Narratives can be exhausting. You can spend weeks building evidence, amounting stats, and yet that damn narrative will come back to bite you with one mis-step. All season, the Raptors have succeeded in spite of what some will say — regular season success is meaningless with this team, their past playoff embarrassments are what define them.
Yet, haven’t we chipped away at that? The Raptors came into tonight’s game against the pre-season favourites in the Eastern Conference — the Cleveland Cavaliers — ahead of them by 11.5 games in the standings. They dismantled them by 34 points before Cleveland retooled their roster at the trade deadline. They won 11 of 12 games coming into this matchup, with wins against Houston and business-like performances against everyone else.
We know the Raptors are good. We can even deduce, looking at their record and the evidence in front of us, that they should be considered the favourite in the East. We also know they came into this game finishing a road back-to-back after Orlando on Tuesday.
This is all to say: don’t treat this loss as anything bigger than tonight. Cleveland beat Toronto 132-129, mostly thanks to the best basketball player in the world. If or when these two teams meet in the playoffs, the context will be different, and maybe new, more rational narratives can start forming.
LeBron James was magnificent in this one. He had 35 points, 17 assists, and seven rebounds, spending most of the second half picking apart the different defensive looks thrown at him by Toronto. He made bullet passes to his supporting cast, who shook off recent struggles to put down almost every open shot. Cleveland shot 63% from the three-point line; Jose Calderon and George Hill were a perfect 6-for-6, Kevin Love was 4-for-6, and J.R. Smith was 2-for-3. It was, basically, the perfect offensive game for the Cavaliers.
But... it was still just a three-point game! That can mostly be attributed to an explosive first half from the Raptors’ offense. They dropped an astounding 79 points in the opening two quarters, as Kyle Lowry drove the bus for the starters and a C.J. Miles-less group of youngsters did it together for the bench. Lowry, always up for these Cleveland matchups, was great with 24 points on 7-for-10 shooting. There wasn’t much defense played on either side, so it was timely for Lowry to have a wet jumper.
In the first quarter, it was quickly apparent that LeBron was going to be a problem. OG Anunoby struggled to guard him in his initial assignment, and the Raptors’ offense was tasked with keeping up. Both teams were up for scoring, as they combined to make 24 of their first 27 shots.
Though they trailed by four points after the first quarter slugfest, Toronto opened things up in the second. The bench came in and got a huge lift from Pascal Siakam. In one series of trips down the court, he hit a three, guarded LeBron arms-up on a drive, made a spinning layup, and then another. Again, Siakam’s nine points and four assists belie his impact, because based on the eye test that second frame was one of his best this year. Fred VanVleet, fresh after missing a couple games due to injury, also made a couple threes.
"I'm open, I'm open!" - @FredVanVleet— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 21, 2018
The starters then came back, Lowry did some more Lowry stuff, and the Raptors went into the break leading 79-64.
In the third, it was Cleveland’s turn. The Cavs opened the quarter on a 9-2 run, mostly taking advantage of some stanky defense by Serge Ibaka. In playoff-like matchups such as this one, it’s immediately apparent the Raptors are going to need a lot more effort from Ibaka — on multiple trips, he jogged back on defense, and was immobile on offense. The difference between his play and the mad-cutting, insane style of Siakam could not be bigger. He usually plays poorly on little rest, but tonight was excessively bad.
Dwane Casey did figure out a nice wrinkle midway through the period to keep things close. By putting Ibaka on Kevin Love and leaving Jonas Valanciunas on Jeff Green, the Raptors were able to switch a little better and stay in the game.
Then, the fourth was just plain fun. Both teams went back and forth, unable to stop each other. Late, we got another look at the clutch offense for Toronto — it was isolation heavy, but not ineffective. An interesting decision came late when DeRozan opted for a two-pointer down three with 7.8 seconds left. This is one the Raptors seem to have done often, I would rather see them use up clock and try to tie the game in one go. After that, they lost a mini-free throw battle, and the game was over.
While all the context up top makes it hard to consider this a playoff preview, we’re certainly in for some entertainment if these teams meet again. LeBron was up from the opening tap, all snarls and muscle as he attacked the paint over and over.
LeBron James is taking over in Cleveland! #AllForOne pic.twitter.com/cuEbvXhONS— NBA (@NBA) March 22, 2018
The Raptors didn’t back down either, making multiple runs to keep the game close until its conclusion.
There was no choking, no shrinking from the moment, and certainly no bubbling up of past years’ narratives. This is a different year, and I’m fully convinced that a different outcome is coming for Toronto’s post-season.
Some other observations from this one:
- I can’t overstate how fun it is to see the connection between VanVleet, Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. Every game, Jakob gets open layups based on the vision of the other two — tonight he actually led the Raptors in field goal attempts because of those passes, as he finished with 17 on 8-for-13 shooting.
- Expanding on Anunoby, the Raptors may have lost this game in the minutes he played LeBron. Siakam was far superior as a foil, much more physical and patient with guarding James on the perimeter. OG looked every bit a rookie, biting on small movements and allowing easy drives. It’s good that the Raptors tried multiple looks on LeBron, but in reality they might only have one feasible look come playoff time.
- Norm Powell is endlessly frustrating in games like this. Cleveland’s defense was predictable, yet Norm was completely unable to drive productively. He either dribbles into traffic and loses it, passes too late, or misses his target on almost every touch. Toronto needed minutes from him with C.J. Miles out with the flu, and the combination of his negatives plus the assumed positives that C.J. would’ve brought are also huge factors in the loss.
- Jonas Valanciunas was a perfect 6-for-6 for 15 points, and the Raptors missed opportunities to make it an even more productive night for him. While Cleveland was creative in using Kevin Love’s advantage on one end (23 points, 8-for-15, 12 rebounds), Toronto seemed to forget about their mismatch at times. Any minutes these two play each other is a focal point of a Cleveland-Toronto matchup. The Raptors have to play their advantages like the Cavs played theirs.
- Long live Jose Calderon. (But also, save it for another opponent maybe?)