CLEVELAND — When the Toronto Raptors gathered Tuesday morning to watch film from their dispiriting 116-105 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers about 12 hours earlier, they found reason for optimism.
“Saw lot of things we can do better. We have another gear to get to that I don’t think we got to last night,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “We did it in stretches. We had some positive things in stretches. It wasn’t as bad as it felt going through it.”
As with any film study, there were plenty of small areas to improve: gaps the Raptors could have attacked, rotations that should have been quicker, close-outs that needed have more urgency, opportunities to keep Cleveland ball-handlers forced to the crowded side in isolation.
And there were some big ones, too. The force the Raptors played with. The intensity. The quickness with which they operated.
“Anticipation’s a better word, because every player in the NBA’s quick,” Casey said. “Last night, we were half a step away from getting where we needed to go.”
As Raptors guard Kyle Lowry watched, he saw a team that was in its own head about defensive miscues and open looks the Cavaliers were afforded. He felt the Raptors could have benefited from pushing the pace more after Cleveland makes, and looking for shooting opportunities early in possessions, rather than trying to pull off the perfect play.
“A lot of the things we did on the floor we can do differently, we can do harder, we can do more aggressively,” Lowry said. “We need to play with a better pace.”
A good example of that came very early in the night, after the Raptors looked completely discombobulated on their first two possessions, which featured DeMar DeRozan throwing a bad pass that landed in the lap of a courtside fan and Jonas Valanciunas being easily blocked in the paint by Kevin Love. After a Kyrie Irving missed a three-pointer, Lowry grabbed the ball from Valanciunas, ran it up the floor well ahead of his teammates, and casually pulled up for a three from one of his favourite spots with nearly 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
Lowry drilled it, which significantly calmed things down in a raucous Quicken Loans Arena. No one drew that up—Lowry just went in search of a shot and found it. And he thinks the Raptors need to do more of that.
“When they score, you can’t put your head down. You’ve got to get the ball out, you’ve got to run down the floor, and not look to get a play call. Getting a play call is secondary,” Lowry said. “Try to get something easy. Try to get a jump shot or an open look quicker. Get a lay-up. Yesterday, when they made a shot, we took our time. It’s just a different pace to play at when you’re playing against a team that roams and can jump up the game defensively.”
The Raptors also saw something very familiar on the film: blitzes and traps. DeRozan and Lowry are, of course, accustomed to this treatment. The Milwaukee Bucks trapped and blitzed both players aggressively throughout their opening round clash with the Raptors, a series that turned when the Raptors began moving the ball more effectively out of those situations and taking advantage of open looks from ancillary players. As Lowry says, it’s not like the Bucks discovered some revolutionary tactic.
“Trapping is something we’ve been getting the last four years,” he said. “We’ve just got to make the right adjustments. We’ve got to get players to the right spots. We’ve got to get to the right spots, and we’ve got to make passes to the right spots.
“I’m sure me and DeMar will continue to figure it out. We’ll continue to get better. We’ll continue to make sure that we emphasize to get our teammates more involved and make sure that they have the confidence to make plays. We need our teammates. We need everybody that’s on the floor, even on the bench, to help us.”
Yes, they do. The Raptors got just six points from their bench in the first half Monday as many of those players who needed to execute when Lowry or DeRozan were double-teamed had quiet or downright ineffective games. Patrick Patterson missed six of his seven shots from the field, several of them open looks; Norman Powell, the darling of the Bucks series, shot 3-of-11. DeMarre Carroll took only one shot in 15 minutes.
Who’s to say why the Raptors, a historically prolific offensive team at times this season, couldn’t find their rhythm Monday night against a Cavaliers outfit notorious for its lack of defensive efficiency. But the Raptors think it’s connected to those mental roadblocks they picked up on film.
“If they score, boom, next play. We’ve got to have a next play mentality,” Casey said. “They score on us, and instead of getting the ball out and attacking, we start thinking, ‘oh, should we have done this?’ No. Let’s go play.”
There is also the minor issue of one LeBron James. Solving James is something the entire Association has been trying to figure out for the last decade and a half, and the thing about it is, they won’t. He’s the best player on the planet. Without question. There is no solving him.
But what the Raptors can do is take away some of his effectiveness at the fringes, so that James is relegated to merely an excellent player who will generate a lot of offence, instead of the James the Raptors faced Monday, who disrupted practically everything Toronto tried to do.
On Tuesday, DeRozan talked about how James was “gambling and cheating” during Game 1, which refers to the way he would practically abandon his man when he was playing backside defence, in order to eliminate dribbling and movement options for Toronto’s ball-handlers. James is such a freak of an athlete, and such an insanely bold player, that he practically dared the Raptors to try to take advantage of the hole in the Cavs defence he was creating, confident as ever that he could recover in a split second and still interrupt Toronto’s passes and shots.
On the offensive end, James scored 35 in Game 1, which is perhaps a few points too many. He’s going to get his. He’s averaging 28 points per game over 204 career playoff contests. But if the Raptors can play James tighter, force him to score uglier, and keep him close to that career average instead of beyond it, they’ll feel a lot better about their chances.
“Everything’s in play. The traps, the double teams. We’ve got to get a little closer,” Casey said. “I don’t know if they felt us last night whatsoever. We were half a step off, respecting their speed a little bit too much. They’ve got to feel us a little bit better, and then the next guy’s got to be ready to anticipate and get there quicker.”
So, that’s all to say, the Raptors have a clear idea of how they can fare better in Wednesday’s Game 2 and ideally go back to Toronto with a series split. That’s certainly better than being clueless, or feeling like they’re running out of options. Of course, the key now is to make it happen.
“They punched us,” Casey said. “But the series has gone nowhere. They’ve done what they were supposed to do. They won the first game. It didn’t feel good. But it’s a long series. We’ve got to make sure we do what we’re supposed to do. Some things are going to change as far as sending extra bodies or mucking it up a little bit.
“Our anticipation, our level of force, has another gear to go to that we didn’t display last night.”