Saturday's Game 1 loss to the Indiana Pacers was a chillingly familiar sight for Raptors fans. Nervous tension, shoddy execution, bizarre coaching moves and, of course, absent star players - we've seen this movie more than once in a playoff setting. That's now seven straight playoff losses for the Raptors dating back to 2014. Given the track record of the Masai Ujiri-era Raptors panic, frustration and outrage that was omnipresent on the Internet and inside the ACC Saturday was entirely understandable.
Did those emotions need to be swirling with such fervor, though? Was Toronto's Game 1 performance really an indication that this team is unable to win when it matters? Are Toronto's All-Stars fraudulent or its coach unable to press the right buttons in games of actual consequence?
It'll certainly be fair to ask those questions if the Raptors turn in another dud of a series and bow out to a lower seed for the third consecutive season. Alas, we're still far off from that. One letdown in a seven-game series doesn't erase the progress the likes of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey have made in the last three years, nor does it nullify the 56-wins worth of goodwill the Raptors built up in the regular season. Seven straight playoff losses is a stinging stat to think about, but the reality is that this year is its own entity, far removed from the failures of past springs.
This Raptors team is on a one-game playoff losing streak. Casey and his staff must now adapt, address the trouble spots, and prevent a repeat performance in Game 2 on Monday night.
Any discussion about where things went wrong for the Raptors in Game 2 starts with what Paul George did right. It's fair to criticize DeRozan for his dreadful shooting day. He went just 5-for-19 from the floor and displayed far too many flashes of the shot-forcing, mid-range loving DeRozan of old.
There's a reason DeRozan struggled so mightily, though. George was in his grill from the jump, rarely relinquishing an inch of space for DeRozan to work with. Off the ball, the Raptors could never spring DeRozan free -- he probably heard George's footsteps in his dreams when he went to bed on Saturday night. It also didn't help that when DeRozan did catch the ball coming around a set of pin-downs, he failed to attack with his usual decisiveness and explosion. All of those elements coming together resulted in sequences like this:
Another problem for DeRozan on Saturday was that instances like the one above, in which the Raptors worked to get DeRozan open with a head of steam, were fewer and further between as the game went on. Instead of persistently battering George with a series of off-ball screens, the Raptors asked DeRozan to go one-on-one with George far too often. DeRozan has a fancy array of post moves that work against most wings. George is a different beast, though. Asking DeRozan to create against him yielded the expected result more often than not.
Myles Turner also played a critical part in shutting down DeRozan. At times where he did get to the rim, the Pacers rookie stand-out was often there as an imposing, shot-swatting help defender. He contributed greatly to DeRozan's issues when he did manage to slice open the defense.
For the Raptors to break free of George's shackles going forward, enhanced creativity in getting the ball to DeRozan is going to be imperative. George may be like a cheetah tracking down an antelope away from the ball, but hammering with him multiple forceful picks could be a way to find DeRozan some much-needed breathing room.
Amping up the physicality with George could also help drain him of some of the energy he used to absolutely demolish the Raptors as the pillar of Indiana's offense on Saturday. George was as off as Lowry and DeRozan in the first half on Saturday. He shot just 2-for-9, routinely falling victim to the Raptors defensive strategy of keeping their centres up high to meet him at the free throw line whenever he tried to swerve into the middle of the floor.
It was an effective strategy early on. It forced George to either launch toughly contested shots, or get rid of the ball all together by dumping it off to his big men, who had varying conversion rates in those scenarios.
The second half was a different story. George was an unstoppable 10-for-13, scoring 27 points in the final 24 minutes, knocking down all four of this three point tries (he was 4-for-5 from distance in the game).
"I was just able to watch film ... I was just trying to figure out a better approach and a more focused plan coming into the second half," said George of what incited his second-half outburst. "I knew I was gonna get some pretty good looks, and had to be smart about how I took them."
The change in George's plan of attack was noticeable. He went from being a fish in a barrel to a slippery eel in a gigantic lake by avoiding the swaths of arms and help defenders in the middle of the court, instead opting to unleash havoc from the perimeter, typically against just one face-guarder.
If there's a positive to be gleaned from George's monstrous second half, it's the degree of difficulty his hot shooting was achieved with. George is a superstar, but he's no Steph Curry. Over the course of a series, the Raptors would probably live with the perimeter-oriented shot chart George pieced together in the second half.
Of course it won't matter where George's shots are coming from if they aren't being furiously contested. DeRozan was Casey's number one option defending the Pacers' All-Star, which gets to one of the main non-George factors behind Raptors' out of sync performance: Casey's rotations were all out of whack.
Dedication to continuity has been Casey's hallmark this year. Knowing which lineup combinations will be on the floor and when has been one of the more comforting things about watching the Raptors this season. Uneasiness during a slow Luis Scola start has been quelled by Casey's early switches to Patrick Patterson; Lowry and The Bench Mob has been maybe the most dependable lineup all year long.
But in Game 1, Casey's predictability went astray. An emerging Norman Powell and returning DeMarre Carroll were supposed to be boons to the Raptors' versatility and depth, but instead, the bounty of wing options seemed to throw Casey off.
"I was searching to find somebody to stop Paul George," said Casey of his substitutions. "I thought our normal rotation again was a little skewed ... just with adding that extra player in there. At the end it was kind of searching for someone to stop Paul George. And it wasn't really fair to DeMar to put him in there after he (George) got going and trying to turn the water off. We'll come up with a rotation in that situation."
Skewed is right. It wasn't just the interchanging of wing parts that made for a strange day of subs on Casey's part. His typically dependable early-game changes were different from the norm as well. What stood out most was the stretch that began with just under 40 seconds left in the first quarter in which neither DeRozan or Lowry were on the floor. That lineup continued for a few minutes to start the second. If it weren't for seasoned playoff vet Cory Joseph playing his ass off in those minutes, Toronto would have been hopeless on offense.
There's a reason the four man combination of Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patterson and Bismack Biyombo played just 79 minutes together without one of DeRozan or Lowry on the floor this season, per NBA Wowy (30 of those minutes came after April 1st where the stars were resting sporadically). Without one of the two star guards, that unit lacks offensive catalysts -- particularly when Ross is out of sorts, as he was early in the game.
Toronto survived that spurt, mainly because George was on the bench - a fact that makes Casey's decision-making in that part of the game even more curious. Casey could have given DeRozan the opportunity to take over the class with the teacher out of the room. Instead he played his star wing almost exclusively when George was on the floor as well.
Patterson sat most of the third after being one of the most effective Raptors in the first half; Terrence Ross played 8:31 in the fourth quarter (minutes he actually did some nice things with, even if his first half performance didn't warrant that kind of opportunity), and Casey swapped Patterson and Carroll for one another during the peak of George's onslaught, instead of sticking them together to attack him as an interchangeable tandem - all of it was kooky and out of tune with what's happened this season.
Lowry's struggles were out of the ordinary as well (at least as far as his performances this season have gone). His 1-of-6 mark when challenged is one thing -- George Hill is excellent at hassling point guards. But Lowry clanking five of his seven uncontested looks and going just 4-of-9 from the free throw line will do him no favours with critics who thought he should rest in the closing days of the season when it became known he was dealing with elbow inflammation.
You can look at Lowry's poor shooting day in Game 1 one of two ways. It either serves as confirmation that his elbow isn't right, or it's an outlier that should soon be followed by a return to Lowry's typically shooting numbers.
"We're positive. We got some looks that we liked and I think some looks that we know we can make," said Lowry of his and DeRozan's poor shooting nights.
"The last couple months I've been missing free throws but that's nothing to be concerned about ... I missed some that I thought were good too so I'm not really worried about it too much," Lowry added. "My elbow's fine."
Toronto's playoff hopes, regardless of how well role players like Patterson and Joseph play, may hinge on the accuracy of that emphatic statement from Lowry.
One final concern for the Raptors coming out of Game 1 has to be the regularity with which the Pacers were able to attack the Raptors on the run. Thanks to its dearth of accurate shooters and the focus defenses can afford to pay to George, Indiana struggles to create in the half court. In transition is where the Pacers can kill you, and the Raptors afforded their opponents way too many chances to do just that on Saturday.
DeRozan commented on Toronto's turnover issues after the game:
We turned the ball over. We didn't give ourselves opportunties to get into the rhythm of the game. We had 19 turnovers, you know that takes away opportunities for us to be able to score ... Now we're scrambling trying to get it back on the defensive end ... Once we protect the ball and give ourselves a better opportuity to score we'll be fine ...
We just had a bad game. We shot 38-percent, turned the ball over, we missed 12 free throws. Take that away, we're right there. We (DeRozan and Lowry) gotta play better than that as being the leaders of the team, and with that, protect the ball.
Indiana turned those 19 Raptors giveaways into 25 points, and it could have been a lot more if not for some heroic chase-down blocks and contests by Biyombo, Patterson and Valanciunas. Maybe it was the pressure of not letting another Game 1 at home slip away, perhaps the credit goes to the Pacers for harassing Lowry and DeRozan (they combined for 9 of the 19 turnovers). Truthfully, it's probably a bit of both that led to Toronto's ball security problems. Regardless, if the Raptors are going to claw back into the series, preventing George, Hill, Monta Ellis and Ty Lawson from rushing the ball up the court is a must.
Oddly enough, one of the areas in which the Raptors excelled most on Saturday, could end up negatively affecting Toronto's ability to put the brakes on Indiana's transition game. The Raptors crushed Indiana on the offensive glass, out-boarding them 20-9; Valancunias had 11 on his own (most of which were tap-backs of his own misses). Asking Valanciunas to use his Grizzly bear dimensions to grab Raptors misses isn't a bad idea, especially when the spindly Myles Turner is his positional counterpart. But in cases where the offensive board-crashing doesn't yield a second-chance opportunity for Toronto, it could leave the Pacers with a numbers advantage for a quick counter-strike going the other way. It didn't burn the Raptors yesterday, but it's something to be mindful of going forward.
Not every part of the Raptors game on Saturday warranted scorn. Despite some instances in which the Pacers ran wind sprints from end to end, the Raptors managed to keep the game to a pace that suits their style of play. Toronto played like molasses in the regular season for a reason -- its side-to-side, drive-heavy offense chews clock and is deadly efficient. There's no need for Toronto to play faster than it's 95.31 possessions per 48 minutes pace in order to generate offense; it's much more at home allowing it's defense to set up after scoring. Saturday's game doled out just 95.74 possessions per team, a far cry from Indiana's 10th-fastest 98.99 mark this year.
Over the course of a long series, it's going to be hard for Indiana's 23rd-ranked offense to generate enough production if the Raptors continue to dictate the tempo. The Pacers won't shoot 52 percent from outside the arc in every game -- guys Monta Ellis, for example, aren't known for draining 3-of-4 threes on a nightly basis.
That doesn't mean Toronto can sit on their hands and wait for the winds of regression to blow Indiana's way. In transition, the Raptors need to do a better job of picking up would-be shooters and their rotations and close outs will have been a lot more harmonic than this:
This loss was not Game 1 against the Wizards in 2015. Casey isn't out of answers and the Raptors aren't flawed to the point where they can't win this series.
Ingenuity and calmness will be key. DeRozan needs to adapt to George's suffocating one-on-one defense, and the Raptors need to work in concert to get the ball in his hands with downhill momentum and open freeways in front of him. Lowry needs to prove his bursitis is a non-issue and capitalize on the open shots that come to him in the flow of the Raptors offense. Casey needs Patterson, Joseph and Valanciunas to clone their Game 1 efforts. Casey's ball-handlers need to treat the ball as precious cargo, instead of forcing dangerous passes or letting the tree branch arms of George and Turner poke it away. The Raptors have to stymie Indiana's attempts to inflict pain with speed, and the coaching staff needs to find and set a rotation that takes advantage of the innumerable killer lineups Ujiri's bendy roster provides.
Lastly, fans need to take a deep breath. Emotion is okay -- it's part of the fan experience. It's what leaves you with those frayed nerves at the end of a game that confirm you just witnessed something that matters. At the same time, it's useful to take a step back, look at the entirety of Game 1, and realize that there are six more of these things for the Raptors to fix the busted gears.