TORONTO – They can play better. A lot better.
After a post-game debrief with the coaching staff and flurries of texts back and forth into the wee hours of the morning, by daybreak came the calm realization:
The Raptors had come close, agonizingly close, to exorcising a haunted mansion’s full of demons in their series opener against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. And they did it even while making a long list of correctable physical and mental errors that the Raptors were still almost able to overcome.
Fix at least some of those – from a list with plenty to choose from – in Game 2 on Thursday night and they should salvage a split on their home floor. They can stop the bleeding. And they can then head to Cleveland looking to win at least one of two there and regain control of the series they handed away all too easily on Tuesday night.
These weren’t the Raptors who lost by 31 to Cleveland in Game 1 two years ago or by 11 last year in what ended up being the closest game in a sweep that wasn’t close.
This was a team exasperated at a chance they let slip away for no good reason.
“It was, ‘we should have won’,” was how DeMar DeRozan described the mood following Game 1. “We should have had that game. And it was more, damn, we gotta wait to redeem ourselves, to get this feeling off of us … the confidence hasn’t went anywhere.
“If anything it heightened to even want to get back out there. If we had the opportunity to come back and play tonight, we would have played [Wednesday].
A year ago? The year before?
Those teams knew on some level they were facing a superior opponent. This team now believes they can beat the Cavs – even with LeBron James – as long as they don’t beat themselves.
“I think we’re just more, just like ‘okay, we know what we did wrong’,” said Kyle Lowry. “[The] last couple years I think we played the first two on their floor and it was blowouts … but that’s in the past. I think this year we’re just equipped differently. We’re just an overall different team.”
They just need to play like it.
The frustration of the missed chances to win the game at the end of regulation and overtime had faded overnight. As C.J. Miles – who had two of the four missed putback attempts off the potentially game-winning three by Fred VanVleet in the final seconds of regulation time – pointed out:
“That play isn’t what lost the game though. We could have won the game, but it’s not what lost the game.”
Why did they lose the game?
How about we start on the defensive end, which seems funny to say considering the Cavaliers shot just 41 per cent from the field and James needed 30 shots to scored his 26 points.
But, if there was one problem the Raptors had consistently, it was losing Cleveland’s secondary scorers at the three-point line.
It’s no small matter. The Raptors have been crushed from the three-point line by Cleveland the past two playoff series. If it happens again this year the Raptors won’t win this series either.
In this, James was part of the challenge. He exists as a giant magnet, drawing attention from all five defenders. He demands you too play a disciplined style. Any deviation will be punished.
The Raptors deviated and it cost them dearly.
It was easy to get distracted by the noise after Game 1. There was Drake getting in an unseemly shouting match with six-foot-10, 280-pound Cavs reserve Kendrick Perkins – an incident that caught the attention of the league office but prompted no official discipline beyond a rebuke from the league for Drake to play it cool.
There was the officiating snafu with 1:11 left in the fourth quarter where Kevin Love caught DeMar DeRozan with a wild elbow. It was subsequently – a day later – upgraded to a Flagrant 1 which would have resulted in DeRozan going to the line to shoot two free throws and maintaining possession of the ball had the right call been made at the time – a big deal given the Raptors were clinging to a two-point lead.
But the game wasn’t won or lost in those moments. It wasn’t won or lost when the Raptors went 18/39 at the rim for the game – according to cleaningtheglass.com that is in the fourth lowest percentile for shooting percentage from that distance. Make a few more bunnies and the Raptors win, easy.
But more concerning was the Raptors’ inability to avoid getting sucked into the ball – and not just when James had it – and leave shooters open.
Would you play Kyle Korver as a threat off the dribble? No, I wouldn’t either, but Jonas Valanciunas did – sagging from the corner to protect against a non-existent dribble-drive threat — and the result was a wide-open Jeff Green corner three:
Or how about double-teaming a largely stationary James, who is attended to by OG Anunoby? Bad idea, right? DeRozan didn’t think so and the result was a wide-open Korver triple.
And does it makes sense to double-team Kevin Love in the post when the result is going to be an open three on the weak side? No? So it makes even less sense for two defenders to get sucked over, but that’s what the Raptors do on this play. And yes the result is an open triple for JR Smith.
Not one Cavalier other than James scored 20 points in a game against Indiana because they were disciplined in their coverages; they let James get his and stayed home everywhere else.
In contrast it took one game for the Raptors to get the likes of Smith, Korver and Green feeling good about their games.
These were mental errors, completely within their control. Complain about missed layups or open threes or missed calls all you want. None of it will matter if the Raptors don’t play a tighter, cleaner game.
“We knew we needed to keep guys off the three-point line and there were two guys especially that we needed to do that with and those two guys made threes,” said Miles. “Things that were blatantly on our scouting report … LeBron can’t have a triple-double and Kyle Korver makes six threes [five], whatever he makes, J.R. makes five threes, Jeff Green makes a couple of long twos, threes. You can’t give up multiple guys scoring almost 20 points and him doing what he does. We’ve just got to bottle it up a little bit more.”
Which is where this season feels different that years past. Down 0-1 against Cleveland the past two seasons, the only thing Game 2 felt like was another opportunity get blown out.
This time around, it feels like an opportunity. Play right and the Cavs can be had. But you have to play right.
“For us [Game 2] is a really, really important game, a really big game for us as a team,” said Lowry. “We learn from our mistakes, we learn from the things that we did. I’m sure they’re happy, they didn’t play their best game but they still won … but we’re going to come out and be us, be a better us.”
What other choice to do they have?