I wanted to start this off with a bit of a personal anecdote. From the first Cleveland Cavaliers playoff series I ever watched (Cavs-Wizards in 2005), I had always told my parents I wanted to attend a playoff game in person. The atmosphere looked incredible, and I had always wanted to be a part of that at some point in my life, but the opportunity just never presented itself. That all changed a couple days ago, when my cousin contacted me and let me know he found a guy that was selling tickets to Game 1 between the Cavs and the Toronto Raptors and wanted to know if I would be down to go with him. I told him I had always wanted to go to a playoff game, and he pulled the trigger. Yesterday, nearly twelve years after the thought had first entered my mind, I got to attend my first NBA playoff game. And what a game it was.
Our seats were only a couple rows from the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena, but I could see the action clear as day (thank goodness I have good eyesight). On the seats, they left bright yellow t-shirts with “Defend The Land” emblazoned across the front, as well as Cavs-themed rally towels and glow bracelets. I could hardly wait to see the intro video, to see the player introductions, and to witness the ambiance and the aesthetic of a playoff basketball game in Cleveland that I had been hoping to be a part of for so long. Without a doubt, that sequence was one of the most riveting and energizing displays I’ve ever seen at a sporting event. The crowd was pure electric, the players were hyped, and the energy in the building was palpable. I am somewhat disappointed the Cavs didn’t take the Milwaukee Bucks’ lead and play the Barney theme song for the Raptors player introductions, but I digress.
Before the game tipped off, I had been jokingly talking to my cousin about the free t-shirts they were tossing at the game, saying it was destiny that I was going to get yet another free t-shirt by the end of the night (even though I’m pretty sure I’ve only got a free t-shirt at a game maybe twice in my life). Loe and behold, after the first t-shirt toss, I got that shirt, and unlike Dez Bryant, I completed the process of the catch. Nothing says “American sports” quite like our inexplicable infatuation for free t-shirts, so needless to say I was pretty ecstatic about it (I ended up giving it to my dad, but that’s beside the point). A win that night felt inevitable in that moment, like it was destiny (whether it was because I was at a euphoric high after catching a plain white t-shirt or I just knew the Cavs were a really good basketball team, I can’t say).
In the last few months, I’ve been lucky enough to attend Game 1 of the ALDS between the Indians and Red Sox, as well as the Ohio State-Michigan game (my last football game as an Ohio State student), and I was very eager to see how this experience would fare in comparison. I wasn’t disappointed.
Alright I won’t bore you with any more of my personal flapdoodle (which is actually a real word that I actually looked up). Let’s get into some Cavs basketball.
The Cavs are starting to find their groove
Through five playoff games, this was the first one I watched where I didn’t find myself trying to over-analyze the concerning aspects of the team’s play over the past few months at any point from start to finish.
Last night, the Cavs looked like themselves again.
From the outset, the Cavs set the tempo in this game and didn’t look back. Within the first three minutes, Kyrie was lobbing the ball off the glass to a trailing LeBron James, who finished with his left hand. The crowd was charged up, LeBron was giving out chest bumps to any and all interested takers, Kyrie and the rest of the squad were hyped at what LeBron had just pulled off...THIS is the team that brought home the Larry O’Brien Trophy last year.
This was a constant theme throughout the night. J.R. Smith was pushed off a screen and no foul was called. When he got the ball back, he launched a heat check without having hit a single shot in the game yet. Swish. Iman Shumpert attempted one of those “dunk” things again…and he actually succeeded! I think it’s been almost 26 years since the last time Shump actually finished a dunk (give or take a couple years; I wasn’t a math major). LeBron apparently isn’t a fan of Dortmunder Gold, which is a bit disappointing considering it’s my favorite craft beer. Dahntay Jones had a dunk and got ejected with 18.7 seconds to go in the game. Uhhhhh.
But in all seriousness, the Cavs looked solid all-around last night. Kyrie had a really nice game overall, scoring 24 points on 16 shots and dishing out 10 assists. Tristan looked as good as he has in months. LeBron did what LeBron does, which is completely dominate the game from the outset to the final buzzer. No surprise there. The bench was a little bit off last night; they were getting open shots, but they just weren’t knocking them down, and the defense in those lineups isn’t good enough to reciprocate. The defensive effort was there all night, but this time it actually netted favorable results, allowing a defensive rating of 103.1 for the game (and 92.2 in the first half), down from the 111.0 they allowed to the Indiana Pacers over the course of that series.
It’s clear that the eight days of rest they had off between those two series has given the Cavs quite a boost in vitality, and it was apparent last night.
The Raptors have a LeBron James problem
At the trade deadline, the Raptors acquired P.J. Tucker with the hopes that he would be able to guard LeBron James in a potential playoff matchup. I don’t think it’s going to work out.
If last night was any indication, the Raptors have literally no one on their roster that can adequately guard LeBron. There was a sequence last night where LeBron had Tucker in the paint and he bullied him for a contact layup, and immediately followed that by drilling a contested three in his face. He never had a chance.
DeMarre Carroll tried to guard LeBron in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, and it didn’t work out too well for him either, and now Carroll’s play has dropped off to the point that the Raptors are probably beginning to regret the four-year, $60 million deal they gave him a couple years ago.
When you’re playing against a team that features the best player in the world and have no one that can keep him from doing whatever he wants, you’re going to be in some trouble. It was clear from the moment LeBron called for and finished an alley-oop off the glass in a playoff game that the Raptors had no answer for him. If the Raptors can’t at least keep every player on the Cavs roster outside of LeBron in check, this could be a very short series for them.
The Raptors have reason for optimism and concern. But mostly concern
The Raptors aren’t going to look back on this game as anything close to resembling a good performance, but there were signs that they may have a chance to turn it around. Kyle Lowry had a solid overall game with 20 points on 13 shots to go with 11 assists, and looked more like his usual self than he did in the Bucks series, where he struggled mightily. Serge Ibaka was decent on both ends. P.J. Tucker had 13 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.
Unfortunately, the list of concerns for the Raptors is much longer.
Jonas Valanciunas looks borderline unplayable in this series. He has no hope of matching up with Tristan Thompson on the inside, and he’s much to slow on defense to make any difference on the defensive end, especially when Channing Frye is in the game as a floor stretcher. The Raptors would be best served bringing Val off the bench and bringing in a more athletic big, such as Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam, or Lucas Noguiera to replace him in the starting lineup.
While DeMar DeRozan played well yesterday from a statistical standpoint, he was not very helpful to the cause. DeRozan had a plus/minus of -32 in 35 minutes yesterday. The second lowest Raptor was Valanciunas at -21 in 21 minutes. To color this picture more vividly:
The Raptors were 119.1 points per 100 possessions better in the 13 mins DeRozan sat. Not sure I've ever seen something like that before— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) May 2, 2017
DeRozan was the engine that carried the Raptors past the Bucks in the first round. If he can’t find a way to have a major impact in this series, the Raptors won’t have much of a chance.
The only real success the Raptors had in Game 1 was the short time the Cavs were playing the bench lineup with Deron Williams-Korver-Shumpert-LeBron-Frye, which had a net rating of -105.1 in six minutes. While that lineup was generating a plethora of open looks, they weren’t falling, and when the shots aren’t falling with that lineup, the defense isn’t formidable enough to make up for it. This lineup had much success against the Pacers, but it’s not a lineup that seems to be working against the Raptors, and almost assuredly won’t work against the Golden State Warriors in a potential Finals rematch.
Overall, the Raptors were formidable in most key areas statistically (aided slightly by the Cavs sitting their starters in the last few minutes), as the box score comparison was very close in almost every category. However, the actual game was never that close. The Raptors played their best basketball when the game was already out of hand.
The Raptors need to make a lot of adjustments with their rotations and their gameplan if they hope to make this a competitive series, and they better make them quick because the Cavs are starting to get their swagger back at just the right time.