From LeBron's game-winner to Dwane Casey's strange decisions, 3 big questions about wild Cavs-Raptors ending
At this point, what LeBron James is doing to the Raptors is pure evil. He’s relishing in their misery. Almost giving them false hope just so he can crush them even harder. On Saturday in Game 3, after Toronto erased a 17-point second-half deficit to tie the game on an OG Anunoby 3-pointer with eight seconds left, LeBron casually went the length of the court before hitting a one-foot, falling-out-of-bounds, 19-foot bank shot at the buzzer like everyone watching pretty much knew he would.
It was amazing.
It was also baffling.
Not just that final play, but a handful of plays over the final minute that ultimately decided this game and all but ended any hope that the Raptors could somehow make this a series. They’re down 3-0, and however long this thing lasts now is a formality. It probably was all along (says the guy who picked the Raptors to win in six), but this ending on Saturday was nothing if not a nail in the coffin. Here are four big questions that deserve to be debated as we look a little closer at the wild ending to this game — starting with the obvious.
Why didn’t the Raptors double LeBron on the final play?
First, let’s be clear that Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had the option to take the ball out at half court after a timeout, but he chose to go the length of the court instead so LeBron would be able to operate in more space with a full head of steam. That wound up being a good call, but only because they Raptors didn’t take advantage of the almost 94 feet they had to bring a second defender to LeBron and force somebody else to beat them.
After the game, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said the plan was, in fact, to force the ball out of LeBron’s hands, but it sure didn’t look that way. Take a look at this play from the very start, when two defenders casually shadow LeBron without ever really denying him as he makes a simple cut to receive the pass, and from that point forward a second defender never even comes close to him.
Yes, that’s an incredible shot. But you have to expect the incredible with LeBron James. There was no excuse to even let him get the inbound pass in the first place. They should’ve had him surrounded before the official even put the ball in play. Make someone else go the length of the court and pull off the impossible.
But even if LeBron still found a way to beat the initial trap that was never set and receive the pass, THE GUY DRIBBLES THE BALL FOR SEVEN SECONDS BEFORE HE SHOOTS!!!! Suffice it to say, there was plenty of time to run another defender at him and at least make him make some kind of decision on the fly.
Ultimately, OG Anunoby did as good a job as he could’ve done on this play. He defended the heck out of James and forced him into a very difficult shot. But if the Raptors haven’t learned by now that what is difficult for most people on earth is actually pretty simple for LeBron, well, apparently they’re never going to learn.
What was that Raptors inbounds play with 57.9 seconds left?
So before LeBron pulled off his magic act, the Raptors had a pivotal play of their own on which they employed similar play design. To set the stage: Toronto had stormed back form 17 down, and here it had possession on a side out, with less than a minute remaining, trailing by three. Major detail: There were just five seconds on the shot clock. Obviously, this is a huge play coming out of a timeout. You don’t need a three, but you need a bucket of some kind. Here is what Dwane Casey came up with:
So let me get this straight: The actual play design was to throw the ball 40 feet backwards, and ultimately about 70 feet from your hoop, with five seconds on the shot clock? That’s the best you can come up with? I mean, I can understand if they’d had a couple initial actions stymied and ultimately just had to get the ball in bounds, but they didn’t even look anywhere else. This was the No. 1 option from the start. Throw it to the opposite free throw line to Fred VanVleet. For real.
I lost my mind in our NBA chat room when this went down, and my man James Herbert, who has seen more Raptors basketball over the last few years than probably anyone reading this and is a really smart basketball mind, informed me that this is actually a Toronto staple, and that they have had success with it, though they usually run the action for Kyle Lowry — who was, in fact, on the court. The idea, similar to the idea Lue had in giving LeBron a full court to work with, is to get the ball handler a head of steam and allow him to operate in a spaced floor rather than inbounding it into congestion.
Major difference: Fred VanVleet is NOT LeBron James.
Ultimately, you’re asking for a lot to go right for a guy to take the ball 70 feet in five seconds and get a clean shot. It can happen, particularly if you have LEBRON JAMES, and VanVleet didn’t help matters by hesitating when he caught the ball and wasting at least a few beats of the precious seconds he had to work with, but still, this doesn’t feel like much of a play design. This feels like Plan C deployed as Plan A. After watching Brad Stevens get the Celtics layups on multiple after-time-out plays in Boston’s Game 3 win over Philly on Saturday, this looks even worse.
This, my friends, is an inbounds play.
Watch that again, and you’ll see Al Horford start high to keep Joel Embiid out of the paint. That’s where this starts. From there, the Celtics bring Jayson Tatum through the lane from the weak side. His defender, Robert Convington (the ultimate target on this play), trails behind before Ben Simmons picks up Tatum, leaving Covington in the paint. Form there, Tatum just continues toward the sideline, taking Simmons with him, and just like that Simmons is out of the lane. That’s one defender gone.
Next, Jaylen Brown sprints from the baseline toward half court, and as Simmons follows Tatum, Embiid, by design, is the logical man to switch onto Brown, who simply continues toward half court and drags Embiid with him. That’s two defenders gone. Now, all that’s left is Covington on Horford with nobody left in the lane to help on the back side. Simple pass over the top. Bucket.
Again, THAT is an inbounds play. Admittedly, not everyone is Brad Stevens, who is basically a magician with these out-of-timeout plays, and all matchups and situations are different and thus call for different actions. But when you’re down three with less than a minute left and you only have five seconds on the shot clock, if you’re Dwane Casey you have to come up with something better than throwing it to the opposite free throw line and asking a guy to make an individual play from 70 feet in five seconds.
At the very least, you have to force the Cavs’ defense to make a few decisions and perhaps they make a mistake and leave someone open. Again, I understand the space and head-of-steam theory, but a lot has to go not just right, but almost perfect, for a guy to get the ball that far from the hoop and get a good look in five seconds. Suffice it to say, it didn’t go perfectly.
Why wasn’t DeMar DeRozan on the court for the final minute?
DeRozan didn’t play the entire fourth quarter, and that’s fine. The unit the Raptors had in there was the unit that got them back in the game, and DeRozan didn’t play well all night. It’s still worth asking why he wasn’t in there for this side out-of-bounds play with less than a minute left. It’s pretty simple: This is the biggest play of the game, and DeRozan is your best player. Even more, with just five seconds on the shot clock, you need guys who can create their own shot off the dribble. DeRozan is a guy who can command a double-team on the catch and kick to an open shooter, or if they don’t double, again, THE GUY IS YOUR BEST PLAY AND BEST SHOT CREATOR.
This is not an argument that DeRozan shouldn’t have been benched for most of the fourth quarter. This is only about this one possession, and it felt a lot like USC taking Reggie Bush out of the game on fourth-and-1 against Texas in the Rose Bowl, which allowed Texas the luxury of not having to worry about the biggest weapon the Trojans had. The biggest plays are for the best players to make, and the Cavs didn’t even have to THINK about DeRozan.
Now, it didn’t really end up mattering because the Raptors eventually tied the game anyway, but when you combine this with the play Casey ran for VanVleet and the decision not to double LeBron on the final play, well, let’s just say these were some highly questionable calls with your season on the line.
That said, LeBron was probably always going to do something crazy to win the game anyway.