Published On: Wed, May 2nd, 2018

5 takeaways from the Raptors' gut-wrenching Game 1 loss to the Cavs

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The Toronto Raptors have now lost nine playoff games to the Cleveland Cavaliers over the past three seasons. Until the most recent of those losses, none of them were remotely close, with the smallest margin of defeat being seven points in the Cavs’ sweep-completing Game 4 win last year, which wasn’t nearly as tight as the scoreline indicated.

For all that, the Raptors’ one-point overtime loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday night – a game in which they led by 14 after the first quarter, led by 10 with 10 minutes to play in the fourth, and didn’t trail for a single second of regulation – might’ve been the most demoralizing of them all. Unlike their series-opening losses to the Cavs in years past, they had home court, a rest advantage, and arguably the better team. Somehow, it still wasn’t enough.

Here are five takeaways from the Cavs’ 113-112 win.

Process =/= results

The Raptors did a lot of things right in this game, especially early on. They ran their free-flowing offense, pushed the pace off misses, broke the Cavs down at the point of attack, and exploited their lack of rim protection by going hard to the rack and emphasizing Jonas Valanciunas inside. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry picked their spots and made all the right reads out of the pick-and-roll.

Their offense started to get mucked up late in the game. They allowed the pace to slow down, took too long to kickstart their initial actions, and veered away from some of their strengths – namely, 1-5 pick-and-rolls – in favor of hunting mismatches in isolation. But on the whole, their process was sound – enough to have gotten them over the finish line in a more just universe. The results, sadly, didn’t reward that process. Valanciunas, who typically has great touch and is money with the push shot off the short roll, suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket, missing bunny after bunny after bunny. His backup, Jakob Poeltl, one of the Raptors’ best finishers, missed all three layups he attempted.

C.J. Miles missed a wide-open three that would’ve pushed the Raptors’ lead to 11 with eight minutes to play (Kevin Love instead completed the six-point swing with a triple at the other end). Serge Ibaka missed another one from the corner, off a perfect read by DeRozan, that would’ve pushed Toronto’s lead to five with just over a minute to go. On the Raptors’ last possession of regulation, Fred VanVleet, perhaps the team’s calmest crunch-time shooter this season, clanked a golden 3-point look of his own off a DeRozan drive-and-kick, and then DeRozan, Miles, and Valanciunas combined to miss four straight putbacks. The Raptors shot 19-of-41 in the restricted area for the game, including 3-of-17 in the fourth quarter. They shot 4-of-15 on wide-open threes. They missed their final 11 shots in regulation.

“I don’t know if it was nerves or yips or what,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the game, via Sports Illustrated. “But (there were) just things where we shot ourselves in the foot.”

Finally, on their last possession of overtime, trailing by a point, DeRozan – who played his tail off in the extra frame – kicked out of a double team to VanVleet for yet another clean look at a go-ahead three. It was, objectively, the correct pass. VanVleet’s shot caught front iron, and the Raptors lost.

“If we’re in that same situation again, I’ll make the same exact pass,” DeRozan said.

That’s probably what you want to hear: That the Raptors believe in the overhauled process that’s carried them this far, and won’t let hard-luck outcomes change their approach. Still, the playoffs aren’t about moral victories or predictive patterns; when you’re trying to beat LeBron James four times in seven games, the results are all that matters. Maybe they got tight. Maybe they just got unlucky. Either way, they still fumbled away a game they had every opportunity to win. You can’t afford to let chances like this one slip through your fingers.

A Kevin Love matchup problem … for the Cavs?

Love has long been a matchup nightmare for this Raptors team, and the Cavs’ ability to slide him to center has often made Toronto’s bigs virtually unplayable against them. Recognizing this advantage, Cleveland opted to start the game with Love at the five, and it did indeed produce a matchup problem. Just not for the Raptors.

Love continued to look like a shell of himself; sloppy with the ball, ineffectual in the post, unable to finish in close, hesitant to shoot and off the mark when he did pull the trigger. He finished the game with seven points on 3-of-13 shooting. Given his defensive limitations, Love is a huge minus when he isn’t producing at the offensive end. In this game, rather than playing Valanciunas off the floor, he got utterly dismantled by the Raptors’ bruiser when the two got matched up at center.

Despite all those costly late misses, Valanciunas was perhaps the biggest reason the Raptors managed to build a big second-half lead. He posted Love up, beat him out for rebounds, and outmuscled him for scores time and again. Valanciunas finished with 21 points and 21 rebounds, and the Raptors outscored the Cavs by seven points in the 25 minutes he and Love were on the floor together. Replacing Love with Jeff Green as the small-ball five was far more effective, but that’s less likely to be replicable. If Love continues to struggle, an important matchup tilts toward Toronto’s favor. That’s a big deal.

Finally, some complementary production

After a first-round series in which LeBron James got basically zilch from his supporting cast, he needed his teammates to step up in a game he characterized as one of his worst of the season. He didn’t seem to have his legs, frequently settled for jumpers, and shot just 12-of-30 from the field, 1-of-8 from deep, and 1-of-6 from the free-throw line.

Sure enough, his teammates obliged. The Cavs got 69 combined points on 22-of-40 shooting (including 11-of-19 from three) from Green, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson. The Raptors helped out with some discombobulated coverages (more on this in a minute) but Korver and Smith moved beautifully without the ball and got cooking from the corners. Green served as the stretch-big Raptors kryptonite that Love was not, hitting shots and attacking off the catch, going a perfect 4-of-4 from the field and 7-of-8 from the line.

Thompson’s resurgent performance was perhaps the most significant of all. He’s been a thorn in the Raptors’ side the past two postseasons because their guards have struggled to get around him, and because he’s neutralized their size advantage up front with his relentless work on the glass. That wasn’t the case during the teams’ regular-season meetings this year, as Thompson looked sluggish and injured, but on Tuesday he looked like the Thompson of old. He finished with 12 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass, and was a brick wall on wheels at the defensive end. After Valanciunas briefly took over the game in the third quarter, Thompson returned and helped shut him down in the fourth.

“My teammates were unbelievable tonight,” James acknowledged. “They were there when I wasn’t at my best.”

Ball screens for LeBron picked the Raptors apart

Raptors rookie OG Anunoby did about as good a job as one can possibly do defending James one-on-one. James didn’t have the legs to get around him, so instead of attacking with drives, he often resorted to post-ups from 20 feet out and step-back jumpers late in the shot clock. Even when he had the comparatively lumbering Poeltl switched onto him, James settled for a jumper rather than putting the ball on the floor. Any time he isolated, he bailed the Raptors out.

That’s because any time the Cavs involved James in screening actions, Toronto’s defense went into a panic and good things happened for Cleveland. The most effective of those actions were high screens using catch-and-shoot guards like Korver and George Hill. The Raptors were terrified of switching a guard onto James, but were also reluctant to go under screens, so they wound up trying to hedge and recover, but that led to miscommunications, got them into desperate rotations, and opened up driving lanes and passing sequences that led to corner threes.

The Raptors were generally pretty disciplined about staying home and avoiding doubling unnecessarily on James post-ups, but when Cleveland dragged multiple defenders into the action and forced them to make decisions, the Raptors made critical mistakes, overhelping and leaving the wrong shooters open. Later in the game, they started switching those actions, to better results, but Cleveland should keep challenging them to make those decisions. The Cavs became overreliant on LeBron isos in the first round; they should stick with what worked in Game 1 of the second.

LeBron took Lowry out of his game

Lowry was a ball of fury to start the game, pushing the tempo, attacking decisively, getting into the lane, careening around off-ball screens, and looking for his 3-point shot. Through three quarters, he had 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting. James had guarded Lowry for stints in the first half and managed to pressure him into a couple mistakes. In the fourth quarter he took on Lowry as his primary assignment, and Lowry didn’t score.

As the Raptors’ offense grew increasingly constricted and nervy, Lowry, spooked by James’ imposing presence, deferred and disappeared. On edge, out of rhythm, he found no angles to attack, and managed to both pass up and force shots. He ended his drought with a timely driving and-1 layup in overtime, but he still had more turnovers than made field goals after the third quarter. It wasn’t just him who suffered for it. Without him creating dribble penetration or unlocking advantages with his pocket passes, the Raptors’ 3-point attack completely dried up. They shot just 1-of-8 from deep in the fourth and overtime, the attempts as galling as the lack of makes.

DeRozan is the Raptors’ most prominent offensive player, but in many ways Lowry is the head of the snake. The team’s offense simply cannot survive when he gets cut off. If James is going to make that his mission, the Raptors need to find ways to spring Lowry loose. They needed more from him down the stretch.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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