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We can feel like everything’s fine with the Raptors, even after Game 1

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Game 1 was soul-crushing, but the Raptors did plenty of things to indicate that they’re just fine heading into Game 2 on Thursday.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

There’s nothing like a Toronto Raptors Game 1 to ignite a city-wide bout of The Feelings. Tuesday’s overtime loss to the Cavs, which probably should have been a win, was an absolute wind-knocker; three days of Raptors gassing, bullish Vegas odds-makers and resounding expert proclamations that this was finally the Toronto’s year to dispose of the Cavs along with their own personal baggage, all blown away by a strange, unlikely, yet oddly reminiscent cannonball shot to the spleen.

Everything went right for 40-something minutes, with the inverse poking through as a 10-point Raptors lead dwindled and Biyomboan bunnies refused to just go in the fucking basket. Overtime’s opening tip came under a cloud of LeBron James-induced inevitability.

If you want to be peeved about the Raptors doing to the potential victory what Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka did to that crucial late defensive rebound, you’re justified. A 3-of-20 finish from the floor can’t entirely be chalked up to randomness and the make-or-miss nature of the league, Doug. Faulty process, some dialed in Cavs defense, and yeah, maybe even some ghouls feasting on Raptor brains all factored into the fourth quarter shot chart looking like a grisly crime scene.

Trailing LeBron in a series isn’t ideal — duh — particularly when a 1-0 lead and a held home court serve were in hand at numerous points in the late going. It is almost certainly the most crushing Raptors Game 1 loss on a list loaded with depressing and/or hilarious candidates. Dread radiates from near misses way more hotly than it does from standard issue series-opening no-shows. But the reasons why the loss feels so heavy in the immediate aftermath can also be seen as beacons of optimism heading into Thursday’s Game 2.

With the hard liquor worn off, the tears dry, and the entirety of Game 1 put into view as opposed to a handful of pissed-away possessions, a mostly promising Raptors performance reveals itself. This series should go long.

Toronto passed its first test of the series early in Game 1. It also happened to be perhaps the most daunting one outside of the age-old help-or-no-help conundrum LeBron creates. Tyronn Lue opted to sell out for offense to open the game, running out a George Hill / JR Smith / Kyle Korver / LeBron James / Kevin Love starting five which, depending on the day, features somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 useful defenders in the aggregate. It got treated as such by Dwane Casey’s usual starting five.

Heading into the series, the prospect of the Cavs outgunning the Raptors with a three-bombing small look was real. It’s a movie that’s killed off the Raptors during the opening credits before, with the likes of Love and Channing Frye helping Cleveland outscore Toronto from the three-point line by roughly one thousand points in 10 playoff games over the last two years.

Deviating from the established script in Game 1, the Raptors didn’t only refuse to bend their style to match Cleveland skewing small, but pressed the advantages of staying huge in a way we’ve rarely seen them do in post-seasons past.

Kevin Love, even with two functioning thumbs, doesn’t have much of a prayer in a physical showdown against Jonas Valanciunas. Without straying too far from their preferred free-flowing style, the Raptors ensured Valanciunas got extra meal time, finding him for quick-strike post-ups against Love, leveraging his markedly improved decision-making to exploit Cleveland’s early traps, or in some cases, working in a little bit of both:

JV’s eye for grabbing offensive boards over comparative weaklings is nice, too.

“We just attacked,” said Kyle Lowry of Toronto’s early success against the puny Cavs. “JV played big early. We just attacked and we were aggressive to start the game ... We really were super aggressive and attacking, attacking, attacking and we got out in transition and got stops and were able to run.”

Over 13 minutes as Cleveland’s most used lineup, Lue’s latest starting look posted an 80.0 / 127.5 / -47.5 efficiency slash line with an untenable 31.6 rebounding percentage. Toronto collected offensive boards on half its misses in that time. A year ago, Valanciunas was forced into reserve duty; Toronto couldn’t keep pace with Cleveland when he was on the floor. Between his more refined offensive game and the steadiness with which he’s anchoring the defense these days, Valanciunas is now a question Cleveland doesn’t have an obvious answer for unless that lineup begins rolling in the one way it is designed to play.

(Note: Lue confirmed on Wednesday he will stick with the same starting lineup for Game 2)

On Tuesday, Lue’s response to JV’s lordship over Love was to double down by swapping in Jeff Green, a move that kick-started both the Cavs fortunes and the Wheel of Luck’s betrayal of the Raptors.

Sustainability in the post-season is hard to gauge. You can wait for regression to strike, but if its arrival gets held up by a game, even a half, a series can be swung irreparably. That said, Jeff Green, he of the career 53.1 career True Shooting percentage, is not going to turn four field goal attempts into 16 points again at any point during this series. Green at the five should yield even worse results than the same lineup would with Love, at least theoretically. Green’s perfect shooting and penalty-aided eight free throws juiced the lineup’s numbers. Without it, the unit wouldn’t have had a shot at counterbalancing its 125.0 Defensive Rating by scoring nearly 1.5 points per possession. As performance outliers go, Green’s was as stunning as it was damaging.

J.R. Smith bumping up his playoff three-point percentage from 31 to 37 in one sitting is another blip the Raptors will probably dodge later in the series — although if there’s a team Smith will turn his uneven season around against, it’s probably this Toronto, because the basketball gods get their jollies out of watching role players bone the Raptors.

Even with those uncharacteristic bursts of competence from Cleveland’s usually humdrum supporting cast, Toronto’s rotten luck flowed mainly from within its own house in Game 1. Taking shape as bricked open looks and a a four pack of put backs that refused to fall to end regulation, the Raptors endured a comical if not cruel amount of stupid, random nonsense in crunch time. If quite literally any one of the wayward bounces that doomed the Raptors went against Cleveland, the Raptors are sitting with a comfy 1-0 lead.

It’s not even as if Toronto invited unfortunate results with a bunch of crappy decisions. Of the possessions that ended in shots in the last five-ish minutes of the fourth and OT — meaning those that didn’t end with inexcusable 5-second violations after ill-advised timeout calls — few if any resembled the stagnant and ugly “old Raptors.” Pull a clip of any one of Toronto’s 11-straight misses to end regulation, and you could pass it off as a highlight from Toronto’s evolutionary regular season.

One trip saw a driving DeRozan find a wide-open Serge Ibaka in the left corner; another DeRozan skip pass out of a double landed Ibaka three free throws. Lowry took a pull up two from the exact spot on the floor he hit a winner against the Cavs a couple years back; Valanciunas bullied his way to the rim against Tristan Thompson more than once. DeRozan’s vision and magnetism earned VanVleet an uncontested triple for the win — that one actually happened verbatim in Detroit earlier this season, with a less take-friendly result.

“We had many opportunities to close this game out,” said DeRozan at the post-game podium. “We couldn’t buy a bucket, we got some great looks, we had a lot of shots point blank at the rim that were in and out. Freddie got two great looks ... it happens.”

“I knew everybody was gonna collapse if Tristan didn’t go for the pump fake,” added DeRozan in reference to Toronto’s last overtime possession, “and I know Freddie always relocates for me, and I found him. He got a heck of a shot, I’ll live with him shooting that shot ten times out of ten. We got a good look and you know it just didn’t fall.”

While nothing close to the prolonged standstill that sunk the Raptors in Game 4 against Washington, Toronto’s crunch time process wasn’t entirely flawless. Lowry lazily tossed an awful turnover away to open overtime, and was generally too passive when given the chance to exploit a switch — watching back Lowry’s first-quarter blow-by against LeBron adds an extra layer of anguish to his crunch time deference. Lowry also converted a clutch and-1 to make it 113-112 in the final minute of action, so there’s nuance to be found in Lowry’s Game 1 arc if you want to look for it.

It’s not impossible that the Raptors’ late collapse was proof of some sort of psychological deficiency with this group of players. It could also have been a case of cosmic randomness afflicting a team at the worst possible juncture. One of those two constantly dueling sides will end up prevailing by the end of the series. Maybe more than 10 minutes of results flipping the bird to process is needed to make that determination.

Call into question Toronto’s crunch time offense all you want. A finish that ice cold warrants criticism, mocking, whatever your preference. But for every ding against the reputation of Toronto’s late-game attack in Game 1 came a notch in the belt of what was and remains one of the league’s most smothering clutch defenses.

Remember that Raptors win over Houston at home in early March? Toronto got stuck in sap on offense in that game, too. After cruising through a 32-16 first quarter, Houston hung around long enough to make a hard push for the win in the final frame. In the last four minutes, Toronto managed just one bucket on four tries while coughing up two turnovers. Were it not for the defense swallowing up the Rockets late — Houston shot 2-of-5 in the last four minutes with two turnovers and nothing on the offensive glass — James Harden might well have step-backed J’d his way to a win.

All the breath exhausted in discussions of Toronto’s shaky offense in key moments this year left very little wind for praise of its fourth quarter defense — the stingiest in the league, to a truly fucking remarkable degree. Utah’s runner-up 103.1 Defensive Rating in fourth quarters looks adorable next to the Raptors’ 99.8. Those same teams sit one and two in the same category in the post-season, with Toronto’s 93.1 final frame Defensive Rating more than five points clear of the Jazz. It’s not an aberration; Toronto is hard as shit to score on when it matters most. Vibrant communication and breezy rotations aren’t as sexy as brilliant, throw-your-hands-up shot-making, but they offer a workaround for the Raptors in games where they’re over-matched in the firepower department.

A LeBron James team is of a course a different, more predatory beast to evade with a game on the line than say, a Wizards attack led by John Wall playing minute 42, each of the previous 41 being of the high-speed persuasion. For at least one game, though, Toronto’s season’s worth of proving it in the clutch on defense held up to its stiffest test yet. In the final five minutes of regulation, Cleveland shot just 3-of-9 from the field — 6-of-21 if you fold in what they did in overtime. LeBron scored seven points in the last 10 minutes of play, went 0-of-5 in overtime, and dished just two assists in that stretch. OG Anunoby is quite obviously at the mercy of how interested James is in going from second to fourth gear, but he performed the solo face-guarding task adequately; James shot 8-of-19 against OG over 48 possessions, per NBA.com’s match-up data. The Cavs scored 56 points with OG on LeBron, but there’s not much Anunoby could do to round up Cleveland’s scurrying off-ball threats.

Valanciunas was there to offer Anunoby a helping hand when needed — particularly when Tristan Thompson’s extended run allowed him to hang near the basket as blow-by insurance. Three times in the fourth quarter or OT, JV spooked LeBron into off-balance short-range jumpers as opposed to taking it the extra step. One of the misses fell into the waiting hands of Thompson, who beat the clock with a bucket. Bad luck — it was a thing in this game.

Obviously there’s going to be an inverse relationship between LeBron’s desperation and the Anunoby/Valanciunas duo’s ability to defend him viably. But with this series’ one on/on off schedule, and James’ intense minutes load, it’s a partnership that should be able to trouble a more passive version of LeBron enough to dent his outrageous production ceiling.

Toronto doesn’t have an obvious tactical shake-up it needs to make just yet. It was the better team for 75 percent of the the opener. If Kevin Love at any point stops the Patrick Patterson impersonation and starts canning shots in Cleveland’s five-out look, Valanciunas or Ibaka’s status within the series will become a question. But Love’s now eight games into a Norman Powellian slump and has one mangled thumb.

For those anxious to pounce all over the Raptors and dub them as frauds, the ending of Game 1 offered ammo by the box. The Raptors get laughed and pointed at because they’ve earned it. Two years of walking the walk before tripping and spectacularly falling on the last step have made them an easy target, even if 12 other Eastern Conference teams would kill to climb those same stairs.

In some instances, the Raptors’ old DNA strains came into view on Tuesday. Lowry’s spooked, skyward gaze whenever LeBron crowded him, the bricked practice jumpers from non-All Star Raptors, and the ease with which they ceded the remote control to LeBron, only for him to dial the pace down to the baby crawl he prefers are all elements that the Culture Reset was supposed to vanquish.

At the same time, this was also a team that pressed a match-up advantage in the face in potential evisceration — a patient new ploy by the typically reactionary Dwane Casey. A year ago, Valanciunas got run out of Cleveland by super-charged shooting lineups — for stretches in Game 1 he made Jeff freaking Green a more desirable option than Kevin Love, in 2018. The heavens probably won’t jerk the Raptors around quite as much in Game 2. Some puts will in fact go back. DeRozan trusting VanVleet enough to seek him with the game in the balance was a manifestation of the team’s identity overhaul this season. The defense picked up the pieces when the offense did shoot itself in — or dribble the ball off of — the foot. Though the result of Game 1 and the familiar emotional heft of the loss might suggest these are the same old, LeBron-scared Raptors, there are brightly coloured signs pointing to them being more equipped for the moment than they’ve ever been.

In short, the Raptors are fine... for now.