Raptors have ‘no choice’ but to fix defensive issues

LeBron James had 27 points and 10 rebounds to help the lift the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 112-106 victory against the Toronto Raptors Tuesday.

CLEVELAND — The Toronto Raptors did not need to win this game. They don’t need to do anything, other than show up in shorts and shoes. But in the context of a four-losses-in-seven-games skid, and a tenuous grasp on first place ever so slowly slipping away, and a three-game stretch against their most threatening Eastern Conference competition — yeah, a win would have been great.

“Would have” are the important words in that sentence. The Raptors did not get the win, falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 112-106, to drop a second consecutive game and the fifth in their last eight. Toronto now stares down the barrel of a tremendously important Wednesday night clash with the Boston Celtics, who are drafting right behind the Raptors in the Eastern Conference race. Toronto doesn’t need to win that one, either. But, geez, it sure feels like they do.

“We’ve got a week left — we’ve got to get better,” said Kyle Lowry, who finished with only five points on 2-of-11 shooting. “We haven’t played good defence in probably a month. We were so good offensively, our defence kind of took a little bit of a backseat. We’ve got to find a way to get our defence and offence on the same page. But we need our defence to be better than the offence.”

But Kyle, with only five games remaining in the regular season, are you confident you can get that done?

“We’ve got no choice.”

On the list of things that went wrong for the Raptors in this one, you can put a game-high +27 performance from Jose Calderon at the top, closely followed by Cleveland shooting 49 per cent, including 43 per cent from beyond the arc.

The Raptors have proven twice in the last two weeks that they can play offensively with Cleveland, as the Raptors shot 45 per cent themselves Tuesday, and should have scored more if not for a handful of missed open threes. As anyone who’s watched this team over the last several weeks knows, it’s the defence that’s been an issue.

“We haven’t found ourselves defensively. On a lot of assignments, we’re having some breakdowns,” said head coach Dwane Casey. “We’ve got to get back. There are five games to go.

“We’ve played stretches of defence. But we’ve got to extend those periods. As we go into the playoffs in the next couple weeks, we’ve got to get as many of the 48 minutes, as far as defence is concerned.”

There was no better example of those defensive lapses than the play of Calderon, the 36-year-old earning the veteran’s minimum who scored 11 through the game’s first seven minutes, hitting each of his five first-quarter shots. He finished with a season-high 19 points, much of his success coming against Lowry, who wasn’t shy to admit after the game he needed to be better.

“I played terrible,” Lowry said. “Just a bad game overall for me. I’ll take the L on me.”


Toronto generated plenty of terrific looks on the offensive end in the first, but struggled to convert, bricking six of nine attempts from beyond the arc. Serge Ibaka hit a pair, and Fred VanVleet drilled one late, while Lowry missed a couple wide open looks he normally drains. Toronto’s scoring primarily came down low, as Jonas Valanciunas went 4-of-5, capitalizing on a number of good feeds from DeMar DeRozan, who had five assists in the game’s first six minutes.

That got the Raptors into the second with a four-point deficit, which Toronto’s second unit quickly erased, exposing a lineup of Cavs reserves that allowed Pascal Siakam to back-cut for an alley-oop before driving right down the heart of Cleveland’s defence (with help from a Jakob Poeltl pick) for a loud finish.

But the Cavaliers scored the next eight points, after which James checked back in and immediately created a turnover as Cleveland stretched its run to 10-0, and eventually 19-4. Some late life from DeRozan, and some much-needed Cavaliers misses, let Toronto get to halftime down only eight, which qualified as a minor miracle considering how discombobulated the Raptors looked in the quarter.

Lowry — who, after an unignorably mediocre first-half performance, was flirting with an uncomfortable narrative considering his Monday night trip to San Antonio to watch Villanova triumph in the NCAA Tournament — put a brief charge in his team early in the third. He did the things that end up on the stat sheet, like hitting a jumper before setting up Valanciunas for a dunk, and the things that don’t, like bulldozing a pair of Cavaliers to free up a lane for an Ibaka and-one.

But that was the only point in this game that Lowry looked like himself. And in the meantime, Cleveland refused to stop hitting shots, particularly threes, which they were converting at a 52 per cent clip (12-of-23) with five minutes to play in the third. Valanciunas sustained his success down low and DeRozan did what he could with a pair of late buckets, but the Raptors could only keep pace in the third, entering the fourth stuck eight.

The final quarter was a struggle for both teams, which is only one half of the equation the Raptors required to come back. Toronto’s starters combined for only four points in the quarter, and the final score would have looked much worse if not for some mind-boggling garbage time errors by Cleveland. In the end, Toronto didn’t do nearly enough on either side of the ball — and they know it.

“We got a lot of great looks tonight and missed. We became stagnant here and there. We’re letting other teams dictate how we play defence by us missing shots. We can’t let that happen,” DeRozan said. “That’s something we’re able to see when we watch film and we feel it out there on the court. We understand what is going wrong and how we need to fix it.

“I think it’s just one of those stretches where things aren’t going our way offensively and it’s kind of affecting us defensively because we’re giving other teams opportunities to get out and get their rhythm going.”

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Now, Boston — who sit two games back of the Raptors after falling to the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday night. It’s a game in which Lowry needs to be better; the Raptors bench and overall defence, too. Wednesday’s clash between the top two teams in the East was always going to be pivotal and telling. Now, it might as well be a referendum.

“It’s a challenge we are all looking forward to. We know what’s at stake when it comes to first — and, secondly, just to be able to bounce back and play and get this feeling off of us,” DeRozan said. “That’s the beauty of a challenge. It’s one of them challenges we all have to step up to and want to accept. I think that’s where we’re at.

“We’re not going to shy away from it. I have the utmost faith and confidence that it’s going to be okay. With that adversity, you find more appreciation when you push through it.”

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