I’m sure I’m not the only Raptors fan to be saying this after that game: I did not see that one coming. Hanging a franchise-record 133 on the Cavaliers? Without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka? Here are five thoughts on a game I’m still not entirely sure actually happened.
The Raptors set the tone early
On the first possession of the game, the Raptors missed twice but got two offensive rebounds before Jonas Valanciunas finally scored (by pump-faking Kevin Love out of his shoes and dunking the ball). We had no idea at the time that it was going to be an indicator of how the night would go. The lead quickly jumped to 10-4 with a couple of C.J. Miles 3-pointers (who got the start in place of the suspended Serge Ibaka), and Tyronn Lue was forced to call timeout—the first of many Cavs timeouts on the night.
The two teams traded buckets over the next 8 minutes, with LeBron James taking his usual masterful drives and hitting layups through traffic. After Delon Wright blocked an Isaiah Thomas runner and went coast-to-coast to give the Raptors a 5-point lead, Lue called another timeout; following that, a furious helping of Tristan Thompson offensive rebounds cut the Raptors lead to 23-22 but that was the closest the Cavs would get the rest of the night. The Raptors finished the quarter on a mini 7-2 run to give them a 6-point cushion, and when the Raptors bench came on in the second quarter... hoo boy.
The Raptors bench showed the world what they’re made of
The Raptors second unit, which didn’t take advantage of their opportunity against the Heat, made the most of it last night—in a game televised nationally in the U.S. on TNT, no less. Most American fans watching this game probably had no idea who Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl or Pascal Siakam were—but they sure do now. A five-man Raptors bench unit of VanVleet, Poeltl, Siakam, Norman Powell and Lorenzo Brown played the first 7 minutes of the 2nd quarter, and extended the lead from 6 to 19 before DeRozan and Valanciunas came back in. In fact, after DeMar DeRozan scored to put the Raps up 25-22, the bench scored the Raptors’ next 34 points!
We’ll talk about VanVleet and Poeltl in a moment, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the bench unit was Norman Powell. With 14 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and a +23, it was his best game since December 17, when he went 5-of-5 against Sacramento. Granted, he only shot 6-15, but he hit two 3-pointers and shot the ball with confidence. Hopefully, a nationally-televised blowout game is exactly what Powell needed to get himself back on track.
Special shoutouts to Lorenzo Brown, who played 19 minutes, and Malcolm Miller, who got 6 minutes in garbage time, both of whom played in a G-League game earlier in the day! Miller scored 6 points on 2-of-3 shooting—his first NBA buckets.
As we all expected, Fred VanVleet was the Raptors’ best player against the Cavs
VanVleet had a sensational game, going 8-of-11 with 6 3-pointers, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 24 minutes, finishing +28. He seemed to be in complete command of this game.
He made his usual array of smart, scrappy plays—including a reverse layup off a DeMar DeRozan pass on a wonderful backcut , and drawing an offensive foul on Jae Crowder on the first play of the second quarter—but the shooting was sublime. Everything was in rhythm and within the flow of the offense. We’ve heard over the past year-and-a-half that Fred is a sharpshooter, but he hasn’t really displayed it; it was great to see it come out against the Cavs.
The play of VanVleet and Wright—who smothered Isaiah Thomas and forced him into a 2-of-15 night—showed everyone that there’s more to Toronto’s backcourt than Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
The Cavs didn’t know what to do with the Raptors two 7-footers
Jonas Valanciunas had a great start to the game, picking up 9 points and 9 rebounds in the first six minutes. He took a pretty terrible foul on a LeBron James drive in transition though, his second, which meant he had to sit.
Jakob Poeltl got the call as first big off the bench, and he picked up where Valanciunas left off, with 5 points, 7 boards and 3 blocks (though it felt more like a dozen) over the next 13 minutes. He seemed to be in the right spot at the right time, every time, and displayed some crafty post moves as well. Surely one of the highlights of my life as a Raptors fan was hearing Kevin Harlan yell “Jakob... POELTL!” after the Austrian laid in a fourth-quarter bucket off a sublime drop step.
Poeltl would finish a game-high +29, and the two Raptors centres would finish with a combined 27 points and 30 rebounds. That’s almost as many as the entire Cavs team, who had 35 (the Raptors, after getting pounded on the boards by Miami the other night, were +28 on the glass). The Cavs just had no answer for the Raptors bigs.
The Cavaliers defense is as advertised
There has been a fair amount of chatter about the Cavs porous defense, 29th-ranked coming in to the game; even though Cleveland’s D hasn’t been great the past couple of years, this seems to be a new low. And it was hard to believe they’d play worse than their previous game, a 127-99 drubbing at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But they did, and it was kind of insane to see. There were open lanes available all night, and at times it seemed the Cavs just wanted to get out of the way of Raptors drives. One one third quarter play, Wright drove the lane and three Cavs sagged off him; he laid it in without any resistance. (Cue another Tyronn Lue timeout.) Meanwhile, the Raptors had one of their best three-point shooting nights of the year, going 18-of-42; the number of wide-open looks surely had something to do with that. (Remember when the Raptors had no answer for the Cavs three-point shooting? It was nice to see the opposite!)
If the Cavs don’t fix that defense—or at least give it a healthy tune-up—before the playoffs, I’m not sure even LeBron James can carry this team to the Finals.
I wrote five thoughts and I barely mentioned DeMar DeRozan, who hit three 3-pointers and dished out 8 assists, finishing with 13 points in 28 minutes. But this isn’t the same old Raptors team. They’re deep, have complementary pieces and can win without DeMar and Kyle doing all the work. They showed the Cavs, our friends on TNT and an American audience that tonight.
Now, can they carry it over to Saturday’s game against the champs? And more importantly, down the road, into the playoffs?