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The Raptors Leaned Right Into the Cavs’ Punch in Game 1

Five takeaways from a Cavs blowout that might as well have been a rerun of last season’s Eastern Conference finals. Will Toronto ever strike first?

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The gap between the Cavs and the Raptors appears as wide as ever. Cleveland easily won Game 1 of the second-round series, blowing out Toronto with a 116–105 victory that was not as competitive as the final score would indicate. The Cavs were up 14 points at halftime, and they were up 20 when they pulled their starters with three minutes left in the fourth quarter. For all the moves Toronto made to upgrade its team, Monday’s game might as well have been a replay of Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, when the Cavs ended the Raptors’ season with a 113–87 thumping at the Air Canada Centre.

Cleveland looked refreshed after having had more than a week off following its sweep of the Pacers in the first round. The Cleveland defense, which was shredded by Indiana in the first round, was as active as it has been in months, and the Cavs ran off misses and turnovers from the Raptors, blowing the game open with easy baskets in transition. They trapped Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan when they came off screens, daring an isolation-heavy Toronto team that was dead last in the league in assists to move the ball and make the correct pass under duress. From a strategic perspective, it was similar to what the Bucks did to the Raptors in the first round.

Dwane Casey was able to push the right buttons to get his team out of the 2–1 hole it dug itself against Milwaukee, but it will be much more difficult this time around. The Raptors had a huge margin for error against an inexperienced Bucks team that wasn’t quite ready for the bright lights of the playoffs. They have to play at their absolute best to have a chance at upsetting the Cavs. LeBron James hasn’t lost a playoff series against an Eastern Conference team since 2010. Here are five takeaways from a game that was over early, and a look at the problems Toronto faces as it tries to get back in the series:

LeBron Went for the Kill Early and Never Let Up

While he has to pick and choose his spots more carefully these days, James still has plenty left in the tank when he wants to rev his engine. Chris Ryan has the breakdown of LeBron’s epic steal and alley-oop dunk that happened less than three minutes into the game. LeBron knew DeRozan would make that pass before Kevin Love even arrived on the trap to get the ball out of his hands. The rest was history:

LeBron finished the game with 35 points on 13-of-23 shooting, 10 rebounds, and four assists. For all the talk of who would guard him before the start of the series, there’s not much anyone can do when he’s knocking down open jumpers. LeBron was locked in Monday, going 5-of-10 on shots outside of the paint and 7-of-8 from the free throw line. The Raptors had no one who could match up with him. Once LeBron got a head of steam going to the rim, even P.J. Tucker, one of the strongest players in the league, found himself bouncing off of LeBron harmlessly.

Tucker was able to draw two offensive fouls against LeBron in the fourth quarter by anticipating where he was going, beating him to the spot, and absorbing punishment. However, even though he’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, Tucker doesn’t have the size to contest LeBron at the rim. DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll are taller, but neither has the necessary combination of size, athleticism, and defensive IQ to slow down LeBron. No matter what type of adjustments Casey makes, his team doesn’t have an answer for the best player in the world.

Is There a Place for Jonas Valanciunas in This Series?

Casey was forced to move Valanciunas to the bench in the last round, as the Raptors just weren’t able to keep up with the Bucks when they were playing two traditional big men together. Not much has changed in the second round: the Raptors center was minus-21 in his 21 minutes in Game 1. The Cavs ran up the score in the third quarter (and led by as many as 25) by repeatedly putting Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll. He couldn’t corral their ball handlers in space, and even Iman Shumpert was able to create an easy shot for the roll man against him:

The way the Cavs attacked Valanciunas had more than a passing resemblance to what the Celtics did to the Wizards’ Marcin Gortat in Game 1 of their second-round series Sunday. A bigger and slower center who is uncomfortable playing defense outside of the paint is at a huge disadvantage against teams with guards who can shoot and pass off the dribble. Gortat, at least, was able to punish the Celtics for their lack of size, with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Valanciunas had only six points and six rebounds against the Cavs, and the only way he’ll be able to justify his playing time is by hitting the boards and taking advantage of Cleveland’s smaller front line.

The tough part for Casey is that there’s no one for Valanciunas to match up against off Cleveland’s bench. While the Bucks run their second-unit offense through a traditional bruiser (Greg Monroe), the Cavs’ backup center is Channing Frye, one of the best 3-point-shooting big men in the league. If Valanciunas is guarding a pick-and-roll involving LeBron and Frye, the Raptors might as well concede the three points. His sheer size (7-foot and 255 pounds with a 7-foot-6 wingspan) makes him a valuable rim protector, but his inability to move his feet quickly enough may send him to the bench if he’s not careful.

The Raptors Big Men Have to Make Plays Out of the Pick-and-Roll

Cleveland didn’t waste any time laying down the gauntlet in this series. They sent two defenders at Lowry and DeRozan early and often, creating four-on-three opportunities the Raptors couldn’t take advantage of. Draymond Green made his name making plays when opponents double-teamed Steph Curry, but there’s no one with his skill set on the Raptors roster. Serge Ibaka had 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting, with many of those coming off of pick-and-pops, but he’s not a natural playmaker and he tends to force shots over help rather than make the extra pass.

The Raptors’ most skilled big man is Patrick Patterson, and he finished with four assists to one turnover in his 22 minutes of playing time. He couldn’t hit a shot to save his life Monday, and he’s averaging only 4.4 points on 29.0 percent shooting in the playoffs, but his ability to read the floor and make the right pass breathed some life into the Raptors’ otherwise stagnant offense. Their best offensive stretch of the game came when they went super-small at the start of the fourth quarter, with Patterson at the 5 and Tucker at the 4.

The other interesting twist that Casey tried in the second half was using DeRozan to screen for Lowry. The one time they ran that play, it resulted in an open 3 for Tucker. Using two guards in the pick-and-roll has become an increasingly popular play over the past few years, since it puts a dangerous playmaker in the role of the screener, and forces less capable perimeter defenders to guard multiple positions. However, that still leaves big men with limited offensive game playing off the ball, unless Casey goes with a smaller lineup.

What Lineup Makes the Most Sense for the Raptors?

Replacing Valanciunas in the starting lineup with second-year guard Norman Powell in the Bucks series was the move that changed Toronto’s fortunes, but it probably won’t have the same effect against Cleveland. The Bucks started Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton at the forward positions, so Powell had a lighter player he could match up with on defense. Powell, at only 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, would struggle to guard either LeBron or Love, and in the moments that he did in Game 1, Love wasted no time taking Powell to the post and drawing a foul on him:

Love’s ability to play inside and out could pose a huge problem for the Raptors in this series, since Tucker is the only one of their wing players with the bulk to bang with him in the paint. If he is guarding Love, though, that means either Carroll, Powell, or DeRozan is on LeBron, and none of the three seemed up for the challenge on Monday. Patterson should at least be able to hold his own against Love, but playing him at the 4 would still leave a relatively unskilled big man at the 5, unless Casey went outside the box and gave rookie center Jakob Poeltl, who was an elite scorer in college, some playing time.

The Raptors’ options are somewhat limited, but it seems like starting the game with Ibaka and Patterson together up front and then going even smaller, with only one big man in the game on the second unit, gives them their best chance. Casey might need to live with an undersized defender against LeBron or Love for large stretches of the game, which is far from ideal, but it still beats the alternative. The worrisome aspect for Toronto fans is that these matchup problems were fairly easy to anticipate before the series even started, yet Casey leaned right into the Cavs’ punch in Game 1. There’s still time for him to make a few adjustments, but he can’t wait until Game 4 like he did against Milwaukee.

J.R. Smith Played Great Defense

The Raptors are going to need more out of DeRozan if this series is going to be competitive. He finished Game 1 with 19 points on 7-of-16 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists, and four turnovers. His relatively limited offensive production was partly due to the Cavs game plan, but a huge part of the credit has to go to Smith, who played inspired defense for most of the night. J.R. is known more for partying and jacking 3s than playing defense, but he has the size (6-foot-6 and 225 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) and athleticism to make a positive impact on that side of the floor when he’s dialed in.

DeRozan took only five free throws on Monday, a big decrease from the 8.3 attempts a game he averaged in the Bucks series. For the most part, Smith was able to stay in front of DeRozan without giving him any lanes to the basket, and then contest his jumper without fouling. DeRozan is going to make his fair share of impossible shots; the key for any defender is not giving him any free points by sending him to the line. Smith said as much before the series started to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com: “If you can get out of the game with probably a foul or two, [DeRozan] shooting five free throws or less, that’s pretty good.” These are the types of plays Smith has to keep making:

Smith’s ability to defend won’t just be important in this series. At this stage in his career, LeBron needs to be able to take some plays off on that side of the ball, and Kyrie Irving has never been known as a stopper in his NBA career. The Cavs need defense from their starting shooting guard, and elevating Shumpert into that role would mean being forced to rely on his inconsistent offense and outside shooting. The Cavs’ defensive rating in the playoffs slips from 106.4 when Smith is in to 113.1 when he is out. Getting J.R. to defend and stay out of trouble might be one of LeBron’s most impressive accomplishments.