It’s been happening for three years now, but losing to LeBron James never gets easier. In fact, the closer the Toronto Raptors get to the precipice of being ready, of it finally being time to overthrow the King — the process of losing just gets harder.
Tonight didn’t have the highest stakes for a Raptors-Cavaliers matchup, being a regular season game in early April. Both teams are too far from the finish line to jockey for second-round playoff matchups, and Toronto needed a win against Boston tomorrow regardless of the outcome tonight.
Still, when you’re playing that team you measure yourself against — and have for the last three seasons — the game feels important. You want to see the Raptors play well, play hard, and show some blueprint for how they can beat LeBron in a playoff series. That, right there, is why this loss is a disappointment. Toronto didn’t do any of those things.
The narrative around this 112-106 loss in Cleveland, the tenth loss in 11 games for the Raptors in Quicken Loans Arena, will be about Kyle Lowry. Lowry was out yesterday celebrating his alma mater, Villanova, as they won a national championship in college basketball. He returned from San Antonio to be with the team today and suited up.
Still, it was in mind and not in spirit. Lowry was humiliated in his starting matchup with 36-year-old Jose Calderon. Getting into all his bad defensive habits, all at once, Lowry gambled going for steals, was too aggressive on screens, and allowed Calderon to light him up — the former Raptor was sharp to take advantage, scoring 11 points in the first quarter (5-for-5) and 19 overall (7-for-11), marking a game-high +27 in the process. Lowry was poor on the other end too, missing shots badly short, ending 2-for-11 with three turnovers for five points.
Lowry’s mistakes were rocket fuel for the Cavaliers. When Kyle gambled, the Raptors’ team defense fell behind and Cleveland’s ball movement started in earnest. Calderon was one beneficiary, but this was a balanced attack from the Cavs on the offensive end. All five of their starters scored in double-digits, with LeBron James leading the way for 27 points, ten rebounds, and six assists. Kevin Love, Rodney Hood, and Jeff Green — the other three starters — combined for seven of Cleveland’s 13 made threes.
tfw Jose Calderon and Jeff Green light your team up pic.twitter.com/BGLTFOq1dZ— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) April 4, 2018
In that regard, the Raptors couldn’t keep up. Lowry was one issue, but missed shots were another, as the team shot just 11-for-34 from deep and 45% overall. There were a lot of missed layups, along with some back-breaking threes that could’ve brought down Cleveland’s lead.
The first quarter started off with Lowry looking slow. Still, the Raptors were able to balance Calderon’s fire with some solid interior play. Jonas Valanciunas scored eight of the team’s first 11, as part of a 17-point, ten rebound performance. Serge Ibaka also started nicely, making a pair of threes in the opening frame, and the Raptors trailed by just four.
In the second, though, Cleveland let hellfire rain down. Toronto’s bench narrowed the gap against a LeBron-less lineup to start the period. When the King returned, though, Cleveland ripped off an extended run, taking a game tied at 33 and making it a 16-point lead in their favour. It ended up being the decisive moment in the game, though Toronto would make some small runs to make it interesting.
It was key mistakes in the second half that stymied any chance of a Toronto comeback. There was also the nagging notion of LeBron — that at any given point, he could’ve decided to win the game, and the Raptors would give it to him. It certainly looks on the floor that the Raptors lack some confidence that they had a month ago. Going back to the Houston win, there was a level of self-belief we saw in that game that we haven’t since — a sense that five minutes of defensive pressure can angle a game in their favour. We just aren’t seeing those 10-2, 13-2, or longer runs that the Raptors got so good at ripping off earlier this season.
Maybe it’s symptomatic of the opponent. LeBron is demonstrative, and has been that way for the Raptors. Maybe, and I hope this isn’t the case, it’s symptomatic of the season — that playoffs, and April, really do make Toronto’s collective knees shake.
I’m not on the precipice of believing that yet. The Raptors have another chance to make right, and basically wrap up the East’s top seed (no easy feat), tomorrow night as they host the Boston Celtics.
Some other observations from this one:
- While Fred VanVleet had a poor night shooting the ball (3-for-10), he was the only Raptor who made timely threes, and was noticeably a strong cog in a shaky bench lineup. C.J. Miles had his second straight poor performance, shooting 2-for-5 from three with two turnovers. Pascal Siakam was also off for stretches. The bench gears seem to need some lubricating, and hopefully some success against Boston tomorrow can do that.
- He was a willing passer (seven assists tonight), but DeMar DeRozan needs to assert himself beyond two points in the first 18 minutes. Cleveland was throwing bodies at him to dare the supporting cast into shots; the Raptors’ coaching staff have to find a way to bypass this, getting DeRozan scoring early on for rhythm.
- This game was close, in the end, because the bench mob’s bench mob turned up for the last two minutes. Norm Powell, who has been legally dead for most of 2017-18, ripped off a ferocious two minutes to get the Cavaliers lead down to four. Free throws ended up sealing it, but some insight might’ve been found: is Norm’s kryptonite the rest of the team playing well?
- OG Anunoby got a longer look at LeBron in this game than he did two weeks ago, but I actually preferred the switch that put him on Kevin Love and Ibaka on James. OG was mobile enough to keep Love in front of him, and challenged well on a pair of post-ups (one resulted in a rookie touch foul). If you can take anything from this game, it’s that this might be a move in the playoffs.
- Seeing how Bad Kyle Lowry trickles down is actually a compliment to him. He’s the most important player on this team, and is the best chance the Raptors have for some confident play right now.