TORONTO — In the second quarter, when the game was nearly out of reach, but not quite, LeBron James was so mad at everyone within 25 feet of the Cleveland Cavaliers bench that had his head popped off and rolled to the three-point line it would not have been all that surprising.
Presumably, he was trying to light a fire under his teammates who were getting burned by a group of Toronto Raptors many of them had doubtlessly never heard of before.
About 30 minutes later – but after only about six minutes of game time – James walked to the bench after Cleveland called another timeout early in the third quarter, slumped heavily and said nothing.
What was the point? The Raptors had started the second half on a 7-0 run and the gap was looking too wide to close. This was a beatdown. There was no choice but to submit.
This season is about the Raptors changing their reality. They have new players, a new approach on offence and a new look defensively too.
It’s six-month image makeover, the hope being that if they commit wholeheartedly to making the outside different they can feel differently on the inside too.
And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to fool themselves into believing they can beat James – and whoever he rolls into Air Canada Centre with – come playoff time.
It was only one game but the Raptors’ astounding 133-99 win over the Cavaliers, who rinsed Toronto from the playoffs in a sweep a year ago and in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before that, will be at the very least a reassuring touchstone should the Raptors’ season run through Cleveland again.
Can it be a template?
That would be ideal. The 133 points was the most the Raptors have ever scored in a regular-season, regulation-time game. The Cavs looked demoralized and confused.
That the Raptors did it without two starters – Kyle Lowry missed his second game with a bruised tailbone and Serge Ibaka was serving a suspension – only made the point even more powerfully.
“It should give them confidence,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “It should give a guy like Norm Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl – all those guys confidence, to know ‘Hey, I belong. I’m a big part of this team,’ which they are. I think it sends a message to everyone in the locker room.”
They held the Cavs to 38 per cent shooting and 23 per cent from three after Cleveland shot 46 per cent from deep against them in the playoffs last year. James had 26 points, but was held well below his season averages in rebounds and assists while Toronto shot 50 per cent from the floor, made a season-high 18 threes and out-rebounded the Cavs 63-35.
James’ second quarter tirade was well intentioned but had no effect.
“We all have to be held accountable for our actions, accountable for how well we play, how we play, how hard we play and what we are doing for one another,” said James. “Just some plays that we should come up with, that you should make. When you are losing you tend not to want to make those plays or tend to let some plays get away from you and we can’t afford that right now the way we are playing ball.
“Just trying to hold everyone accountable and move on.”
The Raptors have been trying to hold themselves accountable to a new vision that means moving away from an over-reliance on Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and instead integrating more players in an egalitarian approach.
Last night it may have peaked as the heaviest lifting was done by those with the lowest profiles.
With the Raptors seemingly out of scoring options it made sense that the Cavaliers – to the extent that the NBA’s 29th-rated defence competes without the ball at all – would load up on DeRozan. It would save them having to read any further down on the scouting report.
But DeRozan didn’t take the bait. As the Raptors sprinted out to a 65-40 first-half lead, Toronto’s leading scorer contributed just one field goal but seven of his team-high eight assists (he finished with a modest 13 points on 13 field-goal attempts), picking up Lowry’s playmaking slack. In the past, DeRozan might have forced the issue. On Thursday night, he played the game unselfishly, making it easy on him and everyone around him.
“We kind of had an idea how they were going to guard us, especially me,” said DeRozan, who was playing through a bad cold. “I didn’t want to come out looking at scoring. I wanted to use the double-team, them blitzing me, against them.
“We got a lot of ball movement, guys started getting open shots, cuts, easy layups and we stayed that way whole game.”
But the Raptors’ fortunes turned most decisively when what remained of the starters went to the bench and Toronto’s second unit – largely anonymous outside of the ACC – turned the game into a track meet the geriatric Cavaliers had no interest in running.
“Yeah, I think that was one of our advantages tonight, especially the second unit, was just playing fast,” said VanVleet. “We were able to get stops. The first unit did a good job of setting the tone defensively, and we came in and continued that, got stops, played in transition. You know, Pascal’s running, me and Norm pushing, spotting up, some of those threes go down and then the lead gets a little bigger and bigger.
“We gotta use that as one of our advantages, our youth and speed and fresh legs, and we gotta take advantage of that.”
Presumably, the Cavaliers will find their motivation at some point. Regular seasons aren’t exactly their thing. It’s not like James is going anywhere anytime soon.
“We’re just in a funk,” said James, whose club is 3-7 in its last 10 starts. “Once again we’re back to the beginning of the season. We just have to find a way to get out of it. It’s going to start with us and everybody just getting back to what we were doing when we were playing good ball.
“It’s so fragile, I don’t know where it went wrong or what happened.”
The Raptors’ sense of purpose is quite clear. They are determined to change their fate and Thursday’s game could provide recipe that could cause the Cavaliers problems.
Delon Wright – starting in place of Lowry – was too long and too quick for the shorter, slower Isaiah Thomas as the Cavaliers newcomer via Boston finished with four points on 2-of-15 shooting in his first start with the Cavaliers. When Wright sat down it was VanVleet – the undrafted free agent in his second year who scored eight of his career-high 22 points in a second quarter that turned into a 35-16 rout.
Siakam (16 points, seven rebounds and four assists) was last seen messing up defensively in the final possession in a one-point loss to Miami, but against the Cavs was back playing at his customary 100 miles an hour while his pal Poeltl (12 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks) was swatting shots and helping the Raptors to an overwhelming 36-21, first-half rebound advantage. Things were going so well that Powell (14 points, six rebonds, three assists) – struggling mightily of late – came off the bench and was yet another floor-running, hustling, defending force that gave the Cavaliers fits as the Raptors out-hustled Cleveland at every turn.
Of course, doing it in January is not like doing it in May.
“Regular season and playoffs are two different things,” said DeRozan. “I’m pretty sure next time we play them they’re going to remember this game and it’s going to be a whole different game.
“We have to be ready for that.”
Come May or June and a playoff series, the Cavaliers might have made the effort to figure out who VanVleet is, or what Poeltl’s go-to move is. On Thursday night they gave the impression that they’d never laid eyes on any of the Raptors second unit before but wished they would do Cleveland the courtesy of slowing the hell down for a minute.
They didn’t, of course. The young Raptors kept pushing the pace and sharing the ball. It’s all part of the Raptors’ strategy to combat the ball-holding lethargy they have had a tendency to get lulled into during past post-seasons.
How sustainable what the Raptors rolled out in the first half will be in a playoff series is an unanswerable question, but you had to enjoy the moment.
It was beautiful basketball regardless of the opponent, but because it was against the Cavs and broadcast across the United States on TNT it made for a beautiful night, and for the Raptors a mid-season reminder that what happened in the past doesn’t have to predict the future.