CLEVELAND — A little shy of a year ago, the Toronto Raptors rolled into Quicken Loans Arena for the first game of the Eastern Conference Final with the Cleveland Cavaliers and got absolutely starched.
The Cavaliers built a 22-point lead by halftime before eventually stretching it over 30. Kyrie Irving scored 27; LeBron James shot 85 per cent from the field; Iman Shumpert was a plus-24. The game finished with a full 6 ½ minutes of garbage time, as DeMar DeRozan watched from the bench, stewing over a night in which he scored 18 points on 17 shots and didn’t get to the free throw line once.
“In a sense,” DeRozan said, “it was embarrassing.”
DeRozan recalled that night Monday morning as he sat along the baseline of the floor where that massacre took place. He remembered how long the Cavaliers had to rest and prepare for that series, while the Raptors were afforded less than 48 hours following their seventh game victory over the Miami Heat a round earlier. He remembered the atmosphere in the arena, remembered feeling like the world was slanted against him and his team. He remembered it all because he doesn’t want it to happen again.
“They ambushed us,” DeRozan said. “This time we know what to expect.”
This time, the Raptors have had three days off between series, which has afforded a crucial window with which to recover and prepare. The Raptors are also retooled this year, with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker both playing crucial roles in the team’s rotations. And the Raptors have the benefit of another year’s experience, another year’s growth, as they set out to try and fell the Ohio-based beast we all suspected they’d eventually come up against from the first day of training camp.
“We know what it was like coming into this building last year for Game 1. The atmosphere shouldn’t catch us off guard at all tonight,” DeRozan said. “We should be able to come out composed and understand what we have to do.”
It will be loud and it will be unfriendly for anyone wearing Raptors colours Monday night, as it should be. That won’t be a surprise. But in order for the Raptors to overcome that, and to avoid a similar embarrassment to the one they suffered in the same building 50 weeks ago, they’ll have to embrace it.
“Traditionally, Cleveland’s been a good first quarter team. We’ve got to expect that,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “We’ve got to be mentally and physically ready at 7 o’clock. Not 7:15, 7:20. At 7 o’clock. We’ve got to be in high gear. Because this team is high octane in the first quarter. That’s their personality.
“And this is a hostile gym. The first night, we’ve got to fight through that. Fight through the loudness and the excitement of the crowd, and play through it. Sometimes, the us-against-the-world mentality motivates you. And I like that about our team.”
Raptors guard Kyle Lowry certainly doesn’t have a hard time finding that mentality. Most days it seems like he wakes up with it. He probably takes it to the grocery store.
Asked Monday morning what he’d learned from last year’s series with the Cavaliers, what he’d carry forward into Monday night’s game, Lowry wasn’t having it. That was another year, another team, another world. The only thing Lowry says he learned about Cleveland from playing them last May is the obvious.
“That they’re really good,” Lowry says. “They won the championship. They’re really good at home. So, we’ve gotta go out here and play our game and do our job.
“We’ve got more guys to throw at LeBron. More guys to throw at whoever else is going. We’ve got different lineups we can use. We can switch up the lineups. So, we’ll see what happens.”
Perhaps no Raptor has benefitted as much from the days off following Thursday’s series-clinching victory over the Milwaukee Bucks than Lowry.
You may remember him lying flat on the baseline floor when he wasn’t playing during that series, a stiff back not even allowing him to sit in a chair on the sidelines with his teammates. You may also remember that he had wrist surgery on the last day of February, missed seven weeks, and has played only 10 games since his return.
Ask Lowry about it and he won’t lie—he doesn’t think he’s been anywhere near as good as he can be, or needs to be, to this point.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I missed a whole month of the season. It takes a little bit of rhythm away. But that doesn’t matter. That’s no excuse.
“I’ve gotta go out there and do my job. I’ve gotta go out there and play. Try to help our team get a win. That’s all that matters to me. If we’re winning games, no matter how I’m playing, we’re winning games. I’m sure I’m going to play better. I want to play better. And we’re going to play better.”
That last part remains to be seen, but the Raptors will absolutely need to be better than they were last year if they’re going to take a real run at the defending champions, who have been lying in wait for them for more than a week.
You can’t go down by 20 at half. You can’t let James hit every shot he takes. You can’t let a role player like Shumpert go off like he did a year ago. Drop Game 1, especially in demoralizing fashion, and the Raptors will quickly find themselves in a suffocating situation, needing to beat Cleveland four times in their next six to get where they want to go.
“We’ve got to come out in the first quarter with a disposition and a mentality of, ‘OK, we’re ready to go.’ We can’t wait and feel the game out,” Casey says. “You’ve got to have your motor ready. Run the floor hard. Cut hard. Everything’s got to be done with a physical mentality. Instead of tip-toeing around, feeling your way through the first quarter, getting loose. You don’t have time to do that.”