The Toronto Raptors did themselves no favors in the arena of public opinion when they allowed the Cavaliers to steamroll them, 112-106, Tuesday night in a match that was much worse than the final score. It was a fairly embarrassing loss for a team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, one of the four best backcourts in the NBA, and one expected to dispel their stigma of an elite regular-season team that crumbles under the pressure of postseason play.
If all goes according to plan, the Raptors will face the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, the winner securing a matchup against either the Rockets or Warriors for a shot at an NBA championship. The way the Cavaliers — without starting point guard George Hill (ankle) — handled the Raptors, they just might cruise to their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance.
The Cavs didn’t even have George Hill
It was Jose Calderon who lit Kyle Lowry up for 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the first quarter alone. He finished the game with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 3-of-5 from downtown to just five points from Lowry on 2-of-11 shooting. Yes, Calderon scored more than twice as many points in the first quarter as the Raptors all-star scored all game long.
Tuesday night was a nightmare for Lowry. He couldn’t stop the 36-year-old Calderon from making plays, and he couldn’t get shots to drop on his own. It was reminiscent of his playoff struggles in each of the past two seasons.
The Cavaliers play some of their best basketball when their point guard is aggressive on offense. It’s why the thought of landing Isaiah Thomas in the Kyrie Irving deal made sense: trade one aggressive scorer for another, plus parts. The Thomas deal didn’t pan out, but Calderon proved even a senescent guard in attack mode can create wonders in Cleveland’s offense.
That’s not music to Toronto’s ears.
LeBron James was virtually unstoppable
That’s not unique to Toronto. The King is in the mix for GOAT status, whether you like it or not. But the Raptors literally had zero answers for James, who scored 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and six assists.
LeBron drops 27/10/6 and the Cavs beat the Raptors, 112-106 pic.twitter.com/u8FSN4XDBG— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 4, 2018
Toronto’s best lineup is a smaller unit that features both Lowry and Fred VanVleet in the backcourt. James dominated that small-ball lineup. Now what, Toronto?
That vaunted Raptors bench did their job!
Toronto has one of the best two-way benches in the NBA, and they showed it against Cleveland. The Raptors’ second unit accounted for 45 of the team’s 106 points, led by 10 from Pascal Siakam, three triples from VanVleet, eight from C.J. Miles, and seven from both Delon Wright and Norman Powell. Every other team would genuflect in honor of the basketball gods to have a bench that productive.
The issue, though, was with the Raptors’ starters. Lowry only scored five points. DeMar DeRozan was limited to only 19 points, albeit on 7-of-13 shooting.
Cleveland might just be worst possible matchup for Toronto
The Cavaliers aren’t the best defensive team. They actually own the third-worst defensive rating, behind only the Kings and Suns.
But somehow, someway, Cleveland had Toronto’s number for the second time this season. Love spaced the floor, forcing the Raptors to go small. When they did go small, James played Whack-a-Mole with whoever was defending him. Lowry didn’t show, and DeRozan didn’t have a superhuman game, either. It only resulted in a six-point win because Cleveland took its starters out and the bench blew their late lead.
Barring an unlikely early elimination for either team, the Raptors and Cavaliers will meet in the conference finals, and if Dwane Casey can’t find a solution, Toronto could be destined for another exit at James’ hands. It’s not that the Raptors haven’t improved from past seasons.
The Cavaliers are just a matchup tailor-made for a series against the Raptors. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about it.