The Toronto Raptors never should have had to try to win a crunch-time battle with LeBron James on Tuesday. They had a 14-point lead after the first quarter, a 13-point lead with 17 minutes left and a 10-point lead with 10 minutes left. James needed to play 47 minutes and the Cleveland Cavaliers needed overtime to escape the Air Canada Centre with a 113-112 victory, but if Toronto hadn't missed its last 11 field-goal attempts of the fourth quarter, it could have made a statement in the series opener.
Cleveland, of course, deserves credit for staying in striking distance, dialing up its defense and making a run when it needed to. As the Raptors try to regroup, though, there are several possessions that will hurt to watch in their film session. And I don't just mean their golden opportunities to retake the lead at the end of regulation.
With 8:30 left in the fourth quarter, the Cavs made a terrible mistake in transition defense, leaving sharpshooter C.J. Miles wide open behind the 3-point line with a chance to extend Toronto's lead to 11 points. Miles made his two other 3-point attempts on the night, but this one -- the easiest, by far -- didn't drop. Cleveland got the rebound and James set up Kevin Love for a 3-pointer on the other end, which splashed through the net. Suddenly, it was a five-point game. Two minutes later, it was a two-point game.
With less than four minutes to go and Kyle Lowry trapped by James and Tristan Thompson, he found Jonas Valanciunas on the perimeter. Valanciunas might have taken the shot if it was a 3-pointer, but decided to pump fake instead of taking a long 2 over the recovering Thompson. There were opportunities to pass to an open Serge Ibaka for a 3 or hit a cutting O.G. Anunoby, but instead Valanciunas went one-on-one with Thompson. It almost worked, as Valanciunas -- an excellent offensive rebounder -- grabbed his own miss twice, but could not convert.
On the Raptors' very next offensive possession, Valanciunas again went off the dribble against Thompson. He got all the way to the rim despite Thompson's physical defense, but could not make the contested layup or draw the foul.
This, somehow, is not even a comprehensive look at Toronto's missed layups in the fourth quarter. For several minutes, at the worst possible time for the Raptors, nothing went right, even when the shots were open. And now they find themselves in the familiar position of trailing in a series in which they are the higher seed.
"I think we're a better team," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. "We just didn't make shots down the stretch. I know it sounds simplistic, but we had our open looks, had our opportunities that we didn't cash in on."
More takeaways from Game 1:
Thompson is back in a big way
Can you believe Thompson barely played in the first six games of the first round against the Indiana Pacers. He changed Game 7 with his rebounding and effort, and it wouldn't surprise me if Cavs coach Tyronn Lue decides to start him again in Game 2 of this series. Cleveland has been searching for competent two-way lineups all season, and while the big man does not offer spacing, his defense was crucial in this victory and his offensive rebounding helped the team make up for its poor overall shooting.
Thompson finished with 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting and 12 rebounds (nine offensive) in 26 minutes. He was the only Cavalier who could slow down Valanciunas, and he switched onto DeMar DeRozan and stayed with him on the final play of overtime. He had a rough, injury-ravaged regular season, but that does not matter now.
So, how should we feel about the Cavs' supporting cast?
Thompson is hardly the only Cavaliers role player who had a hand in this win. J.R. Smith scored 20 points, went 5-for-6 from deep and had a nice night defensively. Jeff Green was a +10 and got to the line over and over again, scoring 16 points on 4-for-4 shooting in 28 minutes. Kyle Korver had 19 points and made five of his 12 3-point attempts.
At the same time, Love was essentially invisible offensively through three quarters and Valanciunas continually took advantage of him at the other end. George Hill didn't play at all down the stretch, Larry Nance got a DNP-CD and Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood might be unplayable in this series if they don't figure out where they fit in quickly. Lue is clearly still trying to find a rotation that makes sense.
Is there reason for optimism for Toronto?
Despite the disastrous fourth quarter and stressful overtime, here are some things that went well for the Raptors:
- James shot 12-for-30, missed seven out of his eight 3-point attempts and finished with only 26 points. While he still made a huge impact -- James took Lowry out of the game with his defense and had 13 assists with only one turnover -- Toronto has to be happy with the way Anunoby guarded him.
- The Raptors took 48 percent of their shots at the rim and 37 percent from 3-point range, per Cleaning The Glass. They also did a good job keeping Cleveland away from the rim. If they play this way, they should be in good shape.
- This is just Game 1, and many adjustments can be made from here. A couple of suggestions: More minutes for Fred VanVleet (if his injured shoulder can handle them, that is) and a much, much faster pace. Only eight percent of Toronto's possessions started with a transition play, per Cleaning The Glass, and that is inexcusable against a shallow team that just finished a draining, seven-game series two days before this.
How about Cleveland?
Uh, they just took a 1-0 series lead on the road despite not playing particularly well for the vast majority of the game. I would call that a reason for optimism.