Raptors must tighten up defensively to hang with Cavaliers

LeBron James had 17 assists without a single turnover, and the Cleveland Cavaliers demolished the Toronto Raptors' 13-point lead in the third quarter to take this one 132-129.

CLEVELAND – If the Toronto Raptors proved one thing to themselves after their late-season temperature taking against the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s that they can score pretty much all the want against the LeBron James gang.

Push the ball, move the ball, screen, cut, be ready – eventually the ball will find an open man. As long as they’re prepared, they should be in excellent position to get the ball in hoop, regularly and with little resistance. Dating back to the all-star break last year, the Cavaliers have been among the very worst defensive teams in the NBA.

Against the best team in the Eastern Conference – even one playing on the second night of a back-to-back, their third in four and their 10th game in 16 nights – Cleveland looked a step slow and another step disinterested for most of the night.

Throw in some personnel issues – the Cavaliers don’t have rim protection; they have rim invitation – and the formula is in place for offensive fireworks, not all that different than the 133 points Toronto put on Cleveland when James brought his pre-deadline edition team to Toronto in January, the Cavs’ worst loss of the season.

But there was a question the Raptors were facing at Quicken Loans Arena: Could they stop Cleveland from scoring, even a little bit?

The answer: No. Not enough. Toronto had a 15-point third-quarter lead evaporate against a high-octane Cavs attack in the 132-129 loss.

“Trash game by us,” said Kyle Lowry, wasting no words. “They shot 60 per cent from the field. It was a disgraceful display of defence by us. We gotta be better than that.”

“We have to be more physical. We have to lock into the game plan. We have to figure out some coverages a little bit better. But it was bad defence … We have to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

The Raptors are a good defensive team, on paper. They came into the game ranked fourth in defensive efficiency. But they gave up 127 to Oklahoma City on Sunday and now 132. They can defend the NBA’s rank-and-file, but does their defence speak superstar?

They had no answer for James, who had 35 points and 17 assists without a turnover, and picked the Raptors apart.

“It’s tough because you want to focus on LeBron James because he’s a problem,” said Raptors big man Jakob Poeltl, who finished with 17 points and eight rebound off the bench. “But he’s a very good passer and if you lose your own man, chances are he’s going to find him or one of their really good shooters are going to knock down open shots. It’s hard to find that balance.”

Or sometimes he’ll take advantage of mismatch in isolation as he did against Poeltl and leave him in the dust for a dunk that tied the game 112-112 with six minutes left, completing the Cavs comeback.

The game was the analytical basketball in its purest form. It seemed like every shot was either an open three-pointer generated by multiple cycles of ball movement or a quick-hitting lay-up or dunk as defences – such as they were on the night — stretched themselves too thin.

In the fourth quarter as Cleveland was beginning to assert itself, there was a stretch from the 8:42 mark of the fourth quarter to 3:32 left when the Raptors took a timeout that the two teams made 13-of-14 shots — trading the lead back and forth with each make — all but one a lay-up or a three.

But it was the Raptors who broke first. They turned the ball over out of the timeout and Jeff Green came up with a big block on DeRozan on the next possession. The Cavs kept scoring and quickly pushed the lead to five. A three-point play by Lowry and a beautiful dish by DeRozan for a dunk by Pascal Siakam cut the Cavs’ lead to one with less than minute to play.

But there was one more stop Toronto couldn’t get as James was able to create some room off a pick-and-roll and send a rope to a wide-open Kevin Love, who knocked down one last triple to make it a four-point game with 27.5 left to play. There was some back and forth as the Raptors tried to extend the game, but a DeRozan runner from just over centre in the final seconds that could have tied it flew wide.

The numbers told the story – Cleveland shot 15-of-24 from three on the night, or a preposterous 63 per cent, while the Cavs shot 60 per cent from the floor overall. James was James — his dominance almost routine — but that Jose Calderon, George Hill, J.R. Smith and Love combined to shoot 12-of-15 from deep was a backbreaker. It seemed like every pass James made resulted in a three-point basket.

Against that onslaught, Toronto shooting 54 per cent from the floor and 15-of-33 from deep – normally great numbers – wasn’t enough. Lowry was excellent, finishing with 24 points and seven assists while making six threes. His only two-point field goal attempt resulted in a three-point play. And Toronto’s bench was outstanding also, finishing with 58 points.

Fred VanVleet returned to the lineup after missing two games with a bruised hand and shot 4-of-9 from three. The Raptors were without C.J. Miles who missed the game with stomach flu.

The loss left the Raptors at 53-19 and 25-13 on the road and their series with Cleveland even with one game left to play. The Cavs improved to 42-29 and strengthened their grip on third place in the East, increasing the chances these two teams won’t meet until the Eastern Conference Finals, which would doubtless suit the Raptors just fine.

Should it happen, the question then, as it was before Wednesday’s game, won’t be: Can the Raptors score with Cleveland? It will be: Can they stop them just enough?

Their track record in this regard was very shaky and Wednesday night did little to help. Through five playoff losses in Cleveland the past two post-seasons, Toronto has been shredded for an average of 116 points a game, losing by an average of 24 points a night. Toronto was typically down by double figures in the first 12 minutes in those losses.

It was better in that respect as the Raptors trailed by four after the first quarter on Wednesday, but that was after giving up 42 points to the Cavs in the first 12 minutes.

Making things even more challenging was the Raptors have been struggling defensively, despite their standing in the league tables.

“We had some breakdowns, over help. Again, with a great player like James, you can’t give him both, where he has the assists and the scoring,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “He’s got to do one or the other and we kind of fell into a rhythm of giving him both.”

The schedule finally begins to lighten up for the Raptors and should yield some much-needed practice time in the next 10 days. That should help then tighten up their defence.

And the good news is Toronto can score against the Cavaliers.

Asked if he felt the Raptors could score whenever they needed against Cleveland, DeRozan, who was held to 6-of-15 shooting on his 21 points, turned the question around.

“How many points did we score tonight?”

“One hundred and twenty-nine,” he was reminded.

“Yes. And we missed a lot of shots we normally make, a lot of us. To answer your question, without a doubt [we can score with them].”

That’s something to build on.

These are not the Cavs that ran Toronto out of the building during the past two post-seasons. And the these are not the same Raptors. The Cavs will put up numbers, but they aren’t likely to run away from the Toronto. The Raptors will be able to put plenty of points on the Cavaliers.

“They still a helluva team. You can’t take anything away from them,” said DeRozan. “They’re still a top team in our conference and in this league. You can’t overlook them no type of way, no matter what changes they made.”

But are the Cavs a team that’s going to romp through the Eastern Conference at 12-1 as they did last year? Are they going to blow the Raptors out at will?

Hard to see that.

It’s clear that you’re not going to beat Cleveland consistently if you can’t score with them. The Raptors can do that.

On Wednesday, they held their own in the most beautiful pick-up game you’ve ever seen.

Now Toronto just has to figure out how to get some stops. Not a lot of them, but enough to make it a real game.

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