Coming into their second consecutive playoff meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers in as many years, the last thing the Toronto Raptors wanted was for history to repeat itself—but it did.
The first two games of postseason series have not been kind to Dwane Casey’s group when taking on the wine and gold. Combined with last year, the Raptors have lost all four of these contests by a total of 83 points. LeBron James has been the reason behind most of it.
When it gets to this time of year, there’s not much you can do. The infamous “switch” gets flipped and Cleveland kicks it into another gear. Through Game 1 and Game 2, they lead the league with a 17.5 net rating per 100 possessions and boast the highest true shooting percentage (64.2) in addition.
Again, James’ leadership is to thank in this case. As these playoffs have gone on, his efficiency has improved with each game. He’s getting it done driving to the rim and taking care of the basketball.
In this round, he’s converting a league-best 62 percent of his attempts (minimum of over 11 tries) and knocking down over 54 percent of his threes. Oh, and by the by, he just passed up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to take second place on the All-Time NBA playoff scoring list.
LeBron the superstar is deadly as it is. LeBron the jump-shooting superstar is twice that. There really looks to be no way to get him out of his zone right now.
On the other hand, defensively, the Cavaliers have really picked it up. J.R. Smith has stifled one-half of Toronto’s stellar backcourt single-handedly. Thus far, in the time they’ve been on the court together, DeMar DeRozan has been held to 22.2 percent from the field on nine attempts per game, according to NBA.com.
Making the All-Star shooting a non-factor in the game has really hurt his psyche, and he’s struggled because of it. In addition to Smith’s lockdown D, two other members of the team have taken the challenge on defense as well.
As he did in the first round, Tristan Thompson has done a fantastic job of holding down the fort, but Kyrie Irving is now the one who’s stepping it up. In the 65 minutes he’s played, the second member of the big three leads the entire team in net rating with 42.2.
In the 31 minutes that he hasn’t been on the floor, the Raptors are scoring 139 points per 100 possessions as opposed to the measly 84.3 with him on. The same can be said for Tristan Thompson, as Cleveland has a team-worst net rating of -40.4 when he’s sat.
Who Wins Game 3?
Luckily for Toronto, they get to go home for a couple of games to get this off of their minds. Not so luckily, they’ll have to move forward with a hobbled Kyle Lowry, who sprained his ankle in the Game 2 loss.
If there is something that the Raptors may have found on Wednesday, it’s that Jonas Valanciunas is much, much better off playing with the second unit. Before coming into the first round, the Lithuanian had finally found a rhythm and was among the league’s best bench players in the playoffs.
When Casey inserted him back into the starting lineup, it threw off that whole groove he was in. Seeing his offensive success come back to him in Game 2 in that reserve role was a welcome sign.
If Toronto is going to come away with a win on Friday, they’re going to need a ton more from DeRozan, but he’s not the only one. The entire team has to come out with a fire. Patrick Patterson is going to have to knock down his shots. DeMarre Carroll will have to bring a lot more to the table offensively. Norman Powell may have to take it upon himself to be more aggressive.
Lowry and Serge Ibaka have been the most consistent players in this series for the Raptors, but they’re going to have to push even harder, too. When you’re up against the defending NBA champions, it’s going to take everything you have to stop them, especially when they’ve found a groove like this.
The last time Toronto fell into a 0-2 hole they came back and took two straight from the Cavaliers at the Air Canada Centre to even up the series. Unfortunately, though, this time will be a little different.
Cleveland has been an absolute offensive juggernaut with no signs of slowing down. The North’s crowd will be raucous, but even a hostile environment like that won’t be enough to fend off a championship contender that’s just now finding its true potential in early May.
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