For this generation of the Toronto Raptors, the end of the story inevitably arrives at LeBron James.
You could sense the fanbase grasping at tendrils of hope after the two games in Toronto, games where the Raptors looked thoroughly inept in their strategy for guarding the best basketball player on Earth. LeBron dropped 40-plus in both games north of the border, sneering in the face of a number-one seed who had no answers. Straight up defence? Meet this fadeaway. Help? Ah, I seem to have found Kyle Korver in the corner.
In Game 1, the Raptors floundered late and missed too many shots. In Game 2, they rolled over in the second half. In this game, they played like a team that, quite literally, had been sleepless the last two nights. They played hard, physical, but unsharp — lacking a cohesive plan through all their hustle. Even with Kyle Lowry going on a tear in the fourth quarter, with Serge Ibaka reviving his corpse for four blocks (off the bench!), with Pascal Siakam putting his chest into anyone within two feet — there was LeBron James in the end, capitalizing on minute mistakes, opening the abyss.
The Raptors came from 14 down at the start of the fourth to tie the game with eight seconds left. That’s when the King struck, again.
LeBron had 38 points, seven assists, six rebounds, and three steals in this game, shooting 14-of-26 and looking like a man possessed in the second half.
Toronto took a decidedly more physical approach with James in this game, guarding him with Siakam for longer stretches and knocking him down on a couple drives. Still, Toronto’s switching defence refused to adjust from LeBron’s whims. Throughout the game, James would have the ball at the top of the key, call for a screen from the Cavalier guarded by the weakest Raptors defender, and he would dominate the possession.
In the first half, that defender was DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan had his worst game of the playoffs at the worst time, scoring eight points on 3-for-12 shooting and marking a -23. Dwane Casey made the bold move to sit him for the last 14 minutes of the game, opting for a lineup centred on Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and C.J. Miles in the backcourt. This was mostly to cover for DeRozan’s defence, as he repeatedly lost his man off-ball for easy Cleveland looks. DeMar is the main person to blame for the scoring of Kyle Korver, who dropped 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
Late in the fourth, the chosen defender was Miles. It was hard to watch, this lineup that could finally dig the Raptors out offensively getting picked apart by LeBron. Perhaps an adjustment of not switching would’ve helped. Maybe LeBron would’ve solved that too. What might be more frustrating is we never got the chance to see.
For his part, Lowry was exceptional on the Raptors side. Kyle had 27 points, seven assists, and three rebounds to lead Toronto. In a big game, it was appropriate that the fiery Lowry was cool under pressure. Appropriate too that the rookie of few words, OG Anunoby, was right there next to him with some big shots. Anunoby had 18 points, making seven of his 12 looks and a clutch three to tie the game with just over five seconds left.
In the first quarter, the game didn’t look like it’d be that close. Casey decided to change things up, starting Fred VanVleet in place of the struggling Serge Ibaka. A small lineup didn’t look to phase Cleveland, though, and the offence didn’t spark either — Toronto started 2-for-11. When Siakam and Ibaka came in as the frontcourt pairing, though, the Raptors started to pickaxe some dents into Cleveland’s armour. A Lowry three, followed by a wicked Siakam post move, followed by a Miles three cut the Cleveland lead to five, where it would stay after a quarter.
In the second, though, the Cavaliers opened things up again. Jonas Valanciunas really struggled in this frame on defence, as Cleveland continues to attack his slow-footedness with off-ball cuts and the moving Kevin Love. Love, who was a dead man walking in the first round, continued an excellent series in Game 3: 21 points and 16 rebounds were back-breaking for the Raptors. A ten-turnover half didn’t help the Raptors either, as Cleveland went into halftime up 55-40.
The third was a quarter of runs on both sides. The new-look Raptor starters made a 12-0 push early in the frame, but a pair of Cleveland threes and a LeBron basket gave them their lead right back. The Cavaliers really benefited late, as James went to the bench for three minutes of rest and didn’t fall off. Love went to work in the post on Siakam, scoring six points to float Cleveland to a 79-65 lead headed to the fourth.
That, finally, is when the Raptors got some hope. Lowry was incredible in the final quarter, scoring 16 points and playing face-to-face defence for all 12 minutes. The issue was never a lack of effort for Toronto tonight. It was the switching defence, the odd lineups with DeRozan, Miles and Valanciunas, the turnovers.
And it was LeBron James, floating out of bounds to his left, casually putting all that effort into the past. The King remains the King, and it’s apparent there are no answers left for Toronto.