Published On: Wed, May 2nd, 2018

Raptors only have themselves to blame for Game 1 loss to Cavaliers

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Heading into their second-round series against Cleveland, the Toronto Raptors – despite their playoff history against the Cavaliers, despite the fact they were faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of eliminating LeBron James in the postseason – had reasons to consider themselves the favorite.

“That’s the scary part,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told reporters at morning shootaround ahead of Game 1.

Of course, meeting those expectations is another thing altogether – and it’s even more daunting to have the success of your season defined by a matchup with one of the best players on the planet in James, who can swing an entire series by himself. That said, the Raptors believe they have the better overall team – an edge they hope will come to bear fruit over the course of the series.

Those colliding theories were put to the test in Game 1 – and the Raptors came up agonizingly short, dropping a 113-112 overtime decision Tuesday night to relinquish home-court advantage. And what made the loss even more frustrating was that James didn’t beat the Raptors – they beat themselves.

Leading by 14 points in the first quarter, looking more comfortable and confident in their ability to score at will against Cleveland’s defense, the Raptors started to lose some of the Cavs’ shooters in transition, leading to open threes. Their defense stagnated, and they didn’t make a single field goal in the final four minutes of regulation. Even more, they missed four opportunities to win the game on their final possession in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, James shot 12-for-30 from the field and his Cavs didn’t take their first lead of the game until overtime. After all was said and done, Cleveland became just the second team in the last 20 years to win a playoff game despite never leading in regulation.

Losing to James and his individual brilliance was always a possibility in this series for the Raptors. But losing a game they should have won because of their own mistakes? That’s what happened Tuesday, in a series where Toronto probably can’t afford even one of those losses.

“We had many opportunities to close this game out,” DeMar DeRozan said afterward. “We couldn’t buy a bucket. We got some great looks. We had a lot of point blank shots at the rim that were in and out … We can name countless things. It should have never came down (to that) and (we shouldn’t have to) depend on those.”

There was a five-second violation late in the fourth quarter when the Raptors couldn’t inbound the ball. Serge Ibaka secured a rebound late in overtime, and then didn’t. Jakob Poeltl missed plenty of easy looks at the rim. No Raptor could score in the final stretch of the fourth quarter. It made the loss that much more frustrating for a Raptors team that had an opportunity to put the Cavs in an early hole just two days after they finished off a seven-game series against the Pacers.

“We’re better than some of the situations we put ourselves in,” Casey said. “We all can be better. Some of the turnovers we had. We had a rebound where our same two guys fought over it and lost it. Just a lot of, I don’t know if it was nerves or yips or what, just things that just shot ourselves in the foot.”

For stretches in Game 1, the Raptors did look like the better team, a different team. The favorite. A year ago, James caught an alley-oop lob off the backboard from Kyrie Irving on a fast break three minutes into the first game of their second-round series, and that possession defined the gulf that existed between the Raptors and the Cavaliers.

This year’s Raptors believe that playing their game, their style, would translate into a different result this time around, against a Cleveland team they went 2-8 against over the past two postseasons.

“We’ve gotta be who we are,” Casey said after practice on Sunday. “Use that data that won us 59 games this year, and do what we do.”

This is the burden of being the favorite. The results have to reflect the body of work in this series. James and the Cavaliers remain the big brothers in this matchup, and as Casey and DeRozan said leading up to Game 1, you have to go through the great to get to where you want to be. There’s always a team that stands in the way.

VanVleet talked about how the most respect you could give James is to not give him any respect, to challenge him. The Raptors guard did that in the first half, responding to a shove from James which almost resulted in an altercation.

“We didn’t play great,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “But we played tough.”

Great teams find a way to win in the postseason. The teams still trying to get to that level find a way to lose. You can use the same narratives that have defined this Raptors team in past playoffs and apply it to Game 1. It’s probably not fair, but even just viewing this loss within the context of a series that feels like a coin flip, it’s a disheartening start.

“It was mainly us,” OG Anunoby said after the game.

“We’ve gotta learn from this loss and bounce back,” Jonas Valanciunas said. “The series is here. It’s not over yet. It’s just one game.”

Game 2 is now a must-win for the Raptors, and then, it’s on to Cleveland – where they’ve lost all five postseason games the past two years by an average of 24.2 points. This series was always going to tell us more about the Raptors than the Cavaliers, and James might have summed it up best after Game 1: “At the end of the day, the game is determined between the four lines.”

The Raptors missed an opportunity in the opener, and we’ll soon find out whether Tuesday’s result will ultimately determine the trajectory of this series.

Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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