Heading into Cleveland last night, the chatter on Twitter pegged this one as “the most important game of the year” for the Toronto Raptors. Apparently, the team didn’t check their feeds, because they came out flat and tired, and fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers 112-106, in a game that wasn’t as close as that score looks.
What Happened to Toronto’s Offense?
After scoring 212 in their first six quarters against the Cavs this year, the Raps have scored 156 in the six quarters since. Now, 156—or 26 per quarter—isn’t bad of course, but the Cavaliers are still not a great defensive team. (They were the 28th-worst defensive team before the All-Star break, and are 18th-worst since, in terms of defensive rating.) And they were missing George Hill tonight, a defensive-minded guard who’s given Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both trouble in the past.
So what the heck has been the difference? Cold shooting is part of it; the Raptors are 57-of-131 (43.5%) overall and 14-of-50 from downtown in that stretch, and I don’t think we can credit the Cavs’ defense for all of it. But you can credit them for working extra hard on Lowry and DeRozan (and, to be honest, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet too) at the point of attack. They are fighting hard through screens and handoffs to body up the Raptors perimeter players, and it’s working. Even when Lowry and VanVleet were able to get into the lane, often their angle of attack was affected just enough to increase the degree of difficulty on their layup attempts.
Overall, it has reminded me far too much of Raptors offences past; not in the isolation play per se, but it just seems the Raptors have to work a lot harder to get good looks, they’re taking tougher shots, and the offense is just labouring.
Jose Calderon Forever
I know I’m not the only Raptors fan who experienced mixed feelings when Jose Calderon started 6-for-6 and was easily outplaying a tired Lowry. He’s a beloved former Raptor, one of the all-time great human beings to ever wear our jersey, and one of the best pure shooters we’ve ever seen, so yeah, of course I root for him. But I don’t think any of us wanted him to be a difference maker for the opposition in one of the biggest games of the season!
And that’s exactly what he was in the first half:
Cavs are +18 with Jose Calderon on the court and -10 without him, because of course.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 4, 2018
He finished with 19 points (on 11 shots), four rebounds, four assists and one turnover. Lowry, on the other hand, finished with five points (on 11 shots), three assists, five rebounds and three turnovers. Advantage, Jose.
The Raptors Need to Use Their Size to Their Advantage
Early in the first and early in the third, the Raptors were feeding Jonas Valanciunas inside, and he was finding success: 4-of-5 in the paint in the first quarter, 3-of-6 in the third. Serge Ibaka also played well in the paint, grabbing four offensive rebounds. But the Raptors went away from feeding JV, and were unable to establish Jakob Poeltl in the pick-and-roll. Down the stretch, they went away from them both, preferring to play an Ibaka-Pascal Siakam front court against LeBron James and Kevin Love.
I understand the temptation to go smaller against the Cavs, but the Raptors simply can’t match up with a LeBron-plus-shooters lineup (no one can, except the Warriors). I’d like to try a few extra minutes of Valanciunas; why not try and punish the Cavs on the other end? Maybe get Love into some foul trouble? Of course, that requires a commitment on offense to run plays for JV, which the Raptors do not do reliably. But it is an advantage over this Cavs team, and if the Raptors’ 3-point shots aren’t falling, I think it’s worth a shot in small stretches.
(Also: anytime the Cavs play Jeff Green as a big, I think the Raptors must counter with JV. Green played almost 7 minutes of the fourth, went 3-3 and had 3 blocks; Valanciunas sat the entire quarter.)
Transition D is Problem
The Cavs identified a Toronto weak spot early: Transition defense. They were running and head-manning the ball even after made baskets, and the Raptors couldn’t or wouldn’t get back effectively, and were getting flat-out beat. Even if they did manage to stop the ball, the Raptors were finding themselves at a man disadvantage just long enough for Cleveland to execute easy drive-and-kicks.
LeBron and Love are probably the two best outlet passers in the entire league; I’d like the think the Raptors know this, or that the coaching staff made it a point of emphasis the past two days, and yet it sure didn’t seem like it last night.
Jack Armstrong mentioned on the broadcast that the transition 3-pointer has become the most dangerous shot in basketball; the Cavs are masters of it. The Raptors, collectively, need to do a better job getting back, and a better job of finding the open man and preventing open looks.
(Which is not to say their ability to guard the 3-point line was even better even with time to set up the halfcourt defense. They looked utterly discombobulated at times.)
Is It Panic Time?
Pretty much. The Raptors are 3-5 since winning 11 straight and are this close to losing the 1-seed. Meanwhile, the two teams right behind them in the standings—Boston and Cleveland—have won 6 of 7 and 9 of 10, respectively. Both have beaten the Raptors in those stretches—Cleveland, twice. (Thankfully that one Boston loss came last night, to Milwaukee, meaning that should the Raptors lose tonight, they’ll still have a one-game lead for the 1-seed.)
Normally I’m a “let’s stay calm” kinda guy. But playing your worst basketball of the season, heading into the playoffs, when your two closest competitors are playing extremely well, is not a good look. And even if you dismiss this as regular season blahs in a long year, that’s fine, but that 1-seed really matters! The Raps clearly have deep-seated LeBron James nightmares (as they should) and have struggled with Boston, so its imperative that the Raptors avoid them both as long as possible.
But even beyond that, keep in mind that there aren’t going to be any easy outs in these playoffs. Whether they’re the 1-seed or the 2-seed, the Raptors will face one of Washington, Milwaukee or Miami, and those are all good teams, who have all beaten the Raptors at least once this year. The Raptors will need to be firing on all cylinders to win a series against any of them.
And they are light years away from firing on all cylinders right now.
A win tonight in the latest “most important game of the year” will go a long way towards dialling the panic meter back, but it’s really close to the redline right now. Beating the Celtics will cut the magic number from four to one (thanks to the tiebreaker, which the Raptors would win based on division or conference record), which would, obviously, be huge, because again, that 1-seed really does matter.
The Raptors have not lost three straight all year. Will this be the night? Let’s hope not!