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LeBron James made the Raptors’ lineup choices in Game 2 irrelevant

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The Raptors made some choices with their lineups that didn’t work. But with LeBron James playing at the peak of his powers: does it really matter?

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

That wasn’t any fun. Well OK, the first half of Game 2 of Raptors-Cavaliers was, for the most part.

This is the space where I would usually rail against the rotation choices that led to the loss for the Raptors. And, yes, the rotations were a mess in this one. So I guess we’ll start there.

The Beginning of the End

The Raptors, as usual in these playoffs, came out to a strong start, building a four point lead in the first quarter. Good job starters, this is now to be expected.

Then, as expected, the Raptors rolled out the DeMar DeRozan plus bench unit, once again the wrong one (with Delon Wright) playing in Fred VanVleet’s place. In under two minutes, they managed to go -4. Colour me shocked. Thankfully before the end of the first quarter, the Raptors’ coaches came to their senses and put VanVleet out on the floor (in Pascal Siakam’s place, as he was struggling) and managed to recoup some of that lead. The Raptors were up three at the quarter break.

In another move that always works, the Raptors rolled out their all bench unit, who promptly went +2 in four minutes. And stringing together good moves, they went to the solid Kyle Lowry plus bench, with Jonas Valanciunas eventually coming in at centre and OG Anunoby at power forward, who went an additional +4 in under two minutes.

Then came the move that let the Cavaliers back in the game. Back came the starters as they should, to close out the half. Except Anunoby wasn’t there — instead, C.J. Miles was in his place. This is a look that is just begging to be torn apart. Too unfamiliar with each other to really leverage all the offensive talent on the floor, and a defensive nightmare. Even when Serge Ibaka is on his game (he’s very not, of late), and even with Valanciunas’ defensive improvements this season, having JV, DeRozan, and Miles all on the court with none of the Raptors’ best defenders alongside them is asking for trouble. Defending LeBron James with C.J. Miles even more so.

They of course were a -6 in less than two minutes. And the half time lead shrunk to two points from what was a nine point lead moments earlier.

Into the Second Half

So it is no surprise the Cavaliers came out firing in the second half. The starters had no answer for the Cavaliers, going -8 in under two minutes. With Ibaka looking completely useless, Miles came in to replace him. Not the choice I would have gone with to help stop the bleeding on defense, and of course they dropped another five points in the next two minutes.

A variety of mixed bench units rode out the quarter, breaking even, but the Cavaliers were in control at this point.

The Raptors had one chance in the fourth quarter to come out strong with a unit they were sure gave them a fighting chance to close the gap, and make this a game down the stretch. They chose instead to open with DeRozan and Lowry playing in a super small bench lineup, with Jakob Poeltl, VanVleet and Wright.

This against the Cavaliers running LeBron James out to start the 4th. Predictably, this lineup went -7 in two minutes and the game was over.

Does it Matter Though?

The Cavaliers are tough to beat because even if you do everything right LeBron can still take over and make them really hard to outscore. And if you do a few things wrong, like the late game rotations in Game 1, you can’t afford doing something else wrong, like missing a bunch of good shots. And if you do a whole lot of things wrong, and LeBron also takes over the game, then you get blown out.

The starters, for all their success, were a -4 in this game, and that’s only on the strength of a good start. With Ibaka seemingly less viable every game, that rock that formed the foundation of the Raptors’ rotation is crumbling. And with it, basically the only hope of competing in this series. The Raptors’ next move may involve changing the starting lineup — a move that is not promising. As noted, the starters have been building leads early in games, even against the Cavaliers.

And also as noted, the experimentation with lineups in this post-season has had far more negative results than positive ones. There is little reason to hope that any shuffling of the deck chairs helps keep this ship afloat.

The Raptors should take their best shot at the Cavs in Game 3. If all goes well, they might steal one and make this interesting. But my hopes are pretty low — even if stuff breaks right for them, they just haven’t been able to get out of their own way with some very suspect rotation decisions. And even if they get it all right, if LeBron looks like he did in the second half in Game 2, it might not matter anyway.

(All stats per NBA.com.)