Cavaliers Are Extinction-Level Event On Raptors' Horizon

It took nearly eight months but giddy Fortune’s furiously fickle wheel has spun yet again. While Cavaliers fans endured shovel-load after shovel-load of Warriors hype like the distended creatures of Hieronymus Bosch’s richly imagined hell, the team persevered and prepared for this moment. They’re Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, pounding out his below-the-poncho plate mail to avenge the beating he took and deliver savory karmic comeuppance.

Now the media’s Golden children are looking up from the floor, and the Cavaliers have done nothing but roll through every opponent like the Germans through Poland. The Cavaliers are an armor division, and their Eastern Conference foes are using spears. They just can’t stop this bum rush because the posse’s in full-effect and they look like busters.

It’s hardly fair that the way the Cavaliers have handled these games seems to have only convinced the talking heads that the Eastern Conference blows, not that the Cavaliers are the most singular dominant team in the league. But that’s certainly how it looked as the Cavs smothered the Raptors with their still-beating heart, 115-84.

We’ve not witnessed anything quite this savage since Cartman orphaned Scott Tenorman at the Chili Con Carnival cook-off and cannibalized his soul. What’s even more delightful is that they did just what they said they would, which since the beginning of the playoffs has been to “move the ball and take what the defense gives us.”

That idea apparently went over the head of three-quarters of the media, who spent the last week rhapsodizing about the Cavaliers historic three-point shooting, and wondering if Cleveland can win without shooting the three. All through the media sessions the Cavs have countered that they aren’t a three-point team. They’re a team capable of doing different things. That they went out and proved it last night feels a bit, “No duh.”

It’s as though the Hawks and the Pistons said, we’re not going to let Kyrie or LeBron run the ball. But in loading up the lane, like loading up the line to stop the run, they’ve opened up the long game. For the last two series’ J.R. Smith, Channing Frye and Kevin Love have made opponents a hatless ginger at Coachella without any sunscreen. They can’t help but wind up badly burned.

So rather than build with straw, the Raptors build their castle with sticks. So guess what the Big Bad LeBron did?

Having witnessed the three-point barrage, it was an easy surmise that the Toronto Coach Dwayne Casey would go the other way. Rather than load the lane to take away the Cavaliers penetration, he was going to play Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James more or less straight up, and take away those perimeter shots.

“We always want to play inside out and when Kyrie, LeBron and Kevin and those guys are attacking the basket, it opens up the three-point shot because guys are helping. But tonight we were able to get downhill get to the basket and get a lot of layups. They didn’t collapse as much as the previous teams have,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “We just take what the defense gives us. If they open up the paint we’re going to drive and attack the basket. If not we have to step up and knock down the threes.”

Daring LeBron to beat his man one-on-one without a legitimate rim protector is like playing Hide-and-Seek with SEAL Team Six. It won’t turn out well for you. James was a perfect 7-7 in the first half, and Kyrie Irving was 8-11, combining for 32 points. Toss in Kevin Love’s 10, and they’re two short of matching the 44 put up by the entire Raptors squad.

Meanwhile the Cavaliers blitzed Kyle Lowry on the pick-and-roll taking away his ability to penetrate and forcing other players to beat them. Lowry only took one shot at the rim and finished with eight points on 4-14 shooting (0-7 from three). As a team they shot 5-24 from beyond the arc.

Like with the Hawks, the Cavaliers conspired to let the worst Raptors take shots. Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph were given as many jump shots as they could be enticed into taking and finished a collective 5-19.

Toronto’s only real threat all night was DeRozan who had 18 on a very efficient 9-17, but the biggest thing for both DeRozan and Lowry was neither went to the line all game. They were averaging more than 12 free throws a game between them before last night. At the end of the first half the Cavs had 18 free throws to the Raptors 2. They made it a point not to bite on Lowry & DeRozan’s head fakes and stayed true to that.

“DeRozan came out and had a great first quarter. He made some shots and some in-between twos. We wanted to get a late contest on those and we’ll live with those shots,” said Lue. “But we did a great job of keeping him and Kyle [Lowry] off the free throw line, and the guys followed the gameplan perfectly.”

It’s a thing like that – their ability to execute a gameplan that requires significant discipline – which convinces us this team’s head is in the right place. They’re playing smart and they seem very conscious of what they’re trying to do. The execution, needless to say, has been incredible.

The Game

The Raptors got off to a quick start, which if you were in Vegas would’ve made for a nice bet. After a nine day layoff, it wasn’t too surprising to find the Cavaliers trailing 17-11 after the first six minutes. As Lue noted, DeRozan got loose for three midrange jumpers, and the Raptors hit shots to start, going 7-9. They would be 6-16 to finish the quarter, as the Wine and Gold slowly adjusted to game-speed as the quarter wore on.

As we were saying, the Raptors decided to play LeBron one-on-one, which he must’ve almost felt was an insult, right? We understand there are no great options defending the Cavaliers, but defending (arguably) the best player in the NBA below the foul line with one guy is a strategy in the same sense as Thelma and Louise driving off that cliff.

Here’s James taking Carroll to school to see if they’ll learn their lesson. Three times is the charm, right?
We also wanted to take a moment to look at another fine Lue in-bounds play, even if Kyrie sort of whiffed on the backside screen for Love. Kevin Love is such a solid fundamental player backcuts and feeding the post come much more naturally to him than most big men or scorers for that matter. He makes this happen with his play, even though Kyrie missed his guy like a trapping Browns lineman.
It wasn’t much noted but Lue tried another wrinkle in the first quarter, pulling Thompson with five minutes to go in the quarter. This resulted in some crazy cross-matches as Biyombo guarded Shumpert and James took him on the defensive end. It allowed Love to get a three and resulted in this fastbreak when James blocked DeRozan.

The Cavs were very canny in how they played, especially Kyrie Irving. He took advantage of his opportunities to push the ball, taking it hard to the hole. We aren’t sure Kyrie’s had so many tough, successful finishes at the rim since he came back. It seems like his acrobatic touch around the rim was the last thing to come back, even trailing his three stroke.

We also liked seeing Shumpert used in the pick-and-roll, as he was below, because teams like to help off of him. By screening with him, you force the D to makes some tough calls, where the guys they can help off are J.R. Smith, Richard Jefferson and Kevin Love. Suffice to say, Shumpert went from the three line to the rack unmolested.
Irving scored 12 of his game-high 27 in the first quarter, beating them in transition and the halfcourt offense. At times he looked like Tony Hawk skating around traffic cones.

Bring On the Second Team

Dwayne Casey made a crucial tactical error in the first quarter when he played DeRozan and Lowry the whole quarter, presumably to try to recapture the lead, after the Cavs closed the quarter on a 22-11 run. Whatever the cause, it left his poor scoring second-team exposed to the LeBron-led second squad which has been very good the last six weeks.

The emergence of Channing Frye has made this squad very dangerous despite the fact that it’s four reserves. Delly, Frye, RJ and Shump can all drain the three. While Shump shot just 29.5% during the season, he’s 7-14 in the playoffs. Beyond the three-point shooting, the Delly/LeBron pick-and-roll has evolved into a devastating weapon.

Delly runs the offense wonderfully in an oddly measured way that reminds us of Andre Miller. Head-up, sorta half-speed, it’s hard to believe that Delly always seems to have a good look though he rarely goes full-speed. That’s important though, because he sucks the defenders toward him and demonstrates a fine sense of timing.

They ran variations on this several times, bedeviling the Raptors efforts to stop it. Obviously a freight train like LeBron James needs to be stopped long before he reaches the pass, but that attention must come at the expense of someone else, in this case a Channing Frye three.
Of course, if you don’t cover the rolling James, something like this happens.
“Everybody tries to play the single-side bump. It’s just a tough play and LeBron makes the right read 90% of the time so we’re pretty good with it,” said Channing Frye, describing the play. “You put a shooter on the side LeBron’s gonna roll and they have to make a choice. Are you gonna let LeBron dunk on you or are you gonna let somebody shoot a three?”

There was good movement off the ball during this stretch, as on this Delly cut that resulted in an “and 1” giving him 7 points during a 17-4 run with that lineup.

Lue got six minutes out of that lineup and they were up 18 when Irving, Love and the rest of the starters returned. Most of it was their great defense, which held the Raptors to 1-9 shooting. (Toronto was 6-12 the rest of the way.)
By then the game was more or less over, but the Cavaliers put an exclamation point, outscoring the Raptors by four more the rest of the way to take a 22-point halftime lead, and the Cavs never let up, outscoring the Raptors in every quarter.

Even though the Raptors came out better in the third, the Cavaliers defensive pressure was intense. Toronto made 7-15 from the field and 7-8 from the line, but also had eight turnovers most of which the Cavs turned into baskets the other way, such as this LeBron James Pick-Six.

By the time it was over, even Caligula-sized bloodlusts were quenched. The Cavaliers dominated every aspect of the game. They won the boards 45-23. The Cavs shot 19-28 at the cup (68%) getting more shots at the rim than 3s for the first time this postseason. They beat the Raptors 56-36 in the paint and 13-4 on second chance points. They held the Raptors to 42% FG while shooting 55% themselves. They were also 26-33 from the line, while the Raptors were just 15-20.

Final Analysis

It appeared by midway through the third period that the Raptors were beginning to crack. The game got chippier and the shots starting looking more desperate as ball movement died in favor of hero ball. We wonder if the Raptors have the discipline and mental toughness to play smart and error-free ball for 48 minutes, because nothing less is going to give them a chance at victory.

The no-help defense is probably history for the Raptors, though even just a little more help might do the trick. If the choice is a layup line for Kyrie and LeBron or Smith/Frye/Love threes, you have to lean a little more toward allowing the threes, right?

If it were just one of them, perhaps you could “let them get their points,” but James and Irving in tandem make it very difficult to do that, and the role players have so far performed their walk-ons flawlessly. It’s a challenge to defend the Cavs, especially when Tristan Thompson is singlehandedly beating three defenders on the boards.

But even beyond that, the Raptors don’t have enough offensive options, or reliable enough ones. They need not only for Lowry and DeRozan to have good games, but for a third player to step up. Carroll still looks hindered, though James Johnson looked pretty good and provides a physical matchup for James. Most of his points seemed to come on Carroll.

That’s the big adjustment we expect for next game. Expect more of Johnson and help whenever LeBron is on the baseline or in the post. They can probably get away without doubling Love, for now, but they are going to have to blitz Irving’s pick-and-rolls if Lowry can’t stay in front of Kyrie significantly better than he did last night.

We expect a better game from the Raptors in Game Two, but we also expect a better game from the Cavs. The Raptors only Hail Mary is Valanciunas’ potential return in Toronto for Games 3 and 4, which might give them a lift and somewhat flummox the Cavaliers defense. However, they just don’t have enough talent, and every one of the Cavs players seems to be hitting their peak right now.

Look for our Richard Jefferson feature article hear in the Scene and Heard section before tomorrow’s game. We’ll be back at the Q on Thursday for Game Two, posting live video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read out postgame analysis on Friday morning here in the Scene.

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