After getting tangled up with the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet in the second quarter of Game 1, LeBron James decided to give him a little shove after the fact. It was the kind of contemptuous gesture LeBron has had for the entire conference, and much of the league, for close to a decade. After being run ragged by the Pacers in Round 1, it also fit with LeBron’s cranky mood of late.
But this time around, owing to the Raptors’ and FVV’s renewed attitude, the undersized guard had to be restrained from getting right back into the King’s face. These Raptors are not going to be pushed around.
Not surprisingly, the fans inside the ACC, and presumably across Toronto, ate this reaction up. We love small, scrappy, underdogs, which is what both VanVleet and the Raptors represent — even numerically favoured as they are. Or should I say were? Despite Toronto’s fighting spirit, and a lead that lasted for almost all of regulation time: the first punch of this fight was delivered by the Cavs. Powered by LeBron, the league’s alpha dog, they eventually won Game 1 in overtime, 113-112.
“I don’t think we played our best game,” said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, “I do think we stole one.” So there you have it: the underdog stays down, the King stays the king. And now it feels like, yes, the odds are now stacked against Toronto.
If there are positives here, we can start at the beginning. The Raptors came in hot, and looked unafraid of the moment — for a time — winning the first quarter 33-19. Kyle Lowry was pushing the pace, Jonas Valanciunas was playing huge, and OG Anunoby was doing a credible jump pressuring LeBron. There were troublesome issues that continued in the first half — the bench looked shaky, Serge Ibaka was invisible — but hey, the Raptors had the lead at least. There was much hooting and hollering going on.
Except we should have known better. Playing against LeBron isn’t about isolated incidents, small bits of success. There is an inevitability to him, his presence and game acting like erosion over time. Despite shooting 12-of-30 from the field, James still managed a 26-13-11 triple-double, and was living firmly in the Raptors’ heads by the second half and overtime. How else to explain the gradual stranglehold the Cavaliers placed on the Raptors’ offense, a top-ranked system that went ice cold down the stretch? It could be from defensive pressure, sure, or nerves — or maybe it truly was something more inescapable.
“I know it sounds simplistic but we had our open looks, had our opportunities that we didn’t cash in on,” said coach Dwane Casey, sounding for all the world like a man who knows he may already be out of chances. That’s what LeBron does to a team’s spirit. And it hurts all the more when the shots were definitely there for Toronto to win Game 1, and assert some sense of control over the proceedings.
It’s hard not to fault Jonas Valanciunas for that sense of loss. The big Lithuanian played as big as he possibly could for his 34 minutes, posting 21 points and 21 rebounds (including eight on the offensive end). It just so happens though that JV shot 7-of-19 from the field, and many of those offensive boards came off his own misses — none bigger than in the dying minutes when JV missed three gimmes, then a fourth later on, and then, for good measure in a mad scramble at the end of regulation, one more.
And what of Lowry? The Raptors’ leader had 18 points and 10 assists, he shot 50 percent from the field, and 50 percent from three. But save for a wild lay-up and-1 call to bring the Raptors in for a chance at the win at the buzzer in overtime, Lowry disappeared down the stretch. DeMar DeRozan, meanwhile, had spurts of extreme effectiveness — he was the only Raptor to hit a shot for what felt like forever in the fourth and OT — but it wasn’t enough, and it could be countered too easily at times. DeRozan finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. Ordinarily when DeRozan and Lowry put up lines like that, the Raps win. But ordinary is not LeBron.
The rest of the Raptors’ bench couldn’t outplay their counterparts on Cleveland, which is another dissatisfying element of note here. (Seriously, Jeff Green had 16 points; Tristan Thompson went for 14 and 12.) Jakob Poeltl was a zero for most of the night, Delon Wright took too long to find his feet, Pascal Siakam’s energy felt too wild at times, and while C.J. Miles managed to hit two 3s (which felt huge in the moment), they didn’t add up. There were stretches where it felt like the Bench Broskis’ power might come to the fore — the opening minutes in the fourth when the Raps’ lead grew to 10 — but it all just disappeared. As a team, the Raptors shot 20 percent in the fourth, and allowed the Cavs back in.
And VanVleet, well, he took a distressing fall in the fourth, and wasn’t quite himself for the rest of the game. With bum shoulder and all, FVV still did have a chance to win it. DeRozan swung the ball out to him, but the guard’s late three caromed harmlessly off the rim at the near-buzzer, sealing the Raptors’ fate in a game they very much should have won. I don’t know how else to explain it, except to say — sigh, of course.