The Raptors’ Kyle Lowry opened the scoring against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals by hitting a 3. It was an encouraging sign for the Raptors, since they’ll obviously need Lowry to be at his fearless best to unseat the defending champs. Unfortunately, it was the last time the Raptors would lead. They would go on to lose to the Cavs — and to no one’s particular surprise — by a score of 116-105.
The Raptors made a couple runs though, giving glimmers of hope for a time. After falling behind by 18 points early in the second quarter, the Raps did manage to fight back. Led by Lowry — back to his old self with an efficient line of 20 points (7-of-13 shooting, 2-of-4 from deep), 11 assists, and a steal — Toronto went on an 18-3 surge to get back in the game. This, even after the Cavs had dunked all over the Raps for most of the first quarter — with LeBron James, and even Iman Shumpert, getting into it — and two 10-0 runs of their own. In the micro, it was a nice few minutes.
But a nice few minutes are not enough against the relentless, overall assault by LeBron James. As we’d feared, James was everywhere on the court, able to make any pass he wanted, find any lane, and even play-act drinking a beer in the third quarter. Such was the state of the game by then, with the Raps down by a solid 25 points or so. James would finish with 35 points (on 13-of-23 from the field), 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and a few crushed souls (including mine). He played 41 minutes, and hardly looked troubled.
At the start of this series, we believed Toronto was ready to be tested by the Cavaliers. Most ultimately picked them to lose the series, but the thinking was that this time around they’d make things tougher on LeBron and Cleveland. But what can we point to here that suggests anything different from last season? Outside of the expected production from Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (19 points and 7 rebounds in a muted performance), what were the positives?
Serge Ibaka, the Raptors’ new power forward, and a key to the series, had a quiet 15 points and 6 rebounds (though he did shoot 3-of-3 from three). P.J. Tucker put in 13 points, but was not able to stop LeBron any more than the invisible Patrick Patterson (1-of-7 from the field, and a truly bizarre travel call), and the forgotten DeMarre Carroll (3 points, from the one shot he took). The feel-good story of Norman Powell was a footnote here, with most of his 12 points coming after the game was out of reach. Cory Joseph was quiet once again (2 points in 10 minutes). And Jonas Valanciunas? He was put back in the starting lineup, managed six points and six rebounds, but will remembered here for looking comically overmatched for most of the game.
Watching the Raptors flail out on these little runs proved to be doubly exasperating. Every time it looked like maybe Toronto was putting together something resembling quality basketball, LeBron and his crew had an answer. The team’s other two stars, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, went off for 18 and 24 points, respectively. The role players all did what they were supposed to do. The teams shot similar percentages, but the Cavs seemed to capitalize more easily on their open opportunities. They executed their gameplay and, despite rumours to the contrary, looked every bit the championship-calibre team on defense. The Raptors still looked a step or two (or three, or four) behind — except when taking threes, where they managed to put a toe on the line multiple times. It’s literally the smallest of gestures, but it contains volumes.
In the late minutes of the game, TNT’s Grant Hill talked about the Raptors being a resilient group. He mentioned how they bounced back after that Game 3 disaster in Milwaukee. He talked up their overall mental fortitude. Hill was not wrong in his assessment, even if it looked largely absent tonight — the Raptors took turns looking shook, bobbling the ball, getting pushed around, janking all kinds of shots. The problem, however, is still in want of a solution.
The Raptors can definitely play better than they did tonight. They’ll have to if they want to have any chance at all in this series. But LeBron is not about to stop what he’s doing. He’s taken the Raptors’ best swings before and come back chuckling. Toronto had be best to consider that: it’ll be on everyone to play at their best if they want to take a lead beyond the first minute of any game here. To which all I can say now is... good luck.