What a missed opportunity. The chances were there for the Raptors to put the Cavaliers away in Game 1, and I bet they’d like to have a do-over on many of those late game possessions.
We can all blame Jonas Valanciunas’ several missed shots near the end of the fourth. Or we can cry over the back-to-back-to-back missed putbacks by DeMar DeRozan, C.J. Miles and JV. Or we can bemoan Fred VanVleet’s two missed wide-open three-pointers. Or get upset at how passive Kyle Lowry played down the stretch, or the missed Flagrant 1 call on Kevin Love. Or ask seriously JV didn’t try to go up for a dunk.
If you would ask me, a lot of those blown opportunities are the byproduct of how the Cavs and the Raptors executed their strategies. Some worked well, and some backfired. For the Raptors, obviously, it blew back at them a bit.
Before proceeding below, I suggest that you read my previous article where I outlined the expected strategies for both teams. If you are Dwane Casey, take this to the film room and huddle your coaching staff in case the things that I’ve covered are something new for you. (They should not be!)
Let’s have a look at some of them.
For the Cavs
The Cavaliers changed their starting lineup and their rotation for Game 1, relying heavily on known commodities (Kyle Korver, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love) and grizzled playoff veteran George Hill. Larry Nance and Jose Calderon were out of the rotation.
The Cavaliers fielded an offense-heavy lineup for the most part that often overlooked something significant: chemistry.
Starting Lineup: George Hill-JR Smith-Kyle Korver-Kevin Love-LeBron James. This lineup put a lot of strain on the Raptors and the fanbase as we saw JV struggle guarding Love, and Serge Ibaka ending up with either Korver or Smith at times.
Outcome: Still, this squad got beasted by Jonas Valanciunas, and JV’s aggressiveness got Love in early foul trouble. Fortunately, while their three-point shooters got some quality shots, they didn’t all go in (except for Smith’s, who somehow shot 5-of-6 from three).
Will we see it again: Most likely, but I’m doubtful about George Hill’s spot. Or rather, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cavs start with the lineup below.
Key lineup: LeBron James-Kyle Korver-Kevin Love-Jeff Green-JR Smith.
Outcome: Prevented the Raptors from running away. This lineup did some damage during the latter part of the Bench Broskis’ run and transition to Lowry and DeRozan+Bench small-ball lineup.
Will we see it again: Definitely. They’ve gotta play these guys!
Closing Lineup: LeBron James-Kyle Korver-Kevin Love-JR-Smith-Tristan Thompson
Outcome: Successful. Tristan was the unsung hero of this lineup. He was instrumental in giving harder blitz to DeRozan/Kyle Lowry and keeping up with JV down the block and on the glass.
Will we see it again: Of course. This group won them the game.
Blitz on DeRozan/Lowry
The Cavaliers went back to what worked for them in the last post-season match-up against the Raptors. This time however, Toronto’s All-Stars attacked the blitz with more poise.
Outcome: Mixed Results. While the Cavs forced a few turnovers/bad possessions from Neo and Morpheus, it’s evident that the Raptors — at least for three quarters — weren’t too bothered by it.
The underlying problem here is that the blitz prevented Lowry and DeRozan from getting JV into a good rolling attack, and they often had to float the pass to JV. This meant that JV had to gather around the free throw line rather than ride his momentum. More on this below.
Will we see it again: Yes, unless the Raptors stick to their ball-movement game plan and continuously hit shots all over the place.
JV the Decision Maker
The Cavs decided to let JV catch the ball off pick-and-rolls and have another person rotate just under the basket, forcing him to play-make or risk getting a charge. The Cavs also sagged low enough for JV to be on an island on dribble-hand-off (DHO) situations.
Outcome: Mostly successful. It’s a success anytime your strategy catches your opponent off-guard multiple times and also get in their head. The Raptors basically didn’t have anything prepared to counter this, and we were lucky that OG Anunoby read this play a couple of times for a dunk.
Will we see it again: Yes, barring adjustments on JV’s playmaking options.
For the Raptors
Switch/Double/Blitz LeBron (aka Pascal Siakam on LeBron was a disaster)
If I can pinpoint when the Raptors lost the game, I would have to say it’s when they started switching, doubling, blitzing LeBron in the second quarter. It was clearly the defensive gameplan on LeBron: OG will play LeBron straight up, while Pascal Siakam will switch on screens, and get double/blitz help to slow LeBron down on the move.
Outcome: This cost Toronto the game. It opened Cleveland’s offense up and got the Cavs’ three-point shooters going. LeBron was not necessarily just passing it to the open shooters, but the defensive rotation and the ball watching with the intent to “help” was more than enough to get those shooters open.
Will we see it again: I hope not, or the Raptors risk of losing this series.
The Raptors found a mismatch that they can take advantage of, so they attacked it as much as they could. Valanciunas, with his 21 points and 21 rebounds, was a beast in Game 1, but the strategy wasn’t perfect.
Outcome: Mixed results. It was successful in the beginning when JV was doing damage in the pick-and-roll, posting up Kevin Love, and crashing the offensive boards. The positive result faded first when the Cavaliers went small with Jeff Green, and then later, as JV’s conditioning waned, and Tristan Thompson got the better of him.
Will we see it again: Yes, but not in ISO situations against Tristan Thompson.
Potential Adjustments for Dwane Casey:
Counter for DeMar/Lowry+JV PNR: Provide options for JV to play-make. The weak-side would almost always have OG and either Serge Ibaka sitting in the corner and elbow three-point area being guarded by Korver in between. OG is making an intelligent play by cutting backdoor, but it’s imperative for JV to know where his teammates will be, and what options he’s got.
Diversify the offensive possessions: Casey got lazy and tried to milk JV down low, and it backfired. The Raptors offense got stagnant; there was a lot of standing around, watching JV make his move. As the coach, it’s Casey’s responsibility to remind himself and get his team to run their offense.
Siakam for Ibaka early in the game: If Ibaka looks flat early, get Siakam in there, maybe around the 5-minute mark. Siakam can play Love better and will help Toronto push the pace. I will not be worried at all if the Cavs leave him open, as they are doing the same for Ibaka now anyway.
Limited ISOs for DeMar: It’s clear that DeRozan has the size and strength advantage over the Cavs wing defenders and the quickness against their bigger forwards. A DeRozan dancing around the perimeter, even against Korver, is just not as productive as DeRozan making decisive moves via:
- Off-screen curls;
- spot-up shots;
- deep post-ups;
If DeRozan does decide to isolate from the perimeter, he’s got to just take it strong, and forget the dancing around to shake his man.
Overall Defensive Strategy: Let LeBron beat you. What worked for Indiana, and what has worked for the Raptors, for the most part, is when LeBron had to shoulder the burden of scoring primarily. Letting LeBron find open teammates when you switch/double/help when he’s not even within 10 feet of the basket is just asking for trouble. Here are a few things that the Raptors can do:
- Tighten up PNR coverage. Put accountability on your teammates to stay with their man, and not even thinking about helping out unless the action is near the basket;
- No switching/doubling/blitzing LeBron;
- Pressure LeBron into dribble the ball to play-make. Every second that he’s just sitting and waiting for an opening translates to seconds that he’s resting; and
- Keep pushing the pace off a make or miss.
If Casey and the Raptors can contain the Cavs’ three-point shooters, I feel confident, and also, yes, I still like Toronto’s chances of winning the series.