If Toronto loses this series, this is the game they will look back on with the most regret.
It was every Raptor nightmare about this series come to life — Toronto’s inability to beat LeBron James, the inability of their stars to close games after they had a lead, the inability of the Raptors to win the first game of a series, it all came true in the end Tuesday night, in just about the ugliest way possible. Toronto was in their own heads when it mattered most.
Toronto dominated early, led by double digits in the second half, but shot 5-of-24 in the fourth quarter and missed its last 11 shots in regulation. Then in overtime, they shot 3-of-7. Toronto missed every three they took in the final four minutes of regulation and in overtime. Then, at the end of regulation and overtime, when the Raptors needed a bucket, they turned to bench player Fred VanVleet to take the shot — not Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan.
The Cavaliers, as they have all season, showed poise down the stretch — their passes and shots looked like those of a confident team while the Raptors looked tight — and Cleveland took Game 1 in overtime, 113-112. It was a game where Cleveland never led in regulation but did when the buzzer finally sounded.
The Cavaliers lead the series 1-0 having won one on the road. Game 2 is Thursday night in Toronto.
LeBron James was brilliant as expected, 26 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds (and Tyronn Lue even got some rest for him during the game). Toronto chose from the outset to single-cover LeBron most of the night, primarily with OG Anunoby — and the rookie did a good job, LeBron needed 30 shots to get his 26 points. Anunoby is strong and LeBron couldn’t just overpower him, settling for more fade-aways than the Cavs would prefer.
However, the point of single-covering LeBron is to stay home on the supporting cast and not let them beat you, and the Raptors failed at that — J.R. Smith had 20 points, Kyle Korver 19, Jeff Green 16 and Tristan Thompson 14.
“Guys stepped up tonight, everybody stepped up,” LeBron said. “We got timely stops. They killed us on the glass, but we stuck with it, made timely shots, it’s a huge win for us.”
Lowry and DeRozan started strong but combined to go 3-of-11 in the second half. The Raptors vaunted bench was outscored by the Cavaliers maligned one 37-35.
“We know the head of the snake is DeMar and Kyle, but those six or seven guys that come off that bench are very productive. We knew we had to take them away and take them out of the game for us to be successful, it’s a good start for us this series.”
The best Raptor for much of the game was Jonas Valanciunas, who punished the Cavaliers for starting small with Kevin Love at center. In the third quarter, Valanciunas had 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting plus five boards, dominating inside. However, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue adjusted and put Tristan Thompson in against JV and in the fourth quarter the Raptors’ center was 1-of-7, including a series of point-blank putback misses.
The night started with such promise for Toronto at home.
Toronto shot 62 percent in the first quarter and was up 33-19 after one. Toronto’s offense is far more diverse than Indiana’s, the Raptors have a variety of shot creators, and that exposed the Cavaliers’ defense that had been a mess all season.
However, the Raptors couldn’t hold on to that and the Cavaliers tightened the game up in the second quarter. That was the theme all night, Toronto’s inability to put LeBron and the Cavaliers away. When the pressure was on, the Cavaliers made plays and the Raptors fumbled their chances.
Looking at the body language of Raptors players leaving the court, it’s fair to wonder if they fumbled away their chance to win this series.