TORONTO — It was the moment the Toronto Raptors had been building toward since team president Masai Ujiri uttered the words "culture reset" nearly a year ago.
But missed shot after missed shot Tuesday, the Raptors saw their hopes of striking the first blow in their second-round playoff series against old foe Cleveland disappear.
The Raptors missed 18 shots over the final 10 minutes of regulation before losing 113-112 to the Cavaliers in overtime, and in the moments after the heartbreaker, the Raptors talked about an opportunity they’d let slip away.
"For sure, without a doubt," DeMar DeRozan said. "We had many opportunities to close this game out. We couldn’t buy a bucket, we got some great looks, we had a lot of shots point blank at the rim that were in and out, Freddy (VanVleet) got two great looks, we can name countless things.
"But it should never have come down to pin on none of those. It happens, now we understand what we’ve got to do next game."
Cleveland star LeBron James had 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds to give the Cavaliers a 1-0 series lead going into Thursday’s Game 2 in Toronto. J.R. Smith added 20 points, while Kyle Korver had 19.
Turnovers also proved costly for the Raptors — they coughed up 21 points on 14 giveaways, nine in the first half alone.
The Raptors had been ousted by Cleveland in the past two post-seasons, including the humiliating four-game sweep in last year’s second round that prompted the reset. They went on to win a franchise-record 59 games and clinch No. 1 in the East, earning the all-important homecourt advantage for the post-season.
In a game that saw the Cavaliers never lead in regulation, the Raptors gave up that advantage.
"We’re better," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "We are better than some of the situations we put ourselves in. I can do a better job. I didn’t like some of the possessions we had down the stretch even though we got open looks. We all can be better. Some of the turnovers we had, we had a rebound our same two guys fought over it and lost it.
"I don’t know if it was nerves or yips or what, just things that just shot ourselves in the foot."
The Raptors led from the opening tipoff, racing out to an early 14-point advantage and then tried to hold on for dear life. They staved off a Cavaliers comeback that made it a one-point game late in the first half, then opened the second half with a 12-4 run capped by a Lowry three-pointer.
Toronto took an 87-82 lead into the fourth quarter in front of a raucous Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,954 that included rapper Drake, who twice got in verbal tussles with inactive Cavs player Kendrick Perkins. Security intervened in both.
The Raptors shooting went south in the fourth — 5-for-24 from the field and just 1-for-5 from three-point range.
And the Cavs pulled within a point with 3:16 to play when Canadian Tristan Thompson drained two free throws, while the crowd chanted "Khloe! Khloe!" in reference to Thompson’s reported off-court indiscretions and girlfriend Khloe Kardashian who recently gave birth to the couple’s daughter.
The Raptors didn’t make a field goal in the final 4:19 of regulation and James tied the game with seconds to play on a jump shot over rookie OG Anunoby. Toronto had four misses on its next offensive possession, James finally hauling down the rebound that gave him his triple double and the Cavs possession of the ball. James missed at the buzzer, sending the game into extra time.
Cleveland took a six-point lead in extra time after threes by Korver and Smith, but Lowry pulled the Raptors to within a point when he converted a three-point play with 58 seconds left. With DeRozan draped all over him, James turned the ball over on a shot-clock violation with 16 seconds left, but Fred VanVleet, playing just his second game of the post-season with significant minutes, missed on a three-pointer to end the game.
"He’s got a heckuva shot," DeRozan said of VanVleet, who’d been out with a shoulder injury. "I’ll live with him shooting that shot 10 times out of 10."
DeRozan put an arm around VanVleet after the miss.
"I told him if we’re in that same situation again, make the same exact pass, it’s not just me trusting him, it’s every single guy on this team, coaching staff trusts him in the moments, that’s why he’s in the game late in the game," DeRozan said. "He’s got tough skin, he’s going to bounce back, respond from it, but still have the utmost confidence in him."
Cleveland had dispatched Toronto in six games in the conference final in 2016 en route to winning the NBA title, then came last season’s humiliating sweep.
But after two years of running into the giant roadblock that is LeBron, the Raptors believe they’re better built to face Cleveland this season, revamping their offence to focus on three-point shooting and better ball movement.
The Raptors also had the benefit of a couple days rest over Cleveland for a change. The previous two seasons saw the Cavs enjoy a week off before facing a tired Toronto team. The tables were turned for this series as the Raptors knocked off Washington four games to two on Friday, while it took Cleveland seven games to get past Indiana, and James had talked about being tired after Sunday’s Game 7.
"We didn’t get to prepare like we have been preparing over the past few years for an opponent in the post season," James said. "It was a quick turnaround for us. We ended Game 7 and then we had to turn around the next day and catch a 1 p.m. flight. We were very good with the limited time we had."
DeRozan led the way with 11 points in the first quarter, and the Raptors, despite giving up seven points on five turnovers, ended the quarter with a 16-5 run to take a 33-19 lead into the second.
James had five assists in the second quarter, with three three-pointers and 11 points, and the Cavaliers outscored Toronto 38-27 in the period. Back-to-back threes from Korver and Smith cut the Raptors’ lead to a point 30 seconds before halftime, and Toronto took a 60-57 advantage into the break.
The series shifts to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday.