Rattled Raptors fall apart against Cavaliers once again

LeBron James had 29 points, 8 assists, and 11 assists to help the Cavaliers dominate the Raptors for a 128-93 win and series sweep.

CLEVELAND — With two minutes and 44 seconds remaining in the second quarter Monday, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey looked down his bench, like, way down his bench, and called the name of Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira.

Noguiera, Toronto’s third centre (perhaps its fourth considering Serge Ibaka’s been spending time at the five) and a charmingly enigmatic presence around the club, had not played a meaningful minute of basketball in three weeks. He had two minutes of garbage time in Game 2 of his team’s ultimately doomed conference semifinal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That was it.

But, desperate times. Monday night, when Cleveland blitzed Toronto’s big men in pick-and-rolls, the Raptors were making mistake after mistake. The thinking was Nogueira is one of Toronto’s better passers in those situations. Maybe he could break the press.

Plus, Ibaka had just committed his second foul — and third turnover — of the game on a charge. Jakob Poeltl was out of the rotation entirely. The Raptors were trying desperately to stay in a game, to keep their season alive. And the Cavaliers were starting to make a run.

So, Nogueira. And while the two minutes that followed didn’t lose the Raptors this game, and didn’t lose them this season, wow, were they ever emblematic of just how poorly things went in this series, and why Toronto won’t play another game this season.

Upon checking in, Nogueira did little for a few possessions before fouling Kevin Love on an out-of-control closeout, something the Raptors made an unfortunate habit of in Game 4. Love hit both free throws.

Then, at the other end, Nogueira called for a lob from C.J. Miles at the rim and couldn’t finish it. He ran back down the floor, blew a switch with OG Anunoby, and allowed LeBron James to throw a one-handed, behind-the-back assist to Love at the rim.

On the ensuing possession, Nogueira threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off by Kyle Korver. Before he knew it, he was standing in front of James in transition, and the Cavaliers star wasn’t going around him, but through him, barrelling a shoulder into Nogueira’s chest and knocking him to floor. It was during this steamrolling that James fed the ball up to a streaking George Hill, who found J.R. Smith in the corner for a wide-open three right in front of the Raptors bench.

That was the point when, mercifully, Casey called a timeout. Nogueira was returned to his seat at the end of the bench. The Cavaliers had gone on a 10-0 run in his 1:51 of game time, as part of a larger 14-2 run, and even larger 23-7 run that began when the Raptors had the game tied with seven minutes remaining in the second quarter.

This sounds like it’s picking on Nogueira, but it’s not. He hadn’t played in weeks. Asking him to set down his coconut water, enter a do-or-die game cold, and make split-second decisions in the face of intense Cleveland blitzes was asking too much. Putting him in the game in that spot was a hail mary.

And that’s the issue. What that two-minute stretch illustrates is everything that went wrong for the Raptors in this series. They were hesitant, jumpy, easily rattled. They committed atrocious turnovers regularly. When the game plan didn’t work, they panicked and nervously improvised. Players freelanced, went on their own. The left hand often didn’t know what the right hand was doing.

And while the Raptors were in a perpetual state of disarray, the Cavaliers were taking advantage. They were capitalizing on every turnover, racing out in transition, converting Raptors gaffes into run after run. Practically every time the Raptors coughed it up, James was turning loose, looking to run somebody over. Casey tried to hedge with timeouts. He tried combinations of players rarely seen before. It only compounded the issues.

And that Casey got to a point, in the second quarter of a must-win game, where his rotations were so muddled, so discombobulated, so ineffective, that he grabbed a mallet and smashed the in-case-of-emergency glass encasing Nogueira says it all. For the life of them, the Raptors could not get out of their own way in this series.

“We were trying to do too much,” said Jonas Valanciunas. “Frustration, trying to do too much, trying to win a game — that got us in a position where we just lost our head.”

You could see it in each of the four games. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. The Raptors collapsed offensively in Game 1, blowing a 14-point lead and losing in overtime. They were flat-out embarrassed in Game 2. They needed a blistering hot shooting run to overcome a 17-point deficit in Game 3, before watching James lay it all the waste with an iconic buzzer-beater.

And they played almost absurdly bad defence in Game 4, getting lost on screens, losing assignments in transition, and, generally, committing many of the errors that had killed them all series. The Cavaliers shot 59.5 per cent in Game 4. Toronto turned the ball over 55 times in the series, forcing just 32 from Cleveland.

“I felt like the whole season we were top five defensively and offensively. And, in the playoffs, we just never really got both of those things together,” said Pascal Siakam. “I don’t think we ever had a game where we felt like we did everything that we could and we played like ourselves.”

Asked why a team that was undeniably great in the regular season, winning 59 games and finishing with the second-best record in the NBA, could look so unlike itself in four playoff games against the Cavaliers, Valanciunas paused for a long beat before offering a simple answer.

“I don’t know. Probably it was the mental stuff,” he said. “Not basketball stuff. Probably that was mental stuff.”

What do you mean, “mental stuff?”

“I don’t know. We’ve got to be ready to win. We’ve got to be ready to do big things. Maybe we were not ready,” he said, shrugging. “They wanted it more than us. That’s why.”

Valanciunas has been a Raptor his entire career, six seasons in all. He was a part of the team that lost in seven games to Brooklyn in 2014, that team that succumbed in four games to Washington in ’15, and the three consecutive teams since that have had their seasons ended by the Cavaliers. He’s been here before. He’s come up short often. He doesn’t sound like a guy who understands why it keeps happening.

“We all got to look at ourselves and see what we need to do this summer, how to get through this,” he said. “You know, we’ve been in this position many times. How are we going to get better? How are we going to work? What are we going to do this summer to get through this?”

Compared to Valanciunas, Miles doesn’t know anything about Toronto Raptors heartbreak. This was his first year with the franchise. But it was his 13th in the league — he’s seen a lot of teams succeed and fail. And when he tried to think about what went wrong for these Raptors, he arrived at some of the same conclusions as Valanciunas.

“I think there was some overthinking in some spots,” Miles said. “Hesitating to shoot, looking for the extra pass, not seeing the extra pass — it’s a little bit of everything. It’s just about understanding what’s going on. And not making the same mistakes twice.”

So, what’s that like? Trying to execute in the moment, overthinking, getting rattled, forcing it — how does that manifest itself on the floor?

“You get frantic and you start jumping,” Miles said. “And now guys are just getting away from the concepts, just trying stuff, because you’re trying to figure something out. You can’t fault guys at some point. But then the other four guys don’t know what he’s doing.”

Cohesion and chemistry in basketball is a difficult thing to get a handle on. This season, the Raptors had it. Until the last four games, when they didn’t. It was a stark reminder that, in the playoffs, a good team is never that far from bottoming out. Never that far from getting desperate, from getting frantic, from falling apart. One thing goes wrong, and then another, and another, and suddenly you’re throwing the last guy on your bench out there in a must-win game, hoping it’s what stops the bleeding.

“I just think the room for error, the margin of error, is so much smaller in the playoffs. One mistake can cost you — one bad minute,” said Fred VanVleet. “I think at the end of the second they went up 10, 12, 15 in a minute and 30 seconds. Those lapses — you can’t have a breakdown in any stretch. You’ve got to play a complete game. I just feel like, in this series at least, we didn’t play a full 48.

“Obviously, we had a great regular season. But we failed in the post-season. It’s that simple. It’s not really that complicated. You don’t have to mix the two together. Because we got swept and lost in the second round doesn’t take away from our regular season. In the grand scheme of things, we came up short. And we understand that.”

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