors in the last five and just the second in the last nine.

The Raptors did not cave in this one, keeping it a game until late in the third, but they were up against a three-headed monster they just could not contain.

With the Cavs, it starts with Darius Garland, whose combination of speed, court vision and three-point shooting make him a lethal weapon on the break, in the half court or just about any scenario that can arise in a game. He demands multiple defenders and then makes the opposition pay for devoting extra bodies to him.

Garland had it going early from three-point land and then switched gears to become the primary facilitator for all his teammates.

Then there’s big man Jarrett Allen, who runs the floor as consistently as any big in the league and always seems to be a lob threat on any break the Cavs happen to get on. He’s also a deterrent at the rim and a guy who cleans up misses at his own end and gets his team extra possessions at the other with his work on the boards.

Not a debate |

What tells the story of Siakam’s mentality and general approach that defines his success is actually what happened when he learned he hadn’t made the initial list of Eastern Conference reserves, who get voted in by the coaches.

“I’m not playing for those types of things,” Siakam. “Obviously, it’d be great but that’s not my motivation. Being able to be in a position where it’s not a debate, I always think of it that way. If for whatever reason something doesn’t happen my way, it’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, I could have done this,’ or point the finger at everybody else but it is what it is.

“I’ve just gotta look myself in the mirror and do everything I can to be in a position where it’s not a debate, that’s how I take it.”

For the record, there shouldn’t have been one. Siakam’s all-round numbers to go along with a solid defensive campaign have come while leading the league in minutes per game in an effort to keep the Raptors’ season from completely falling off the rails. Currently ninth in the East and a half-game out of eighth with a shiny new toy in centre Jakob Poeltl in the mix, Siakam’s positive impact should be easier to appreciate down the stretch.

Sticking with his words, though, let’s look at the next step for Siakam that can put himself in a position where there’s nothing to debate, where there’s nothing left to Adam Silver having to make a last-minute decision despite his robust numbers. After all, Siakam’s modus operandi has always been about taking the next step and he’s still got some work to do to be amongst the top shelf elite of the elite, one of his goals entering this season.

Three-point shooting is easily the most glaring opportunity to elevate his status in the league and with the addition of Poeltl, head coach Nick Nurse expressed that he would like to see Siakam, among others, look for more catch-and-shoot opportunities.

“We need Pascal and O.G. and Scottie – probably O.G.,Pascal, Scottie in that order – those guys gotta pull the trigger,” Nurse said before taking on New Orleans. “When the ball’s kicked out to them at the three, they’ve gotta take them. O.G.’s a career 40 percent three-point shooter, we want him shooting every time he can; Pascal’s mid-30s, Scottie on his catch-and-shoots is like 36 (it’s actually 32.3%), that’s not that bad.

“They gotta take ‘em, they gotta increase the volume of ‘em just in the overall feel of keeping some spacing for us.”

NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Kings and Lakers rise as final stretch approaches; Reviewing team predictions – The Athletic

13. Toronto Raptors (previously 18th) | 30-32 | +0.5 net rating

Weekly slate: Win over Pelicans, Win at Pistons, Loss at Cavs

First-quarter grade: C+ | Ranked 13th
Halfway grade: C- | Ranked 22nd
Third-quarter grade: C+

It isn’t exactly dominating the league, but the Raptors have won 10 of their last 16, and they have a couple of really nice wins since acquiring Jakob Poeltl. Is that enough to fix things for them? Having an interior presence was a must, even as they tried to win with a bunch of lanky guys in the 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-10 range. Now they can play different styles based on the matchup with the freedom to throw a wrench into the proceedings at any point. I want to see the Raptors get over .500 in the near future, and challenge for the 7-spot in the East. It’s doable for them.

Prediction update: The Raptors finish with a top-five defense… The Raptors are 15th in defensive rating, and more than 2.0 points per 100 possessions allowed away from getting there. Poeltl might need to become Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston edition, not Toronto) in order for this to come true.

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