We always knew that it’d take a hell of a lot to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers.
When you’re the underdog, the margin for error becomes razor thin; when you’re the underdog to last year’s champions, even less so. So it’s concerning that the Raptors saw similar problems in Game 1 against Cleveland as they did against an inferior Milwaukee Bucks team. In the end, the Cavaliers waltzed to a 116-105 win.
Defending Cleveland’s Shooters
On defense, the starting lineup simply wasn’t good enough to deal with the Cavaliers’ first five. Cleveland starters made ten of their team’s 14 three-pointers, and most of it was due to the inferior defensive play of Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan.
Cleveland’s formula for exposing these two is relatively simple. They involve Valanciunas in some pick and roll action, find open space, then start the ball movement. More often than not, it was DeRozan who was slow on rotations — ending in an open shot. Here you can see it all in one possession, culminating in a Tristan Thompson dunk.
Valanciunas was a -21, while DeRozan was a -32 in this game. It projects even worse when you look at the per-100 possession numbers.
The Raptors on/off(per 100 poss) numbers are even worse than I thought they'd be pic.twitter.com/KXQNr6I03H— Lernernerner (@duckshoe) May 2, 2017
While returning to the original starting frontcourt of Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and DeMarre Carroll allows the Raptors to match up better size-wise with Cleveland, they’re simply too slow to get out and challenge shooters. When the Raptors start Norman Powell, they have four defenders to cover for DeRozan’s miscues from the get-go. With Valanciunas out there, 40 percent of your starters regularly get lost on defense.
That’s too much to ask when going against a preeminent passer like LeBron James. James had just four assists in the game, but his team assisted on 26 of 53 made field goals — nearly half. Their starters were also +9 in their first run of the game, which ended up being an insurmountable difference.
In defending Cleveland, the Raptors need either more defensive intensity from DeRozan, or to return to the Norman Powell starting lineup that won them the Bucks series. Ideally, they can get both.
More from the Others
On the other end, the Raptors got a rebirth of prime Kyle Lowry but struggled elsewhere. Lowry had 20 points (7-for-13, 2-for-4 from three) and 11 assists, and no longer looked as hesitant as he did around the arms of Milwaukee.
Toronto, though, needs much more than that to challenge Cleveland. Namely, they’ll need their role players to make open shots. They got those looks — 45 percent of the Raptors’ shots were open or wide open, according to NBA.com — but failed to knock them down. They made just six of their 13 wide open threes (46 percent), while Cleveland made seven of their 11 (63 percent).
The most perplexing case is Patrick Patterson, who is now shooting just 29 percent in the playoffs after a 1-for-7 outing in Game 1. Patterson is clearly shackled up in his own head, giving up a wide open look for a travelling violation early in the game.
This is the most open he’s been in weeks, but self-doubt is a powerful thing.
Other players were off in their efficiency — Cory Joseph was 1-for-3, Serge Ibaka was 6-for-14 — but none so brazenly as Patterson. The answer isn’t as simple as playing someone else, either. The Raptors need Patterson on the floor to defend Cleveland’s mobile frontcourt.
Therein lies the difference between being favoured and being the underdog. To win against odds, you need your core rotation to all be playing well at the same time. In Game 1, the Raptors didn’t get that.
There is reason for hope, though. The shots are there. The personnel is there. They just need to go out and put it all together.