LeBron James' brilliance aside, how the No. 1-seeded Raptors lost their way against the Cavs
The Toronto Raptors, who won 59 games in the regular season and finished with the league’s third-best net rating, are down 3-0 in their second-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that swept them last year and eliminated them in the conference finals two years ago. This was supposed to be the season in which the Raptors were for real, the season in which they were ready to finally beat LeBron James — or at least challenge him.
This has, uh, definitely not happened. Despite a valiant fourth-quarter comeback on Saturday, Toronto lost 105-103, with: A full-speed floater at the buzzer. With the Raptors are at risk of being swept on Monday, here are six problems that have plagued them:
Where is DeRozan’s edge?
DeMar DeRozan only played 28 minutes in this do-or-die game, a stunning fact considering how far he has come. DeRozan was the Raptors’ best player during the regular season, enjoying a career year and expanding his game by improving as a playmaker and getting outside of his comfort zone as a 3-point shooter. He was generally effective in the first-round against the Washington Wizards, too.
DeRozan’s performance in this series, however, has been dismaying. While his numbers were fine in the first two games, the Cavs hunted him on defense and didn’t respect his 3-point shot. Game 3 was much worse: He had eight points on 3-for-12 shooting and was on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, in which Toronto outscored Cleveland 38-26 and came oh-so-close to forcing overtime.
Usually DeRozan’s deliberate style is a feature, not a bug. It is hard for defenses to speed him up and slow him down. He deserves praise, too, for the way he has altered his offensive approach, going from a slasher to one of the league’s premier playmakers. Against the Cavaliers, though, his patience has looked more like passivity. He has slowed down the Raptors’ attack, allowed the Cavs to set their defense and has been indecisive rather than aggressive. Cleveland’s defenders never bite on his pump fakes, and he doesn’t seem to think he will get the benefit of the doubt on foul calls when attacking the rim. This has resulted in him overthinking with the ball in his hands.
DeRozan is worlds better than what he showed in Game 3, but he’s not a dangerous enough floor spacer or defender for coach Dwane Casey to put him back on the court when another group is clicking. This was a gutsy move by Casey, but it is worrying that it was the logical thing to do.
What’s with all the switching?
Toronto’s reinvention this season wasn’t all about the new offense — it switched more aggressively than ever before on defense, and this was a strength. Against teams with a lot of ball and player movement, it’s more often than not an effective strategy. In this series, though, the Raptors have been too willing to switch and gift-wrap favorable mismatches to Cavs. Kevin Love has feasted on smaller players — he scored a combined 52 points on 18-for-35 shooting in Games 2 and 3 — and James was able to shed O.G. Anunoby and get C.J. Miles on him whenever he wanted down the stretch on Saturday.
The answer is not to take switching out of the repertoire. Toronto just could have been much more selective about it. Cleveland is a phenomenal offensive team, and it’s fatal to give James shortcuts to high-percentage looks.
The Cavs have largely dictated the terms
One thing the Raptors can take from their fourth-quarter explosion is the importance of pace. They pushed the ball the way they did in the first quarter of Game 1, and they looked like the younger, more athletic team (They are!).
Unfortunately for them, Cleveland has controlled the tempo for the vast majority of the series, largely thanks to James holding the ball and almost never turning it over. Also unfortunately for them, they learned their lesson way too late.
The Love-Valanciunas conundrum
Before the series, Toronto’s biggest matchup problem (aside from guarding LeBron) was obvious: Can center Jonas Valanciunas survive against a 5-out lineup? Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue went with Love at center because of how well he spaces the floor for James and because it forces Valanciunas into uncomfortable situations defensively.
The Raptors could have countered this by benching Valanciunas and only playing him against Tristan Thompson. Casey decided not to do that, likely because Valanciunas helps stabilize Toronto’s offense. It is not some crazy coincidence, though, that the Raptors came back with Serge Ibaka playing center and matching up with Love.
What happened to Toronto’s bench advantage?
The Raptors had the best bench in the league in the regular season, and this was a major talking point heading into the series largely because of how poor James’ supporting cast was in the first round against the Indiana Pacers. Against Cleveland, though, Toronto’s bench hasn’t looked that special: Big man Jakob Poeltl has been unplayable, guard Delon Wright has been quiet and Pascal Siakam‘s offensive limitations have been on display.
It has been downright startling to see the Raptors struggle to find the right mix in terms of balancing offense and defense in this matchup. That was supposed to be the Cavs’ problem, not theirs. Despite being deep and versatile on paper, Toronto has had serious trouble finding different groups that work cohesively on both ends.
The system is great, but the talent isn’t ideal
The Raptors’ cultural rebuild was necessary, and it paid off with the best regular season in franchise history. It is notable, though, that they embarked on this journey with imperfect personnel. The playoffs tend to expose every little vulnerability that teams have, and it now looks like Toronto needs more reliable shooters and big men who are natural passers in order to make the most of this offensive system. This year’s Raptors were always a more prolific than proficient 3-point shooting team, and turnovers have become a major problem in the playoffs.
The Cavaliers are an interesting contrast, as they play a simpler style that is not predicated on making tons of passes. They rarely overthink things or mishandle the ball because everything revolves around the game’s smartest player picking their opponents apart. Ironically, much of Toronto’s offensive success in its comeback was incredibly simple. The Raptors involved Love in pick-and-rolls, spaced the floor and did a lot of driving and kicking to open shooters.