They were laughing at the Raptors. That’s an important thing to remember. Toronto’s team spent all season churning away, stewing its professional anger; the roster was reinforced in the hopes of bolstering its survival for this very match-up. It all led to Monday night. To Game 1. To the ultimate test.
And the Cleveland Cavaliers laughed the Raptors out of the building.
It’s cliche to say the Raptors have to treat a non-Game 7 like a Game 7, but tonight’s Game 2 (yes, two) really should feel like it. If the Raptors want to have any hope of beating the Cavaliers, they need to win a game in Cleveland. Last season, the “just happy to be here” Raptors went down 0-2, were gifted a couple of wins at home, and then went meekly into the night. The Cavaliers were laughing then too — and for Toronto to change that, they’re going to have to hit back with everything they’ve got. The margins here are exceedingly small.
Remember too: Before LeBron James became the invincible force he is today, he lost. He lost to a veteran Boston Celtics team, and he fell to an upstart Orlando Magic team. The conditions were different — the players, the pace, the passion — but the outcome should act as an inspiration.
Fearsome and fearless LeBron can lose. Now it’s on the Raptors.
Here are three things to look for in tonight’s Game 2.
Start the Fire Early
On paper, it made absolute sense to bring Jonas Valanciunas back into the starting lineup. The Cavs’ usual starters include three big dudes — Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and LeBron — and coach Dwane Casey figured to match size with size. Absolute sense!
Except it didn’t work. At all. As has been the case for most of the year, the starting group for the Raptors was over-matched once again. And while Jonas did have a few minutes of solid defense to point to, the speed and pressure of the game blew him off the court. Likewise DeMarre Carroll, who is doing what he can to stop the greatest basketball player on Earth, only managed to take one shot in his time on the court. The Raptors need more offense than that to combat the whirring, purring engine of the Cavaliers.
Lo, what’s this? A cry from the wilderness (or Michael Grange of Sportsnet) suggests the Raptors may start Norman Powell — saviour of Round 1 — and rookie Jakob Poeltl. This would be... something. As adjustments go it may also be something more specific: smart. While Norm isn’t really built to stop LeBron anymore than Carroll is, he can definitely power up the offense. And Poeltl has shown a few things the Raptors need: utility in the pick-and-roll, a smooth touch around the basket, and a heads-up defensive awareness.
Could this crazy plan work? Eh, probably not. But at this point, I say the Raptors go for it. The starting plan up to this point (for literally the entire season!) has not been working as well as we’d hoped.
The Supporting Cast Must Support
All that wild stuff being said, the Raptors still need more scoring from everyone not named Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. (And, for that matter, the latter needs to get back to effortlessly killing dudes like he did in the final three games of the Bucks series.) This would be ideal.
Only P.J. Tucker and Powell were able to break the double figures mark along with Lowry, DeRozan and Serge Ibaka in Game 1 — and that mostly came in the useless second half. For the Raptors to stay running with the Cavs, which is no easy feat, they need guys to let fly with confidence. If we’re working under the assumption that Carroll and Valanciunas may find themselves with a decline in minutes, that means the Raptors need more offense from Patrick Patterson (who shot 1-of-7 in Game 1) and Cory Joseph (who, I’m told, played in Game 1, but I don’t recall). And yes, if Norm and Jak are going to get bigger minutes, it’d be nice if they put the ball in the basket too.
I realize this all sounds rather basic — score more points than the Cavs! — but that’s what it comes down to. Cleveland is not an elite defensive team, and the Raptors need to keep that in mind. They can attack this squad. And while, yes, the Cavs can run up the score, and can look unstoppable at times, the Raptors have the firepower to match them.
The path forward is hard, but the questions are easy: Who will step up for Toronto? And will it be enough?
Win on the Road
To my mind, as I implied in the opening, this is the defining game of the series. If the Raptors go 0-2 on the road, we’re likely to see a similar, if not worse, outcome from last year. Maybe the Raptors steal Game 3, or 4, or both, but the effect will be exactly the same — defeat.
When LeBron pretended to drink that beer in Game 1, dozens of sportswriters had their perfect visual summary for this series. Here was a symbol more potent than LeBron’s ferocious left-handed alley-oop dunk off the glass in the first quarter; more fruitful than the Patterson block that was swatted right into the hands of a waiting Kyle Korver.
This is what LeBron thinks about the Toronto Raptors. And after crushing every other challenger for the past six years — including last year’s iteration of our favourite team — why should he take this threat any more seriously than ones from the past?
The Raptors are the only ones now who can make him think twice about being [shades on] cavalier.
Where to Watch: Sportsnets, 7pm EST