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Five thoughts on last night: Raptors 106, Cavaliers 95

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The Raptors and Cavaliers played 48 minutes of uninspired basketball last night, but the end result went in Toronto’s favour, pushing their league-leading record to 20-4.

NBA: Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 106, Cleveland Cavaliers 95, Kawhi Leonard, Cedi Osman Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I hope no one out there watching last night’s Toronto Raptors-Cleveand Cavaliers game was experiencing basketball for the very first time, because chances are, they’ll never want to watch it again. Toronto hung on to win 106-95, and although I’d like to forget the whole thing as fast as possible, here are five (mmm, maybe) things I saw:

Kinda Fun to Have the Undisputed Best Player in the Raptors-Cavs Matchup

After four years of LeBron James torture, it was pretty cool to see the Raptors turn the tables on Cleveland, wasn’t it? Kawhi Leonard was dominant last night, and he looked to only be playing at about 3/4 speed. He did his usual thing on the defensive end, forcing Cedi Osman into more and more difficult shots, and on offense, generally got to wherever he wanted to go without much difficulty.

The three-point shot still isn’t back yet — just 3-for-9 on the night — but he filled it up from everywhere else, finishing with 34 points on 21 shots, nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal. Most of all, though, he gives Raptors fans hope — that when not much else is working, when the team is stuck in a rut, we’ve got a guy who can make winning plays at either end of the floor (or both of them). That was what we hoped were were getting in last summer’s trade, and as the rust fades, it’s clear that’s just what we got. He didn’t drink a beer on the court or spin the ball in an opponent’s face, but it was still a treat, wasn’t it?

(Of course, I’d’ve preferred if the Raptors had held on to their 21-point lead, and Leonard could have rested the fourth...)

Offensive Rebounds are our Friends

OK, so it’s not like the Raptors are suddenly gonna start crashing their own glass — that’s not how they play, and not really how the NBA plays these days either; transition defense is more important. But, some effort needs to be made to try and keep things even, and we got some really nice boards from Danny Green and Kawhi last night.

I particularly liked this one, with Leonard just muscling Cedi Osman out of the way:

NBA: Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 106, Cleveland Cavaliers 95, Kawhi Leonard offensive rebound

I don’t know why, but I get a total kick out of seeing Leonard use his strength like that.

On a night where Tristan Thompson was a beast (more on him in a minute) the Raptors needed everyone chipping in on the glass, and had five players with five or more rebounds; Leonard led the way with nine. The Cavs still ended up a +2 on the glass, and +3 on second chance points, but again, I appreciated the effort.

The Fred VanVleet Roller-Coaster

Starting for a resting Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet struggled again last night, with one (very important) exception — a fourth quarter stretch where he scored on a drive, hit a triple, and found Serge Ibaka for a floater. That stretch pretty much sealed the deal, but before that, VanVleet was just straight up bad.

I highly recommend you read Daniel Hackett’s analysis of the Raptors’ bench unit; I for one agree that VanVleet needs to spend more time off the ball. He’s a much better catch-and-shoot player than creator — he spends far too much time standing and dribbling, and when he does move, it’s usually right into traffic. And he doesn’t see the angles on pick-and-rolls that he needs to, in order to make the Raptors’ big men effective. Why not put the ball in Delon Wright’s hands more, and let VanVleet operate as a shooter?

So, that Lowry Guy. Pretty Important

Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas were both subpar last night, but I don’t think the blame can entirely be laid at their feet; they were like an engine without oil, and that oil is Kyle Lowry.

The team really laboured at times without Lowry. As noted above, VanVleet just doesn’t seem as effective running the show this year; Leonard still seems more comfortable doing his own thing; and Delon Wright isn’t being given as many opportunities as the primary point guard. Even Pascal Siakam, a playmaking force so far this season, didn’t seem as comfortable last night.

I guess this is a backhanded way of saying, even though Lowry’s numbers have dipped from the gaudy highs of the first eight games, he’s still an All-NBA First Team candidate; he’s the engine that makes the league’s best team go. Without him, they’re just grinding gears and barely beating a terrible Cavs team playing on the second night of a back-to-back.

Oh Man, That’s Only Four Thoughts? Geez

Ugh, I really have to write one more? OK, a few random thoughts:

  • Despite my memory of Tristan Thompson having monster game after monster game against Toronto, the numbers don’t back it up; last night was only his 7th double-double in his last 29 games against Toronto (including playoffs). Still, he was a beast last night, with 18 points and 19 rebounds. I’d love to bring him home one day... one day after that ridiculous contract has faded into history.
  • C.J. Miles continues to wander aimlessly through games, like a thirsty man in the desert. He finished 1-for-4, had a rebound, an assist and a steal in almost 15 minutes. Oh, GoDaddy, why must you vex us so.
  • The blown leads will bite Toronto again at some point. The Raptors were up 21 in the third quarter in this one, and let the Cavs (again: the second worst-team in the league, on the second night of a back-to-back) within seven in the fourth. They’re surviving these games, which is great, but at some point, another Detroit game is going to happen. Toronto has to be able to rely on its bench to at least play to an even score without Leonard, Green and Lowry in the game.

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All right, that’s all I’ve got. The Raptors play Cleveland again on December 21; between now and then, they have nine games, eight of them against opponents with winning records. They’re 20-4 now; can they go into that Cavs game 25-8? 27-6? 29-4!? Honestly, after seeing that game last night my only hope for this nine-game stretch is that they’re all at least a little more entertaining.