Raptors fail to deliver reasons for hope in Game 1 loss

LeBron James scored 35 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Toronto Raptors in Game 1.

CLEVELAND – The difference between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers is this: The Raptors are a good team with some very good players. But they need to be nearly perfect to think about knocking off one of the NBA’s elite. That’s just the way it is.

The Cavaliers? They are elite. They can fiddle and fuss and go sideways. They can basically stop playing defence for long stretches of the regular season. They can sweep the Indiana Pacers in the first round by playing defence not much better than that.

And then, when the mood strikes them, they can arrive in their rematch against the Raptors and make the game look so easy that who they’re playing is almost irrelevant.

There were moments in the Raptors’ 116-105 loss to the Cavs in the first game of their second-round series that looked a little bit competitive, like something might happen.

But they were fleeting and then LeBron James would be LeBron James and the moment was gone.

But from the Raptors point of view, it seems like they’re stuck in syndication, a re-run that plays over and over again.

“It seems the same,” point guard Kyle Lowry said after the Raptors were whipsawed around by the Cavs. “They get big spurts, and we fight back, and they do another big spurt. We’ve gotta find ways to limit the spurts. We know they’re going to be a high-flying team, up and down, shoot the ball well at home. But we’ve got to find a way to not let them get going and get everyone involved, and getting the crowd involved. We’ve got to find ways to completely just slow it down, and not let them get out in transition.”

That would be a great idea. Two plays in transition kind of summed up the night for Toronto.

The second came late in the third quarter when the Raptors’ Serge Ibaka wrapped up a steamrolling James on a fast break. Ibaka’s a powerful man but James is even more so and he still nearly finished the layup.

When he didn’t, he high-stepped away in frustration and when he reached the sidelines he grabbed a beer from a vendor and pretended to have sip. He probably could have had the whole thing and a couple more, except he’s not much of a beer guy.

“If she’d have had red wine I’d have probably taken a sip,” said James.

He could have had a whole bottle and followed it up with shots of Hennessey and it wouldn’t have mattered.

Even tipsy or loaded it’s not clear James would have a problem with the Raptors.

The other telltale transition basket came in the game’s opening moments with the Raptors already on the ropes against the rested Cavs, who came out roaring from having had a week off following their first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers.

The Raptors had already surrendered a pair of wide open corner threes to the Cavs then a fast break to James when he stole a Lowry pass and pushed it ahead to Kyrie Irving. Irving glanced back, saw James pointing up and he laid a pass of the backboard that James crammed home with his left hand, bringing the house down and giving the Cavs a 10-3 lead.

James, at age 32 and in his 14th season, playing his 204th career playoff game, still has a lot of gas in the tank.

“I train my body every single day to be in tip-top shape,” said James who finished with 35 points and 10 rebounds along with four assists. “I feel real good. I feel real good where I’m at today and hopefully I can just continue.”

And that’s why – that’s always why – the Raptors will have a very big problem with the Cavaliers. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was asked if he had a problem with James’ plays – the fake beer drinking, the flashy alley-oop.

Was James showing his team up? “That’s who they are,” said Casey of the Cavs. “They play with that flair; I didn’t feel that way … I don’t pay attention to that. I think disrespect, you get that back by out-working them and out-playing them.”

(Neither DeMar DeRozan or Lowry chose to take issue with James’ plays).

Out-working and out-playing the Cavs is easier said than done. The Raptors have potentially six games left to figure out how to slow them down but better start in Game 2 on Wednesday night given James’ streak of winning a road game in 27 straight playoff series.

James’ totals were impressive but it was how easy he made the game for everyone else that stood out. The Cavs knocked down 14 three-pointers on 34 attempts. Much maligned defensively, they held the Raptors to 44 per cent shooting, although Toronto managed a decent 10-for-26 from deep. But it’s hard to win when you’re giving up that much of an edge from the three-point line.

“I feel like we’re in a great place and when the ball is moving and guys are being aggressive there is no questions about the moves guys are making and the shots guys are taking,” said the Cavs’ Kyrie Irving, who finished with 24 points and a career playoff-high 10 assists. “We’re all just trusting one another and the basketball gods end up being in our favour when we play like that. We’re playing at an incredibly high level. Obviously there are some things we can still get better at but we’re getting there, we’re getting there.”

After falling behind early – the Raptors have now trailed Cleveland by an aggregate of 81 points in four first halves of playoff games at Quicken Loans Arena – Toronto kept it to below 10 early in third quarter.

But Cleveland erupted for three triples in three minutes, the last by James, and suddenly the Cavs were up 19 and the Raptors’ night was effectively over.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

They can be encouraged by a strong outing by Kyle Lowry – who finished with 20 points and 11 assists in his most energetic game of the post-season – but it gets a little dry after that.
“There were enough positives. We had 22 assists,” said Casey. “We missed so many open shots that I know those guys can knock down …. there are other things we can do in our schemes that we made some huge mistakes on in the first half.”

Toronto did come very close to winning the second quarter. After the Cavs opened up a 38-20 lead on a Kyle Korver triple with 10:30 left in the half – the Raptors finally looked like they had had enough. Ibaka – silent on the road so far this post-season – hit his next four shots; including a triple. The Cavs left P.J. Tucker with enough time to tie his shoes and he knocked down a triple. Toronto’s 19-3 run proved – at least – that they have it in them.

But the Raptors immediately surrendered a 21-7 run that allowed the Cavs to walk into the half like nothing had ever happened.

The hope – dream maybe – was that the Raptors would feel the urgency implicit in facing the defending NBA champions in their own building in the first game of a playoff series they’ve been waiting a year to play.

The hope – dream – was that the Raptors would be the aggressors. They would throw the first punch. They would arrive and demonstrate that 12 months after being eliminated by the Cavs in Toronto’s ‘Can you believe we won two games?’ Eastern Conference finals appearance last year, they were serious threats to the Cavs and King James.

After one game, that’s not apparent.

And with James catching alley-oops off the glass and stopping drink beer on fast breaks, it’s not clear the Cavs take them all that seriously either.

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