Though perhaps overrated in other contexts, there’s something to be said for trying in an NBA playoff game. After the Raptors’ abysmal Game 2 loss to the Cavaliers, there was much hand-wringing over how they’d respond. Would they put forth a valiant effort with their star Kyle Lowry unable to play? Would they be able to shoot, defend, and compete with the defending champs? Would they even bother?
Just prior to tip-off it became clear that Lowry would not play. And in response, for three quarters, the Raptors competed like hell. DeMar DeRozan bounced back in a big way. Cory Joseph, filling in for Lowry, worked extremely hard to limit the Cavs’ Kyrie Irving and run the offense. Norman Powell continued to prove he wasn’t scared — of LeBron James or anyone else. But the Raptors just could not shoot — from 3-point range especially — and it eventually winded them. Toronto would go onto lose in the fourth, getting outscored 36-17 in the frame, and 115-94 at the final horn.
Before the game, coach Dwane Casey compared this series to a boxing match. He said his team can’t go with the rope-a-dope strategy against the champs; they’ve got try to hit them back, and throw a whole mix of punches in the process (including some “below the belt”). So, as LeBron surveyed the scene, dancing his team around the ring, the Raps threw flurry after flurry trying to knock out the Cavaliers. If they’d been able to hit a 3 (they were 0-for-12 before nailing their first one late in the third), Toronto might have been able to score at least a TKO. They’d instead finish 2-for-18 from deep (to the Cavs’ 13-of-23), which just does not give you a puncher’s chance of winning a basketball game in 2017.
Credit should go to DeRozan though. After a truly terrible Game 2, DeMar found his groove once again, pouring in 36 points through three quarters to keep the Raptors in it. Unfortunately, Casey opted to rest him to begin the fourth. “He needed that [break],” said Casey, which very well could have been true. But DeRozan managed only one more point in the game’s final ten minutes, and the Raptors offense crumbled. “I could have kept going, I didn’t feel like I needed a blow,” said DeRozan. “At this point in time there’s no need for a rest.”
But rest DeRozan did, and right after Kyle Korver had come alive to close the third (in Channing Frye’s place), hitting a barrage of threes to begin turning the tide against Toronto. The Raptors did what they could to keep the game ugly, but a LeBron-led team will run smooth eventually. The champ is the champ for a reason.
If we can isolate one discouraging thing then in particular, it would the Cavs’ relative lack of urgency as the game began. This is that lack of respect we’ve been hearing so much about as of late. For all the effort the Raptors were pouring in, the Cavaliers seemed almost lackadaisical in their approach. Somehow, they still out-rebounded the Raptors 49 to 25 anyway, and outshot them 51 percent to 43 (and 56 to 11 from three). Toronto’s frenzy was for naught.
A summary of the Raptors’ numbers after DeRozan is bleak. Jonas Valanciunas, back in the starting lineup, came out strong then largely disappeared, finishing with 19 points (many of them late, once the blowout had settled in) and seven rebounds. Powell shot 6-of-19 for 13 points, gamely trying even after going down for a spell with a twisted ankle. Serge Ibaka was out of sorts with 12 points (mostly on dunks) and only two rebounds. Joseph was 2-of-12, his defense the only thing working for him. And the Raptors’ bench was once again terrible: nine combined points (five from P.J. Tucker, two from Delon Wright, and two from Fred VanVleet deep into garbage time). It’s hard to remember the times when the Raptors’ depth was supposed to work to their advantage.
And of course, there was still LeBron. The King had another fearsome game — 35 points on 9-of-15 shooting, to go with eight rebounds and seven assists. At a certain point, whether it was when he bombed threes with ease, or hit a left-handed push shot, or ran the break at lightning-fast speed, there is no answer. The fatigue that settles in, as the Raptors wail and wail and wail away, and still see James striding forward, must be devastating. It knocked out the entire arena.
There’s little doubt the Raptors don’t have any more combinations left to throw. This game’s first three quarters were likely their best shot to reverse a decision in this series. Like the consummate plugger, the Raptors tried their hardest, and still lost.