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For the Raptors, it’s all about improving in crunch time

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Toronto must be better down the stretch of games — if they aren’t, this season’s story will wind up having an all too familiar ending.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers absolutely stole Game 1. And that’s taking nothing away from them, nor should it be perceived as ill will towards them on my part. You take a win however it may come your way, this time of year especially.

In this instance, the Cavaliers won despite never once holding the lead in regulation.

“The Trail to Victory” strategy has never, and will never be a thing. Playing with the lead is always preferred, and the Cavs spent all of Game 1 playing from behind. Much like a tired boxer trying to stay on his or her feet, they bobbed and weaved, clinching when they needed to, clutch grabbed and elbowed their way back into the game, eventually winning the closest thing basketball has to a controversial split-decision. I feel like if judges were a thing here, the inevitably corrupt one would’ve given the nod to Toronto on some shady technicality. A win’s a win, remember?

But alas, LeBron James is once again in the driver’s seat against Toronto in the playoffs. And unless the Raptors improve upon their late-game approach, there’s little reason to believe he’ll relinquish those duties anytime soon. We’re looking at a season’s worth of hard work done in by a 15 percent field goal mark in the last five minutes of Game 1.

For me, the pilot episode of this series highlighted a gap in the teams’ collective comfort levels once the game reaches crunch time. Sure both have spent similar amounts of time in clutch scenarios this season, but one team has performed substantially better than the other in those moments.

TOR vs CLE in ‘Clutch’ Time (2017-18 Regular Season)

TEAM WIN% OFFRTG DEFRTG EFG% FTA RATE PFD TOTAL +/-
TEAM WIN% OFFRTG DEFRTG EFG% FTA RATE PFD TOTAL +/-
TOR 56.80% 105.3 108.7 47.1% 0.565 113 18
CLE 66.70% 120.9 102.7 52.0% 0.518 99 80*
* – #1 in the NBA (Regular Season)

A quick consultation of the numbers will tell two very different stories. And please notice the “FTA RATE” and “PFD - Personal Fouls Drawn” columns — Toronto actually spent more time than Cleveland at the free throw line in clutch scenarios.

Of course having LeBron James for the game’s most intense moments is an undeniable benefit for Cleveland — his usage rate climbs to over 40 percent in such situations. Meanwhile in Toronto, we have seen all too often what happens when the Raptors’ stars play hero-ball in the closing stages of playoff games. On the whole, it doesn’t go very well.

All season long this team has prided itself on being different and for the most part has done a terrific job convincing the league, not to mention themselves, of it. Coach Dwane Casey has already pushed the boundaries of conventional thinking by continuing to show faith in his larger-than-some-would-like rotation on the playoff stage. The bench has been huge for Toronto all season long, to go away from it at the most critical time of the year would be downright wrong and blatantly counter-intuitive.

This Raptors team is different. The DeMar DeRozan of seasons past does not make that pass to Fred VanVleet. But this version of DeRozan does (and would do it again):

“If we in that same exact situation again, I’m gonna make the same exact pass...” – DeMar DeRozan on his decision to pass up a potential game-winning shot.

Maybe for some teams that answer would not satisfy fans and media members alike. Perhaps Golden State doesn’t want Kevin Durant or Steph Curry passing up a semi-contested shot in favour of an uncontested look for Andre Iguodala. There’s certainly validity in the position of “living and dying on the shoulders of your superstars”. However, for Toronto it has to be a broader and more inclusive approach late in games if they are going to solve their clutch time cough.

No more standing around, deferring to Kyle and DeMar as they try to miraculously navigate through a defense that, as a result of the collective “work-stoppage” on the part of Toronto’s other players, has been allowed to collapse and sag in the paint. Move, cut, screen, be engaged in the game. Seem like a threat!

Failing to improve their collective crunch time approach is playing with fire. These are the playoffs, and this is LeBron Jamesyou aren’t beating him by 34 again anytime soon.

Close games aren’t going anywhere, and the Raptors must embrace the uncomfortableness that comes with that reality. As kids, every NBA player dreamed of making the winning play for their team. They certainly weren’t picturing themselves standing idly in the corner, in front of the opposing bench, waiting for somebody else to do something. Nor were they going to set a screen only to execute a half-hearted roll down the lane, all the while appearing to be nothing more than a lazy decoy.

In their dreams, they were players, not spectators. The moment is waiting to be seized. Don’t just stand there and watch it fly by.

(Stats per nba.com unless otherwise noted.)