This was not the same ol’ Raptors.
Toronto’s vaunted “cultural reset” this season had two parts. One was the offense being more egalitarian and less isolation — and we saw that in Game 2 Thursday. The ball moved, they had 26 assists and put up 110 points, their shot selection was good, and overall they had an efficient night with a net rating of 119 (points per 100 possessions).
But does it matter if it’s old or new if the result is the same?
The second part of the “reset” was the defense — Toronto had the fifth-best defense in the NBA this season, allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions. They have steadily climbed the NBA rankings on that side of the ball in recent years. This season the Raps were fifth in the league in halfcourt defense and didn’t allow a lot of transition opportunities (ninth fewest in the league). However, that had slipped after the All-Star break (11th best defense after that February date) and that slide continued into the playoffs.
Toronto’s defense took Thursday night off and it all but ended the series.
The Cleveland Cavaliers put up 128 points with an insane 138.9 offensive rating (points per 100), led by LeBron James’ 43 points and 14 assists, and Kevin Love’s 31 points. The result was a comfortable 128-110 Cleveland win where the game was never in doubt in the fourth.
“They got hot offensively and that drained us a little bit,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the game.
Cleveland is now up 2-0 in the series and is heading home with Game 3 Saturday. The Raptors’ demons are all back and as a team they looked demoralized. Beaten. We may not have another game in the Air Canada Centre this season.
All-game long the Cavaliers seemed to get whatever shot they wanted — and what they wanted early was to get Kevin Love going.
“Kevin Love was phenomenal, gave us a double-double,” LeBron said. “The All-Star that we know and have grown to love, he was wonderful man.”
In the first game, Cleveland did a poor job of exploiting the Love’s quickness advantage when Jonas Valanciunas on him (which led to calls to start Tristan Thompson at the five, something Tyronn Lue ignored). In Game 2 the Cavaliers started attacking, running corner picks for love that got him across the lane for dunks. Then the Cavs started going at the Raptors’ weakest links in pick-and-rolls and forcing Valancinuas to cover a lot more ground (the Love/LeBron pick-and-rolls were particularly effective). All of this led to Love getting open — and this time he knocked the shots down.
“We were able to get some shots, we’re making some shots, playing with more pace, and I think our offense has just picked up,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.
In the third quarter, LeBron took over and looked every bit the best player on the planet, leading an 18-5 surge to start the quarter. He had 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting plus six assists in the third alone, hitting tough shots all the while. Even when the Raptors defended them well it didn’t matter.
“That drains you mentally and physically,” Casey said of LeBron hitting tough fadeaway after tough fadeaway in the second half.
While that happened, the Cavaliers tightened their defense in the paint, taking away some of the easy buckets Toronto was getting in the first 24 minutes. While the Raptors still scored well, it wasn’t enough to keep up.
The Cavaliers won the third quarter 37-24, were up by 11 at the end and in control. You could feel the energy of the fans and the confidence of the Raptors players drain away. The fourth quarter felt like a lot of decided NBA regular season games where it might not formally be garbage time but the game was decided.
Toronto should look back at their first half as a blown opportunity.
It was a fairly close first half where the Raptors were the better team but the Cavaliers hung around. Cleveland was running Love off picks and attacking the rim on offense — the Cavaliers were 9-of-11 at the rim in the first quarter and didn’t have a bucket outside the paint. Toronto had a small lead most of the quarter, but could not extend it when LeBron sat at the end of the first.
That continued into the second — the Raptors were moving the ball, playing with pace, taking better shots and being efficient on offense. But they couldn’t get stops (Love had 18 in the first half, LeBron was attacking off the pick-and-roll) and it was a two-point game at the half, 63-61.
Then the third happened. And that might have been the series.