The Toronto Raptors’ game against the Cleveland Cavaliers was a microcosm of their season: glimpses and flashes of the team that they can be showed up, but they were surrounded by frustrating stretches and inexplicable lulls. The spirited bursts were encouraging, at times, but they just weren’t enough to pull them out of the hole that they dug for themselves. With this game, a 116-105 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors have now lost eight in a row.
Now, the hole that they dug this season is substantial, and with the trade deadline looming, questions about the direction of the team will only intensify. The flashes of excellence only serve to frustrate, as this team is getting further and further removed from even having the chance to compete in the playoffs. That Toronto has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 does not change the fact that the decision made in the next week will greatly impact the team going beyond this season.
The team did start out well enough, though, and looked like their defense would be enough to get a win over a similarly struggling Cavaliers team.
In their last game, against the Utah Jazz, the Toronto Raptors showed how effective they could be defensively when their five best players were on the court, locked in, and hustling. This carried over into the start of this matchup as Toronto’s frenetic defensive pressure gave the Cavaliers fits, and they turned Cleveland over five times in the first few minutes. They gave the Cavs no breathing room, swarming the ball handlers like a pack of wolves on the hunt, using their length and athleticism to disrupt. Unfortunately, the Raptors were unable to gain any significant separation from the Cavaliers as the offense was a little disjointed out of the gates, and the Cavaliers were able to keep it tight early even with their turnover woes.
Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry led the way offensively in the first half, while the other starters were still clearly getting their feet back under them after their absence as a result of the league’s health and safety protocols. Powell, in particular, has continued to score at an elite level. A moneyball darling, Powell is either draining three-pointers or getting to the rim on lightning-quick drives. He had 14 points on 5-9 shooting and hit two of his four three point attempts.
A relatively run-on-the-mill game had a new wrinkle added to it as the buzzer sounded to signal the end of first half. Cleveland’s young guard Collin Sexton had some words for Fred VanVleet, and Powell clearly took exception to it. Powell flew in and got in Sexton’s face, standing up for his teammate and giving the young Cavalier an earful.
Unfortunately, the moment that felt like it might spark the Raptors turned out to get Collin Sexton going. He came out locked in and determined, picking up Fred VanVleet for the entirety of the court on defense, and getting buckets from all over the court. He wore an intense stare as he dominated Toronto, clearly getting an extra boost from his confrontation with the Raptors. Evidently, Kyle Lowry is not the only bear who should not be poked.
The Cavaliers followed Sexton’s lead, as the team really found a rhythm offensively in the third quarter. Cleveland heating up coincided with Toronto going ice-cold, allowing the Cavaliers to go for a run in the period. The Raptors came out of the locker room down 59-57, but found themselves in a hole as big as 17 in the third. Even as they found a little bit of momentum, Sexton quickly quelled it by closing the quarter with a couple baskets. He had 30 on 12-20 shooting after three, and went 6-7 in the third alone. He would finish with 36 points.
The lead grew to as much as 22 for the Cavs in the fourth. The Raptors would not roll over, however, and, as is custom, an unconventional lineup provided a spark for the team. OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry were joined by Patrick McCaw and Stanley Johnson as the team went all in on a switch-heavy, fast, high-pressure defense. OG, in particular, was spectacular, proving to be the only Raptor who could stymie Sexton, while attacking with success on offense.
The gap, however, would to be too large, and the Cavaliers held on even as their lead got down to seven, to pull this one out.
While, as previously noted, the Raptors have drawn the short straw in many ways, they need to beat lesser teams to have any shot at salvaging this season. They did not do so tonight and we are left, once again, with more questions than we have answers about this Raptors team.
They’ll have another chance to get back in the win column with a game against the Houston Rockets tomorrow, though a win against the worst team in basketball right now will do little to ease the concerns of the Toronto faithful.