Last night in Cleveland, the Raptors found themselves trapped in a rerun. Just as it had in Game 1, a good-not-great first quarter quickly lapsed into a bloodletting that extended from the middle of the second quarter all the way through to the end. The cause of death hadn’t changed, either: the Cavs continued to bludgeon their way through the restricted area. After two games, the Cavaliers have 58 attempts around the rim; the Raptors have 32. The series has gone on for eight quarters, and Toronto has yet to win a single one. Adapt or perish, they say. It sure is looking like the Raptors are going down like their namesake.
Toronto’s problem starts with one of its two stars, but not who you’re thinking of. Kyle Lowry’s ongoing playoff meltdown has been well-documented, but DeMar DeRozan has the second-worst plus-minus on the team in the series. And it’s DeRozan’s conundrum that embodies the Raptors’ struggles. Back in January, he told ESPN’s Zach Lowe, “I have no problem shooting 3s, I just feel like I can get to the basket at will, so it almost feels like settling. But I know I have to take them, so now I’m just gonna shoot it.” Except, DeRozan hasn’t attempted more than one 3-pointer in a game since the first round against the Pacers nearly three weeks ago. His long-range aversion is the one glaring flaw holding him back from modernity; watching him struggle can feel like watching someone bomb ’90s Night at a karaoke bar.
In a seven-game series, where every single one of your flaws gets internalized by the defense, stars need to be versatile enough to adjust to the circumstances. Only four of DeRozan’s 35 attempts after two games have come around the rim; he isn’t getting to the basket at will anymore. Maybe it’s unfair to call out the one player on the Raptors who’s giving the team a steady 20 points per game, but DeRozan’s blueprint is in plain view: 71 percent of his shots in the series have come from midrange. It’s the least threatening 20 points the Cavs will allow in any given game; they’re almost happy to oblige.
For a decade now, team building in the East has centered around the same objective: form a team capable of beating LeBron James. But dating back to last season’s series against the Bulls, the Cavaliers have now won 17 consecutive playoff games against the Eastern Conference. After a disheartening loss like last night’s, it can be easy to creep closer to the ledge. Lowry and DeRozan made up one of the best backcourt duos in the NBA this season, but we’ve seen their lack of flexibility exposed all postseason long. They’re about to break — if they haven’t already.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 20, 2016.