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Which strategies will we see from the Raptors and Cavaliers in Game 4?

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Dwane Casey threw everything at the wall to see which lineup combination would stick, but it was a bit too late. Can he re-create the Raptors’ late-game magic?

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

What a soul-crushing defeat.

The Raptors rallied in the fourth quarter of Game 3, only to see LeBron James come up with a game-winner that will likely be part of his career-long highlight reel moving forward.

Still, Game 3 as a whole went down way better than Game 2. Looking back at it, the Raptors played well in spurts and closed the game hard, trying to get that win. Today, the majority of the fanbase is looking at DeMar DeRozan as the biggest reason for Toronto’s wasted efforts. Some hate has been (deservedly) directed towards Serge Ibaka as well — though he bounced back a bit in Game 3.

The way I saw it, the start of the game and the way the Raptors closed the first half cost them the game — or at least made the climb up much more difficult.

Let’s look at some of them below:

For the Cavaliers

Korver Screen Action

I pointed this out on my primer before the series started: Kyle Korver is the key to get the Cavs over the hump, and it’s important for the Raptors to contain him.

While he hasn’t been consistent in dropping three after three in the series, his gravity, most specifically-his screen actions are causing trouble for the Raptors. LeBron James and Kevin Love are the stars to watch, but Korver is most often involved in the majority of the Raptors’ defensive issues.

Below are three of some of the ways the Cavs utilized Korver this series:

  • Screen action with Love or LeBron to get his man switched for Love and/or LeBron to take advantage of the mismatch;
  • SLOB/BLOB screen action to get a backdoor layup for Korver when the defender overplays the three-point threat;
  • Pick-and-pop with LeBron.

For the Raptors

Start Fred VanVleet/Move Ibaka to the bench

As a surprise to the Raptors fanbase, VanVleet drew the start in place of Ibaka. Dwane Casey’s approach was in effect to speed the game up, and have another credible three-point threat out there since the Cavs were leaving Ibaka on the perimeter.

What Worked:

JR Smith, George Hill, and Kyle Korver were not as effective since Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, and VanVleet can generally switch whenever those three Cavaliers are going through their screen actions.

Why It Didn’t Work:

Having VanVleet in there meant that there’s an extra ball-handler on the floor. However, this move inadvertently threw DeRozan off his game.

One of the reasons why DeRozan looked good in Games 1 and 2 was because he got in a good rhythm. The Raptors looked for him early, and got him a lot of touches with their pick-and-roll actions with JV. In Game 3, he barely touched the ball in the first five minutes, as the focus was to get the ball down to JV down the block.

By the time the team went back to DeRozan, the lead was already big, the Raptors were struggling offensively, and the pressure to score was on his shoulders. This lineup only scored four points, going 2-of-9 with three turnovers.

What It Didn’t Solve:

JV struggled to guard Kevin Love; this should be straight-forward.

LeBron James and Kevin Love keep getting switched with Korver’s man, as discussed above in the Cavs section and the previous iterations of my posts, and it’s a problem for Toronto.

And of course, the Raptors still had 17 turnovers, so having the extra ball-handling for more of the game didn’t exactly mean the team protected the ball that much better.

The Lowry-DeRozan-C.J. Miles-Ibaka-Pascal Siakam Lineup

On paper, this looks like an excellent lineup to use in the middle of the quarter, but the reality was just bad.

What Worked:

Nothing of significance

Why It Didn’t Work:

Siakam won’t shoot his shot. He turned down an open corner 3 in his first possession that ended up with a DeRozan long-two brick. On Siakam’s second possession, he turned down an open top of the key 3, and ended up driving and trying to dish to Ibaka, which resulted in a turnover (steal) going the other way.

This lineup also had horrible transition defense, as they looked lost tagging their man going down the court specifically, which either resulted in transition points or mismatches.

This lineup also failed to get the ball to Miles where he could be effective.

What It Didn’t Solve:

See above — defense/transition defense!

Going Away with the Bench Mob

In an incredibly significant turn of events, Dwane Casey was forced to fully go away from his traditional Bench Mob or Lowry/DeRozan + Bench lineups. The Raptors played chunks of time with Lowry, VanVleet, Miles, Siakam and Ibaka instead.

What Worked:

VanVleet’s dribble-drive kick-out generated a few good shots. Siakam’s activity on the offensive glass and in the paint was productive. This group pushed the pace and got the transition game got going, yielding the best lineup in the first quarter at +6, and the second best lineup overall.

Why It Didn’t Work:

Well, Serge Ibaka is still struggling. And poor Miles had trouble guarding Jeff Green, which is unfortunate.

What It Didn’t Solve:

There was a lack of an offensive threat in the paint for the Raptors. So the offense sometimes looked stalled whenever the team couldn’t push the ball or the drive-and-kick action didn’t work.

The First Half Closing Lineup

This lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Miles and Ibaka came in with around 3.5 minutes to go with the Raptors down 7. They replaced a lineup that kept the game close but started leaking point in the last few possessions as the Cavs went on a small run. Casey probably thought this lineup would stop the bleeding, but he was very wrong.

What Worked:

Nothing!

Why It Didn’t Work:

All this crew needed to do was hold serve. If they could stop the Cavs’ surge or cut the lead a little bit before the half, things wouldn’t have gotten so out of hand. Instead, this group went -8 in the stretch they got.

Let’s look at some of the lowlights

  • DeRozan bricks a wide open 3;
  • Miles drives to the basket and tries to drop the ball to Ibaka, which leads to a turnover;
  • OG passes up an open three-point shot, gives it up to Miles who takes a contested shot (which gets fouled/blocked by LeBron);
  • Miles gets caught ball-watching and loses Korver on a corner three-pointer;
  • Serge Ibaka’s quick three results in a fast Kevin Love three right away;
  • Kyle Lowry misses a three as he tries for a two-for-one possession;
  • Ibaka turns it over (again!) on a cut;
  • Ibaka and DeRozan’s miscommunication leads to Jeff Green’s backdoor dunk.

And it was an ugly 15-point lead at the half.

What It Didn’t Solve:

If you didn’t get the hint by now, let me spell it out: it didn’t solve anything.

Just Bench DeMar

Throughout the game, I was having a running conversation with a good friend of mine, a loyal Raptors fan. Like many, he was understandably upset at DeRozan, who by this point had been benched for most of the fourth quarter. Here were the Raptors in a huge game, and their All-Star player had been largely invisible throughout. We both hoped that this benching would spark a fire in DeRozan and hopefully he’d bring it later in the game.

But how about this closing lineup with Lowry, VanVleet, Miles, OG and Serge? Why was this group successful in getting the Raptors back in the game?

What Worked:

This group pushed the pace and got the three-point game going. Defensively, they fought hard. The perimeter threat from this lineup made the Cavs play them straight up, which enabled Lowry and VanVleet to create shots. But the key here is Serge Ibaka. This is what the Raptors 5-man crew would look like if Ibaka is playing as a decent serviceable big man.

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen this Ibaka since Game 1 vs. the Wizards.

Why It Didn’t Work:

It was a bit too late. LeBron was already cooking, and once he gets his mojo going, he’s essentially unstoppable.

What It Didn’t Solve:

Stopping LeBron. They still kept switching Miles on LeBron, and it was game over.

Dwane Casey’s thought process in the fourth quarter

Other Potential Moves for Game 4

Ibaka to Start/Valanciunas to the Bench

Casey’s trust in VanVleet is almost as high as Lowry, so it’s not hard to imagine that VanVleet will stay with the starting lineup moving forward. What Casey could also do is to abandon JV’s advantage early on so that they can speed up the game.

Shorten the Rotation

Lowry, VanVleet, DeRozan, Ibaka, Miles, Anunoby, Siakam should get guaranteed minutes. JV’s minutes should be more situational, as he should only really match-up with Tristan Thompson. Delon Wright might not see a minute tonight as I would expect Lowry and VanVleet to eat up the majority of the minutes in the backcourt once again.

Parting shot: Does Casey still have anything left on his kitchen sink to throw at LeBron and the Cavs? Will this series dictate whether the Raptors roll with Casey next year and if significant roster moves are on the horizon? More importantly, can the Raptors extend the series and bring them home for Game 5?