In the far reaches of his mind there lies a vision Raptors president Masai Ujiri will never quite verbalize. He’ll talk about process, improvement, prudence, strategy. But he’ll never say outright: here, this is my plan, this is why I did these things, this is who the Raptors are supposed to be.
On Thursday night, as the Raptors prepared to play the Cavaliers, that vision felt farther away than ever. Toronto had barely beaten the Nets, then lost to Miami, and were now staring down the two best teams in the league — Cleveland and Golden State — without Serge Ibaka against the former, and Kyle Lowry for both (and possibly more) games. Many of us prepared for the worst.
Instead, somewhere in the second quarter of tonight’s game, as the all-bench unit of the Raptors began to drive the score up on the Cavs and a six-point lead ballooned to 25 at the half, we saw on the horizon the possibility of not only a win, but an easy win. It was all there for the Raptors. And people: it was beautiful.
Each and every Raptor played to their best selves tonight against the Cavaliers. The final score, an impossible 133-99, somehow does not even capture how thorough and fun this game actually was. LeBron James did what he could, he led all scorers with 26 points — but it was not nearly enough to stop the entire Toronto squad.
Without Lowry, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet needed to step up — and so they did. For his part, Delon stranded the Cavs’ Isaiah Thomas on an 2-for-15, 4-point island; meanwhile VanVleet dropped a career-high 22 points, on 6-of-8 from deep shooting, and became the catalyst for the team’s offensive explosion.
Without Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas took to laying down all kinds of abuse on the Cavaliers undersized starting frontline of Kevin Love and James. He had nine points and nine rebounds in the first, a double-double at the half, and finished with 15 points and 18 rebounds in a mere 18 and a half minutes.
Buddies Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam did what they do best, running the floor, picking their spots, hustling into every corner. They finished with a combined 28 points and 19 rebounds, while shooting 5-of-8 and 7-of-10 from the floor. Both got to have their breakouts (along with FVV) on national TV too. (Cheers to Jak getting the classic Kevin Harlan call.)
And maybe we should spare a moment for Norman Powell too, the Raptors forgotten man and one-time saviour. Norm’s been struggling as of late, but in this one, with a Cavs bench not built to deal with speed or explosiveness, he was able to make an impact. The shooting touch wasn’t quite there, but 16 points, six rebounds, and three assists sure do take the edge off.
(As an aside: while he likely won’t factor much into the Raptors’ post-season plans, how about Lorenzo Brown? The dude played a full game for the 905 as part of the G League Showcase earlier today, and managed six points, six rebounds, and three assists in 19 minutes tonight.)
Finally, we get to DeMar DeRozan. Without his running mate, DeRozan became the primary target for the Cavaliers — and it showed. They doubled him whenever he got the ball coming off a screen. He found a lot of pressure in the paint. He had to trust his teammates without the safety net provided by Lowry and Ibaka. It would be a chance for him to lead. As the Raptors ran up the score on Cleveland, there was DeRozan sitting on two points for most of it. He’d finish with just 13, on 5-of-13 shooting, but it was more than enough. DeRozan made plays instead, amassing eight assists, a feat most of us didn’t think possible less than a year ago. Times do change.
Still, LeBron and the Cavs tried to make a run. The lead, which got as big as 35 points by the end, shrunk to 23 in the third quarter behind a 15-2 run from Cleveland. We collectively got nervous, imagining a scenario where LeBron, pissed off, would lead his team all the way back — to send a message, or a warning, to the rest of the conference and the league. As Raptors fans, naturally, we worried.
For the second night in a row (after their debacle in Minnesota), there just looked to be no hustle to this Cavs team, a dire lack of energy. Maybe it’s from three nights off in “White Vegas”, maybe it’s just the fact that this is a game in early January, maybe it is just a “funk” as LeBron called it afterwards, or maybe... just maybe... there’s not enough juice to this team, not enough heart, not enough it.
Maybe Toronto — both team and city — can start talking themselves once again into beating LeBron.
Let me put it this way: if the Raptors had a better playoff history, I’d probably be picking them for the Finals. But they have a HORRIBLE playofff history EVEN in years where they’ve advanced. That has to matter.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 12, 2018
The question invariably comes back to whether or not the Raptors can do this in the playoffs. Once there, LeBron reigns supreme. We know this. Tonight however, without Lowry and Ibaka, the Raptors learned something about themselves — something idealistic, sure, but not necessarily untrue.
“It should give them confidence,” said coach Dwane Casey of his young squad. “It should give a guy like Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, all those guys, confidence to know ‘hey, I belong, I’m a big part of this team’ which they are.”
“I think it sends that message to everyone in the locker room.”