TORONTO – It was all lined up so perfectly. Twelve months of planning and execution. An organization-wide buy-in to do things differently. A heavy bet on a crew of young, unproven players. Hoping your vets could change, your head coach could adapt.
Everything paid out. A record-setting season. The good health. The positive showing in the first round.
And in comes the King. In comes Cleveland. Stressed. Diminished. Almost certainly tired from being pushed to the limit by the Indiana Pacers – no one’s idea of an NBA title contender.
The Raptors’ game plan for Game 1 at the Air Canada Centre?
Don’t blow it.
Don’t stare at a setup so perfect it could have been ordered on Amazon and let it go to waste. Don’t let the special delivery languish by the front door, waiting to be claimed.
They blew it. They blew an early double-digit second-half lead. They blew a five-point fourth quarter lead. They blew multiple chances to win it in regulation and they blew a chance to win it in overtime.
They lost 113-112 on their home court, a season’s worth of work to earn the advantage for just this kind of showdown undone in one night.
The Cavaliers knew it too. They knew that with a barely 48-hour turnaround since closing out the Pacers on Sunday, with LeBron James cramping up down the stretch of that game and unable to get on the floor for practice or shootaround, they were in tough in Game 1 against Toronto.
“I think, considering the circumstances, we definitely stole one,” said Cavaliers head coach Ty Lue. “I don’t think we played our best game and I think they know that as well.”
There was no way to get around the reality that the Raptors let a chance to establish control of the series against their nemesis slip through their collective fingers just as the ball did on so many of their 14 turnovers (for 21 points). They had a chance to quiet the ‘same old Raptors’ chatter, which will only get louder now.
“For sure. Without a doubt,” DeMar DeRozan said when asked if they had fumbled away the golden ticket and the chance to be up 1-0 at home. “We had many opportunities to close this game out. We couldn’t buy a bucket. We got some great looks. We had a lot shots point-blank at the rim that were in and out. We had two great looks from three. We could name countless things. But it shouldn’t have come down to depending on none of those, but it happens and we understand what we gotta do next time.
They could start with making shots. They were 8-of-31 in the fourth quarter and overtime and 1-of-8 from three in the guts of the game. The Cavaliers never held a lead in regulation and trailed by 14 in the second quarter and by 13 with 5:08 left in the third quarter. But they were able to reel the Raptors in after their offence died a withering death after the Cavs went to a bigger lineup to counter Jonas Valanciunas, who was clubbing them when they went small with Kevin Love at centre.
For most of three quarters the Raptors won that matchup – the Lithuanian big man had 21 points and 21 rebounds – but misfired down the stretch as he shot just 1-of-7 in the fourth quarter, failing to convert several bunnies and short shots in the lane.
But even with that the Raptors seemed poised to survive. They were up four with 1:42 left to play after Serge Ibaka converted three free-throws after being fouled on a three by James.
And James hardly seemed poised to play the hero. He was tired. After leading the NBA in minutes in the regular season, the 33-year-old played more minutes than anyone in the first round.
Weary legs? He played 47 minutes, was 1-of-6 from the free-throw line and 1-of-8 from three. He ultimately finished 12-of-30 from the field for 26 points, although his 11 rebounds and 13 assists indicate how he can impact a game without making a shot.
But then he made two more – a driving layup and a turnaround over OG Anunoby – to tie the game with 30 seconds left.
But the Raptors weren’t done. A driving DeRozan found a wide-open Fred VanVleet for a potentially game-winning three. That he missed is tolerable, but that a gaggle of Raptors missed on four separate put-back attempts will haunt them and could be the difference in the series.
That James barely missed a wide-open look manufactured out of a timeout with 0.6 seconds left underscores how lucky the Raptors were to even get to overtime.
After Cleveland got threes from JR Smith and Kyle Korver in the extra period – they were a combined 10-of-18 from deep as the Raptors’ plan to limit the help James got from his teammates was foiled – the Raptors fell behind by four but still managed to have a golden chance to win in the dying seconds.
DeRozan set up VanVleet again from three but the steady second-year guard – playing in just his second game after missing most of the first-round series with a shoulder separation – missed that one too.
No fault of his.
“I know everybody’s going to collapse … and I know Freddy always relocates for me, and I found him,” said DeRozan, who finished with 22 points on 20 shots to lead Toronto. “He got a heckuva shot, I’ll live with him shooting that shot 10 times out of 10. We got a good look and it didn’t fall … 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.”
There was no dressing up how important a good showing in Game 1 was. It meant protecting home court. It meant signaling that this year things were going to be different. It meant taking advantage of a clearly vulnerable Cavs team.
“This is the biggest game in franchise history,” one long-time season ticket holder told me.
It was hard to hard argue. Now it’s going to be Game 2 on Thursday as the Raptors try to salvage the series before it gets snatched from their own backyard.
Before the game, the Cavs tried to dismiss the idea that they were coming to Toronto at less than their best – this is a team that is used to having a week off between series as it swept its way through the East in recent years.
After the game it was a different story. The Cavaliers were as relieved that the Raptors let them off the hook as they were proud that they stole the win.
“We knew we were going to get their best shot today,” said James. “They knew we didn’t have much rest and preparation and they’d been waiting around for us. We just wanted to come here with the best game plan we could in a short time and execute offensively … that was probably one of my worst games of the season. [But I] just try to make things happen at the right time … see what happens. It was a one-possession, two-possession game, and me, that’s what I like the most. I was able to make a couple shots in the post to send it to overtime, and then we just went from there.”
Where the Raptors go from here is the question. The night wasn’t a complete disaster. They did hold Cleveland to 41 per cent shooting. The combination of Anunoby and Pascal Siakam seemed to bother James, if his shooting percentage is any indication. The Raptors controlled large swaths of the game.
It makes sense that they remain optimistic.
“A lot of things we did to ourselves,” said Casey. “Some uncharacteristic things that we missed, some shots we missed, I thought was the difference in the game. I think we’re a better team, we just didn’t make the shots down the stretch. I know it sounds simplistic but we had our open looks, had our opportunities that we didn’t cash in on.”
But the Raptors should know better than anyone that James doesn’t give many chances and when he does you better take advantage.
The Raptors had every chance in Game 1 and dropped them like they were slathered in butter. It doesn’t end the series, but it puts a serious dent in the idea that the Raptors are favourites any longer. It makes things harder.
In that sense it wasn’t just another loss. It was the kind that raises questions and fosters doubts.
These Cavs aren’t the Cavs of the past, but James is still James, seemingly able to will wins from nothing. Worse, for all their efforts, all their changes – even with everything lining up so perfectly — Toronto still found a way to fall short. The big, bad Cavaliers stole their lunch money again.