CLEVELAND — For the Toronto Raptors to extend their season they must do something that has never before happened in the NBA — overcome a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series. But to even have an opportunity at making that history, they must first win Monday night.
A win in Game 4 against the Cleveland Cavaliers won’t be historic. It won’t change narratives. It will merely allow the Raptors to continue playing. But it would certainly be a start.
“We know where we’re at, where we’re standing,” said C.J. Miles before his Raptors went through what could potentially be their final shootaround of the season Monday morning. “There’s still a lot of fight, though. Guys understand what it takes. They understand, looking at the games, watching the film of Games 1 and 3 especially, there’s ways. There’s a way. There’s time, as long as we’ve got another game. It’s just about stepping out on that floor and continuing to fight, and wanting to fight.”
Here are three questions for the Raptors going into Game 4.
Will the starting lineup look the same?
Likely, yes. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey juggled his rotation in Game 3, giving Fred VanVleet his first-ever NBA start in place of the struggling Serge Ibaka, who came off the bench for the first time since 2011, a span of more than 700 starts across the regular season and playoffs.
The process made sense. VanVleet would give the Raptors another shooter and ball-handler to help spark the offence in the early going, and would bring some much-needed defensive energy as he was tasked with pressuring Cavaliers guard George Hill with a full-court press while Kyle Lowry guarded Kyle Korver.
The results, however, were discouraging. VanVleet took an offensive foul on Toronto’s very first possession. The Raptors started 2-of-9 from the field as the lineup struggled to find a rhythm offensively and looked a lot like one that had played only a dozen minutes together this season. Halfway through the quarter, Toronto was trailing by 10 and Casey was going to his bench, bringing in Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Ibaka for OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas, and VanVleet.
Still, it sounds like Casey liked the way the group played and is leaning towards giving it another chance Monday.
“We had a rough start. But I liked the aggressiveness that Fred brought to the table,” Casey said. “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.”
Of course, if the unit starts again, and struggles to keep up with the Cavaliers, it won’t be surprising to see Casey go quickly to his bench again. He’ll tweak and juggle and search for productive combinations early and often Monday night. There’s no tomorrow if he doesn’t find one.
And, if Ibaka is going to come off the bench and play the way he did in Game 3, you certainly don’t want to change that. Ibaka had his best game in weeks Saturday, putting in a solid 28-minute shift characterized by strong defence.
He blocked four shots, he was one of only four Raptors to finish on the right side of plus/minus, and he helped hold Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson to a combined 21 points after they put up 33 in Game 2.
“I loved his intensity,” Casey said. “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. I thought he played with a pure heart from that standpoint.”
Can the Raptors play with physicality for 48 minutes?
Perhaps the biggest improvement the Raptors made from Game 2 to 3 was the sheer intensity and aggressiveness they played with.
Toronto started the game with a focus on defensive physicality, trying to wrestle and fight its way to a win. But the approach was particularly effective in the fourth quarter, as the stout defence was finally matched by an offensive outburst, which helped Toronto overcome a 14-point deficit.
“I saw a lot of toughness, I saw a lot of grit,” Casey said. “We have to have larger periods of time of that. From everybody. That’s what I saw in the fourth quarter.”
There was VanVleet’s full-court press on Hill, Ibaka’s presence down low, and some particularly abrasive guarding from Anunoby and Siakam on LeBron James, who still played to his singular abilities, but at least had to work much harder to do it.
And yet, the Raptors still lost. And in particularly demoralizing fashion. The question now is whether Toronto can carry that approach over into Game 4. It’s an awfully tiring way to play. And the fact the Raptors still came up short can be dispiriting.
“The hardest thing is to expend that much energy and not win that game and turn around and have to come do it again,” VanVleet said. “We have to take all of the things we did, especially in that fourth quarter, and do it from tip-off tonight. We have to take some of those things we were successful with and try to apply them for the full 48.”
Can the Raptors finally stop turning the ball over?
Throughout the playoffs, Casey has frequently described his team’s turnover propensity as uncharacteristic. And he has a point — Toronto had the fourth-best turnover rate during the regular season.
But, after coughing the ball up 17 times Saturday, the Raptors have now put up 13 turnovers or more in six of their nine post-season games. At some point, it becomes more than just an aberration.
The differential in the first three games of this series alone is startling — Cleveland’s turned the ball over only 18 times, while Toronto’s at 41. Part of that is due to the fact Cleveland’s been running plenty of isolation for James, while the Raptors are trying to employ a more collaborative, ball-moving offence. But no matter what style of offence you play, 41 is far too many for three games.
Plus, turnovers can be especially impactful in a series like this that is being played at a much slower pace than a regular-season game. Toronto had only 92 possessions in Game 3, and nearly 20 per cent of them ended in a turnover. The Raptors simply have to be more responsible with their possessions if they’re going to do anything in this series.
“You’re giving them extra bullets in a very low possession game,” Casey said. “So, it’s on us to bring that level of intensity, sense of urgency, attention to detail, from every possession.
“That’s what winning a championship is about.”