Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals took place last night and went down to the wire.
The Raptors led by as much as 14 and had the lead for the entire game until overtime. The Cavaliers ultimately won 113-112.
Both teams have a long history with one another dating back to 2016. They met in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals where the Cavaliers won that series in 6 games. They would meet again in 2017 in the Semi-Finals where the Cavaliers won in a sweep. After experiencing elimination two years in a row at the hands of the Cavaliers, you would think the Raptors were ready to confront their demons.
It appeared they were doing just that. The Raptors came out aggressive, and as mentioned earlier, built up a 14-point lead at one point. Jonas Valanciunas was dominating the paint and it seemed the Cavaliers had no answer for him.
The Cavaliers eventually made adjustments and brought in Tristan Thompson. He elevated his level of play scoring 14 points with 12 rebounds. Thompson’s activity on both sides of the floor proved to be impactful. Kyle Korver contributed 19 points including 5 made threes. J.R. Smith added in 20 points along with 5 made threes as well. LeBron had a silent triple-double, scoring 26 points on 12/30 shooting. LeBron was admittedly fatigued, having played game 7 against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday.
The Raptors also got key contributions from DeRozan (22 points), Valanciunas (21 points, 21 rebounds) and Lowry (18 points, 10 assists), and they controlled most of the game up until the fourth quarter.
From the midway point in the fourth, the Raptors committed plenty of mental blunders that included unnecessary timeout calls, senseless turnovers, and missed easy, wide open buckets. The Raptors went 3-16 on shots taken within 5 feet of the basket. They also struggled defensively and appeared to have no answer for the Cavaliers balanced attack. The Raptors had plenty of opportunities to win this game in the fourth quarter and overtime, including easy layups and tip-ins by C.J. Miles, DeRozan, and Valanciunas. Fred Van Vleet also missed two open looks. They just didn’t seem to have what it takes to win on this night.
The Raptors should feel disappointed and concerned. This game was there on a silver platter for them to win. They were playing at home, led for most of the night, and had plenty of opportunities to win this game. The Raptors failed to take advantage and execute down the stretch. Lowry made costly errors that includes calling an unnecessary timeout and committing a 5-second violation. Also, Dwane Casey failed to make any adjustments and got out-coached down the stretch.
The Cavaliers looked poised, and even when they were down they didn’t seem worried. They kept their composure, made adjustments and fought their way back into this game. This is largely due to their experience, but as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst put it: They don’t fear the Raptors.
Many analysts and fans are looking at the series between Cleveland and Indiana and are using that as a measuring stick for why the Raptors will win this series. That’s not applicable. The Pacers were a bad matchup for the Cavaliers. They’re a big, physical, defensive-minded team that could shoot the ball, and were led by a potential superstar in Victor Oladipo. They were able to neutralize the Cavaliers role players, which forced LeBron to elevate his game. The Raptors weren’t constructed to do that.
While the Raptors have depth, they’re inexperienced. They’re also lacking a superstar caliber player that has the ability to stabilize the game in the fourth quarter, and make critical shots late in games. This has been the truth for quite some time and it continues to rear its ugly head like it did last night.
LeBron was playing less aggressive in game 1 and was looking to get his teammates involved. If he plays at the level he’s capable of, which he will as the series progresses, and the Cavaliers role players step up like they did last night, then the Cavaliers will win this series. The Raptors had every reason to win last night and they didn’t. That’s troubling. They will undoubtedly put up a fight and redeem themselves, but regular season records aside, they shouldn’t be the favourites in this series.
Last night was only game 1, but it was very telling.