There are certain basketball contests that demand to be described as light work. The shorthanded Raptors against this current version of the Cavaliers certainly qualifies. Toronto still has to play the full 48 minutes, and they’d obviously like to win, but heading into the game, it’s always a bit unclear as to how much effort they’re liable to put in. I mean, how hard could it possibly be for the best team in the East to beat one of the worst?
As it turns out: not that hard at all! Minus four starting-calibre players (Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas), the Raptors moseyed along through Friday night’s contest in casual control. Sure, the Cavs pushed, pulled, and tried their best to secure the win — but Toronto won anyway, 126-110. Like I said, just another evening of light work.
That’s not to say some of the Raptors weren’t giving it their all. Toronto’s night was given a boost by explosive effort from OG Anunoby, who jumped off with 15 first quarter points and 21 in total (on 9-of-14 shooting) along with eight rebounds, in just 22 minutes. Despite some foul trouble, Anunoby looked to take advantage of the Cavs’ relatively soft defense where and when he could. It was encouraging to see Anunoby pull out a bunch of different moves — threes, putbacks, drives and spins to the rim — as the Raps’ will need him to have that kind of confidence on the offensive end when the time comes.
Likewise, it was comforting to watch former bench mob compatriots Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Norman Powell reunite to run most of the game. Siakam got off to a slow start and didn’t shoot particularly well (6-of-17 from the field), but finished with a 15 point-10 rebound double-double anyway. In the backcourt, Fred VanVleet coolly went off for 14 points (on 6-of-10 shooting) and eight assists, while his fellow starter on the night, Delon Wright finished with eight points, four rebounds, three assists, and one (1) technical foul. And Norm, in his second game back after a six-week layoff, showed both his determination to do good things for the Raptors, and a renewed ability to pick his spots; his 11 points (on 5-of-7 shooting) were heartwarming to see — and brought a smile to his face in the post-game scrum. (Now if only C.J. Miles, after an 0-for-5 night from deep, could rediscover his love of basketball, then we’d really be getting somewhere. I feel for the guy.)
The Raptors deep bench options didn’t extend much further than Lorenzo Brown, given the Cavaliers’ ability to hang around just enough to keep Malachi Richardson and Chris Boucher off the court for anything by the final two minutes of garbage time. It was another aspirational night for Brown though. He had seven points (on a 3-of-6 shooting night) to go with three assists in an active 16 minutes. Coach Nick Nurse was happy with his minutes, but to me Brown’s run was summarized by a backcourt steal and breakaway lay-up that was so casual in its force the Cavaliers were able to chase him down and force a miss. Better luck next time Zo!
As far as the Raptors’ (newest yet) veteran players were concerned, the light work concept definitely fit. For his part, Greg Monroe spent 14 minutes gamely running pick-and-rolls and bullying his way to the rim. He finished with nine points and three rebounds and could have been in a Sunday afternoon pick-up run.
Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard, the absolute best player in this game by a wide order of magnitude (it is hard to overstate this), casually worked his way to [checks paper] ah yes, 37 points (on 12-of-16 shooting and 11-of-12 from the line), plus six rebounds. If not for the desire to avoid burning himself out (and it’s nice to get the rest of the team involved), I’m convinced Kawhi could have gotten a good shot every time down the floor against these Cavaliers. Whenever they looked to be challenging, Kawhi would muscle his way to the rim, finish the bucket and get fouled. It was like clockwork — and almost unfair (but not really).
In total, the two teams drew mostly even in their collective efforts — the Raptors just had more talent where and when it mattered. Yes, even down those four key players, Toronto remains the better team. Cleveland was led in scoring by Jordan Clarkson’s 20 points, but you’d be hard-pressed to consider him the team’s best player. In the absence of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, I’m not even sure they know who would fit that description on a night to night basis.
In any case, we’re fast arriving at the end of this recap, at a neat 850 words and I hardly broke a sweat. Hey, that light work edict extends to all quarters after a game like tonight. Sometimes the Raptors just make it easy — on themselves, and on the rest of us.
See you all again in less than 24 hours.