If there’s a more telling visual metaphor for a Raptors/Cavaliers game in 2016-17 than DeMar DeRozan’s scrambling corner three that was disallowed, we’ve yet to see it. It’s true the Raptors refuse to be blown out, but against the few teams demonstrably better this means just enough miraculous plays to keep things interesting. The Cavs, led as they are by the invincible LeBron James, are more methodical. Cleveland beat the Raptors tonight 116-112 to remain the best in the East.
As has been the case all year, the Raptors were led by their two best players, Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. The two all-stars finished with 24 and 31 points, respectively. Both shot well from the field, with Lowry going 7-of-14 (and 4-of-9 from three), and DeRozan going 12-of-23. They chipped in a combined 14 assists — nine from Lowry — to go with a combined four steels — three from DeRozan — and only three turnovers all told. That said, they both finished a -5 for the game. It’s hard to blame them for the loss though.
“We got to play a perfect game to play a team like that,” coach Dwane Casey admitted afterwards. “Whether it’s a mental breakdown or whatever, not executing, not closing out properly ... All those little things matter in the flow of the game.”
In a sense, this was Casey quietly calling out the rest of the Raptors, who — despite maddening flashes here and there — made mistakes, or just straight up played poorly. For his part, Terrence Ross did what he was supposed to do, hitting 4-of-7 threes for 14 points. DeMarre Carroll had one spurt in the second quarter when it looked like he might come alive, but after putting in his eight points he didn’t score the rest of the way. Lucas Nogueira got faked out of his shoes a couple times, but did what he could to make plays at the rim on either end. Patrick Patterson picked an unfortunate time to regress back to the mean -- he went 3-of-12 for the game, hitting 3-of-7 threes but missing some unconscionable bunnies. He did add nine rebounds and was the only reliable big man for the Raptors, but that was a small comfort.
For most of the first half, the game was tight. Kevin Love (who finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds) kept the Cavaliers going, with LeBron as always revving in the background. It was James who slowed things down in the second quarter, as the Raptors and their Lowry plus bench lineup threatened to build a lead. (It got up to six in favour of Toronto at one point.) Irving took over from there in the third with some of his usual acrobatics. Then LeBron reasserted his will. James finished with 34 points, eight rebounds and seven assists; Irving chipped in 24 points on 9-of-18 shooting with seven assists of his own. It’s tough to beat a team when their three best players are clicking like that.
Which brings us to the true problem of the Raptors when they go up against the Cavaliers, or the Warriors (or even the Clippers or Spurs). Who is this team’s third best player? Ross, Carroll, Patterson, Cory Joseph — these are complementary pieces. All signs, as per usual, point to Jonas Valanciunas to be that guy. The problem in these situations is two-fold. As the game speeds up and the Cavs go small, Jonas is hopeless on defense. He can’t guard the pick-and-roll and he can’t deal with Channing Frye on the perimeter. To have any reason to keep him out there then, JV has to kill the Cavs on offense. But then comes the second problem: he went 1-of-8 from the field for four points (to go with 10 rebounds). Casey insists Jonas is fine — as in, not injured — but that’s no consolation. It means Valanciunas is just playing badly. Again.
When the Raptors start Jonas and Pascal Siakam — and God bless him for trying — it does put them at disadvantage. I know some have been ranting and raving about this very issue, but against most teams it doesn’t quite matter. Against the Cavs, it very much does. As Casey said: the Raptors need to play a perfect game — and with Siakam and Jonas taking turns getting overwhelmed on one end of the court or the other, there’s just no way for that to happen. DeRozan gets his points, Lowry pushes and pushes, Ross bombs some threes, the rest of the Raptors soldier on, but it all comes undone anyway.
The Raptors kept it respectable though, which we kind of expected them to do. They were down 114-109 when DeRozan somehow found himself squaring up in the corner for that three. It was the kind of out-of-nowhere miracle play that puts the Raptors in position to steal a win, even after they’d been outclassed for a sizable portion of the game (and all of the second half). That it was disallowed by inches really sums up the entire experience.
The Raptors are good, they can compete against any team in the NBA. But when they run up against the truly great teams — and a player like LeBron James — it’s those last few inches that matter most. And it’s also why they lose.