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Five Thoughts on Last Night’s Game 3: Cavaliers 105, Raptors 103

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LeBron James ripped Toronto’s heart out once again, and the Cleveland Cavaliers lead the Toronto Raptors 3-0 in their second-round series. Heartbreak is hard, but we’re still coming through with the thoughts.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re the Toronto Raptors, what can you do? You fight, scrap, claw, grind, exhaust all the scrappy metaphors a collective blogosphere can generate, and yet, you still lose to the greatest player in the game. And he made it look all too easy.

I Love Fred VanVleet, but...

We knew a lineup change was coming for the Raptors, but I’m not sure starting Fred VanVleet was the right call. Of course it’s easy to second-guess it now, after that poor start, but it seemed to me that starting Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka (and having Jonas Valanciunas match up with Tristan Thompson) was the more logical choice.

The results seemed to agree: Cleveland quickly jumped out to a 16-4 lead and only then did Siakam and Ibaka come in together. And they were good! Well, better. (Thanks, Serge, for finally showing up.) The Raptors cut it to five after 1, but that 12-point hole was insurmountable. The Raptors got to within 1 in the second quarter, and within five again in the third, and closed exceptionally well, even tying it at 103 apiece. But they never once got the lead.

And you know what happened when it was tied.

Again, I love VanVleet, he’s had an amazing season, and his effort coming back from injury has been inspiring. But I just don’t think that starting lineup was an effective one. (Also, not to be Mr. Negative, but for all the good Fred has done and continues to do, he made a number of defensive miscues—specifically, helping off of his man towards LeBron—that cost the Raptors last night.)

Despite the closeness of the final score, and the play of that closing lineup that included VanVleet, I think that Siakam and Ibaka should get the start in Game 4.

DeMar DeRozan Has Not Been Ready for the Moment

I don’t like to connect poor play to mental fortitude, because I don’t know what’s going on in any player’s head. But in his actions—the poor shooting, the hesitation when he’s in the air, the tentativeness when he gets the ball on the wing, the inability to get to the free throw line—DeMar DeRozan looks like the definition of “shook.” He looks absolutely nothing like the calm, confident player he was during the regular season.

A 3-for-12 shooting night, with three turnovers and only eight points, with the season on the line? It’s not good enough.

DeRozan did have a handful of solid defensive plays last night. But I can’t give him credit for it, because he does it so rarely—and because the majority of his defensive mistakes are effort-based. He doesn’t fight through screens, he doesn’t move his feet, he wanders in no man’s land. The old adage in basketball is, when your shot isn’t dropping, find another way to contribute. Four rebounds, two assists and the occasional defensive effort is not that.

On the other hand, not shook, and obliterating the “can’t perform in the playoffs” label: Kyle Lowry. Yeah, he was a little tentative with some passes, and threw a couple at the ankles of his big men, resulting in five turnovers. But he was lights-out from distance, he got into the paint, got to the foul line, hunted mismatches, and scrapped and fought the whole way. And I know I’m not the one who loved him mixing it up with LeBron in the fourth! He also guarded J.R. Smith all night and held him to a goose egg. Lowry’s been fantastic.

The Raptors’ Future Looks Pretty Bright, At Least!

Also not shook: The rook! OG Anunoby shot up every Raptor fan’s “favourite players” list last night, and he did it mostly before he hit the game-tying 3-pointer. Like Lowry, he brought his “A” game, and didn’t flinch at all when the pressure was on. He is absolutely not afraid to guard the best player in the world, and I love it. The fact that he had a great game on offense—7-of-12 from the field, 4-of-7 from downtown, 18 points—is the icing on the cake. (The game-tying three is, what, the ice cream on the side? Dessert metaphors aren’t my thing!)

The larger point here is that the Raptors’ young players—Anunoby, VanVleet, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam—have all had great moments in this postseason, and have proven to be calm, cool, and confident in big games with high stakes. They’ve all played beyond their years. OG had his moment last night, and has been generally awesome. Delon had huge moments against Washington, notably in game 5. Pascal was great against Washington in game 6, and he’s given LeBron (who must have 100 sounds on him) everything he can. Fred has been the least consistent in terms of actual play (and the blunder last night, not realizing how much time was left on the shot clock after collecting an inbounds in the backcourt, hurt), but his attitude and willingness to shoot has been fantastic.

It’s not all roses of course, Jakob Poeltl got his first DNP-CD of the entire season last night, and Norman Powell hasn’t played a minute in the series. But overall? I’m pretty thrilled to have these guys on the roster.

The Raptors’ Defense has Been Completely Out to Lunch

I have three questions here:

  • Why are they switching every screen? It doesn’t work against this Cavs team; virtually every cross-match is a mismatch. And it leads to easy Cavs baskets, every time.
  • Why are they helping off of 3-point shooters towards LeBron James? James is one of the two best passers in NBA history at his size; he will find the open shooters with ease. And it leads to open Cavs 3-pointers, every time.
  • Why are the Raptors leaving their feet on closeouts and head fakes? You’re not blocking a 3-point shot; basic NBA defense tells you to stay on your feet and get a hand-up. Raptors defenders are flying all over the place, and the Cavs are getting wide-open looks, over and over.

I know there are no easy answers to those questions. I understand the Cavs present difficult matchups, and LeBron James is impossible to guard. But the Raptors have just made things way, way too easy for the Cavaliers on offense.

(I also understand saying “don’t switch” is easy from where I’m sitting. It’s also made even more difficult when the officials refuse to call moving screens, but I digress...)

”Playing for Pride” Sucks

After Game 2 Dwane Casey said the Raptors had to play for pride in Game 3. And they should be proud of their effort; they could have quit, down double-digits at points throughout the entire game. They played an excellent fourth quarter, outscoring Cleveland 38-26.

But moral victories in the playoffs? No thanks. Feeling good about the effort? How can a 59-win team feel good about anything, down 0-3 to a fourth seed that barely escaped round 1?

Saying “Yeah, but what can you do against LeBron, he’s a living doomsday machine” has truth to it, but it’s also an easy answer. He lost three times to the Pacers, and 32 times in the regular season. He can be beaten! Maybe not four times in seven games, but come on. I want a win!

Don’t get me wrong, I love that the Raptors played their tails off, it was an incredibly entertaining game, and I’m ready to fight anyone that talks shit about “Kyle Lowry in the playoffs” ever again, but I didn’t tune in last night for a moral victory. A moral victory doesn’t make it series. I wanted a win, and a chance to make this series interesting.

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Instead it’s an 0-3 hole, and we all know the numbers on that one. The Raptors are playing for one more home game at this point, and it would be nice if that Game 2 blowout is not the team’s final home memory. If they can get four—heck, even three—quarters of the effort and intensity we saw last night in the fourth (and, you know, fewer turnovers and defensive blunders) maybe we’ll get that home game.