Raptors Rumble Past Cavs Team Stuck in Jurassic Park

click to enlarge Does Coach Lue look how Cavs fans feel?
Does Coach Lue look how Cavs fans feel?
There’s a scene at the opening of David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago that’s totally the Cleveland Cavaliers, particularly in the wake of last night's discouraging 99-97 road loss to the Toronto Raptors.

The supporting male (Jim Belushi in the really lame movie adaptation, About Last Night) is relating a (tall?) tale about a nineteen-year old he picked up at a restaurant abutting a hotel. After taking a shower in her room together, a playful thwack in the ass with a towel end unleashes an elaborate bomber pilot fantasy tableau.

He’s doing her on the bed as she wears a flak suit and yelling “BOOM” every so often, while on the hotel phone her friend is making machine gun noises. But that’s not enough.

The Cleveland Cavaliers sure are fun to watch. They’ve got talent in all the right places and can do things that make your jaw drop and tongue unfurl from your mouth like some cartoon character. At the same time, they’re wildly frustrating and have an unerring nose for drama every time things seem to be going well.

Yes, the Cavs are your crazy/hot significant other, unable to choose between putting a smile on your face and wringing your still beating heart into their Bloody Mary because you forgot the V8.

But hey that’s fun right? After all the Cavaliers are pretty much Field of Dreams compared to the nihilistic Battlefield Earth experience endured by Browns fans. Sure, maybe hopeful Clevelanders are chained to their frustrating Cavaliers like galley slaves, but at least they’re drinking Heineken.

There’s a real tendency to evaluate the nature of your relationship after a night like Friday in Toronto. The Cavaliers led for 46 of the 48 minutes. While you might rightly argue that the officials did them few favors, it’s also noteworthy that the Cavaliers blew a 5-point lead with less 18 seconds left to the Celtics at home exactly three weeks earlier.

As a long-time Red Sox fan we know how continual disappointment can change faith into a sometimes sour, sometimes combustible mix of curdled hope and bitterness, waiting for the other shoe to drop as sick validation for those dispirited feelings.

It might ease the pain of a let-down, but it also has the potential to suck the joy out of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, should this be the year. Wouldn’t you feel a little cheated if this is the year the drought ended and you spent the entire year dour over Steph Curry and Golden State’s ascension to sainthood?

We mention this as a useful aside to those Cavs fans getting some extra air this morning on their ledge. Sadly the Wine & Gold aren’t the type to assuage your worry with their peerless attention to detail and bottomless energy. We’ve got hot and cold heroes here with a rookie coach both figuring it out as it goes.

The other top lineups (Raptors, Warriors, Spurs, Thunder) have had substantially the same lineups for at least four years. The Cavs are a few years behind, and that lack of innate chemistry is painfully obvious at times. But fans also saw this team come together like Walrus Gumboot and Ono Sideboard (don’t ask me, ask Macca) in the playoffs last year.

The team’s a riddle/enigma/puzzle-packed Turducken of a team. From pundit to teammate, nobody’s got a clue what’s on their plate. All you can do is open wide secure in the knowledge it can’t be any worse than the spicy dry rub the Browns have been giving their fans for years.

The Game

As has been the Cavaliers tendency since Lue took over the club and installed the quicker pace, the team came out of the gates fast, taking a 7-0 lead on a Kyrie 20’ pull-up in post-transition, a Love three and driving bucket. They went up 13-6 just before the first quarter witching hour.

If you watch closely, you've noticed the New Cavaliers are always up in the first six minutes, before their five-hour energy runs out or something. Opponentss always seem to bounce back the last half of the quarter. (Don’t believe me, just watch.)

It only took 130 second for the Raptors to tie it at 17. That’s the moment when Delly and Shumpert came in for Smith and Irving. Those two were great in this stretch (and nearly as bad in the fourth) leading a 14-4 run that produced five buckets by five different players (5-7, James with the only two misses) and three triples (James, Channing Frye, Matthew Dellavedova).

Then the Cavaliers defense went into submission mode. We wouldn’t even know how to describe it but think WWII France in a gimp mask and baby diaper. We joke, but the Cavaliers have these stretches like defensive aphasia. They’re stuck on that first syllable, while Toronto’s the very model of a modern major-general with information vegetable animal and mineral.

If you’re a loyal fan you’re probably noticed these strange lapses where opponents go on absurd shooting stretches against the Cavaliers. Basketball is definitely a game of runs, and we aren’t going to front like we’re jaded vets, but we’ve witnessed a lot of basketball. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen such ugly defensive ruts as the Cavaliers occasion, which are uncommonly deep for an otherwise championship level team.

Toronto had just such a stretch making their first 10 shots of the second quarter. As good as the Cavaliers are we don’t think we’ve seen them make 10-in-a-row this year. Seems really fucking odd, to be honest, but maybe it’s just a small sample size oddity. The other reason we think it’s more than coincidence is that not one of the five shots was more than a foot beyond the restricted area.

The lineup that killed the Cavs featured two point guards – Cory Joseph and Kyle Lowry. This is very very bad news for the Cavaliers. We remember how Portland’s backcourt of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard julienned the Cavs' defense, and it seems inescapable at this point that those teams with a pair of penetrators in their backcourt can give the Cavs fits.

We know a lot of people will blame Kyrie and he should shoulder some blame but everyone in the backcourt got torched at some point or another with the possible exception of J.R. Smith whose defense was very good all night, mostly covering DeMar DeRozan (who finished 1-11 with 6 points).

Delly seemed to wilt as the game went on, suggesting his bad hammy is still bothering him, especially late in the game when Lowry exploited him like the NCAA does its unpaid interns, I mean, college athletes.

It’s sad to say but the team’s early season imitation of a M*A*S*H* unit hasn’t subsided and it’s posing problems. Suddenly, Jared Cunningham is much missed. Mo Williams has a knee problem and is seeking a second opinion, just as he did with his thumb issue. He’s also allegedly one of the guys whose pissing and moaning reached enough of a crescendo after Kyrie Irving’s return that the coach was fired. Mo’s return is truly shaping up to be everything his first visit was. This is definitely the guy to send in to cut the red/green wire if it ever comes to that.

Dellavedova’s often the only person who really runs the offense, when he’s not on the floor, particularly to lead the second squad, things get dodgy quickly. He missed five games before the break and really seems to have come back too early judging from his trouble staying in front of the succession of challenging playmakers this week, including Reggie Jackson, Kemba Walker and now Lowry (all of whom scored at least 20 on the Cavs).
Watching the ten straight buckets a few things stick out. The first four all featured Shumpert guarding Lowry. Anyone who has visited the fan boards or listened to sports talk has heard the calls for Shumpert to start at the off-guard and to take Kyrie’s PG assignment. Granted, it’s Shumpert’s first game back from injury, but it wasn’t inspiring.

On one play he reaches and lets his guy go by. On another he fails to really cover the roll guy, yielding a layup. On a third play he leaps behind Lowry for reasons that defy explanation, rather than effectively trap him and thus allows an easy bounce pass to the roll guy for the score. It’s becoming more apparent that Shumpert’s head has to be in the game for him to play the kind of defense he sometimes plays.

He did at times – don’t get us wrong – there was a play where his D on Lowry helped force a 5-second violation, but last night he was in no way the answer. In the fourth quarter alone he picked up three fouls (at least two of them ticky-tack) and a very stupid technical foul. Not a good showing.

It also seemed like Shump got meeker as game went on w/r/t hitting screens. Wouldn’t be surprised if the game’s physicality is tough on that injured shoulder – if we’re not mistaken the same one that was injured before he came over from New York.

On six of those plays you can see Kyrie play his brand of “defense” which seems to be to shadow the player without actually letting your body touch them. Every time Lowry or Joseph got in the lane, Irving seemed to shrink from contact. But if Irving didn’t play well on defense, it’s hard to make the case anyone else in the backcourt did.

Beneficent Third Quarter

Whatever Tyronn Lue told the Cavaliers after taking a 49-45 lead into the locker room, you’d like for him to package it. The Cavs came out so well. They stopped showing so aggressively, and started what’s known as “ice”-ing the pick and roll, where the roll man hangs back and is more willing to concede the three, instead of jumping out and trapping or forcing the ball handler to go around him. Meanwhile the ball moved on offense.

Make no mistake. Toronto came out with energy and aggression. But the Cavaliers not only matched it, but outplayed the Raptors at both ends for the entire quarter. The Wine and Gold made 9 of 19 (47%), shot 11 free throws (made 8), outrebounded the Raptors 12-5, and held Toronto to 7-17 (41%), though they did get 11 free throws, making 7.

Toronto was good about chasing J.R. Smith off the arc, though he still went 3-6 from distance in scoring 13 points. He’s shown that he can beat teams closing him out, and showcased that skill with a great spin move baseline floater in the third.

LeBron had nine in the third, and Love had six, all at the line. Smith and Tristan Thompson each contributed a couple buckets. Kyrie was the missing link, going 1-5 without an assist. He finished the game 4-11 with a solitary assist against two turnovers, both from over dribbling. Wonder if LeBron will say anything to Kyrie about only getting one assist, since after all he is no longer really the point guard….

While Kyrie wasn’t much of a facilitator, Kevin Love was. This was one of the cleverest things Tyronn Lue has done since taking over. Love’s a fine passer and by running the offense through him and James there are more opportunities to create offense for others where Kyrie Irving is so often about cooking for one they could nickname him MRE.
We saw a little bit of what Love was capable of when he found Richard Jefferson for two threes, some of the only scoring during the Raptors second quarter run.
The Cavaliers were up 12 with 17 second left in the quarter when Dellavedova was called for a somewhat questionable Flagrant 1, that not only gave the Raptors Bismack Biyombo two free throws but Toronto the ball with 2.7 seconds left on the clock.

LeBron was defending the ball and probably got faked out to the high side opening up a wide angle just as Lowry was coming around a screen. Shump got bumped hard and was far behind, making Thompson’s defense all but an afterthought, and cutting the lead to nine.

Ugly Fourth

That long video replay and ignominious end to the third set the stage for the Raptors' comeback. However the Cavs actually withstood the Raptors first fourth quarter run, which cut the lead to 79-76. The Cavs answered and pushed the lead back to nine, 91-82, with 5:38 left and then the wheels came off.

Toronto outscored the Cavs 14-1 over the next four minutes, half by Lowry. Lowry hit his last six shots (counting that one at the end of the third) scoring 18 points, while also collecting three of his game-high nine assists. The Cavaliers tried Shumpert, Irving and mostly Delly on Lowry down the stretch. Nothing worked. You’d have more chance shutting off Niagara Falls an hour South. (In fact they did once.)

Lowry finished with 43, including 15-20 from the field, 11-15 at the charity stripe, with two threes, four steals and nine assists against just two turnovers.

Final Minute

Down the stretch there were several questionable decisions by Lue. Up two with just under a minute left, the Cavs let Lowry slow back Delly into the basket like Miss Daisy parking her car. Robert Falcon Scott had greater hope for help – though the question whether this was the intent or someone failed to double, Lue went unasked during his four-query postgame-presser.

LeBron didn’t have much more to offer. “We gave up a couple threes, a couple unfocused plays not following the game plan. And it burned us,” he said. “When you lose the way we lost – mental mistake after mental mistake – those hurt more than anything when you can play better mentally. We get so caught up in the physical think but we lack the mental.”

There wasn’t much of an explanation for the Cavs final shot, a three by LeBron that failed to draw rim, backboard or net.

“Just didn’t make it,” LeBron said. “I got a decent look. It was a little rushed.”

That’s it. We’ll never know if LeBron scratched the play and called his own, three-deficient number (28%). Seriously. Is there anybody on the team with a lower three-point shooting percentage? Anyone who’d be a worse choice to take a game winning three?

The answer is Mozgov. He’s the only person who’s taken a three (still on the team) who has shot worse (14%) than LeBron from distance. (Joe Harris was the low at 25% before being traded.)

So why were they going for the win with the worst shooter on the team? (Wouldn’t he be a better decoy, or even inbounder, given how Love nearly turned the ball over?) Is it because LeBron hit that shot in Chicago, or Lue wouldn’t stand up to him? Who knows? And really, who cares, right now. In the end it was just one game.

Final Analysis

The Cavaliers played a very Cavaliers game. They looked great at times, with 31 and 28 point quarters against the 10th best defensive efficiency in the league. (Cleveland’s eighth.) There was good ball movement all game long. Despite just 21 assists (on 35 buckets) they had 10 secondary assists, including two by every starter, even Tristan Thompson.

They defended the perimeter pretty well (sorta), in that only 27 of the Raptors 73 shots were uncontested. (They hit 41%.) The Cavs were a little better with 32 of their 74 (and they dropped them, making 59%).

Of course part of the problem was that the Raptors were having such success getting to the rim they didn’t need uncontested jumpers. More than half the Raptors points came in the paint (50) against just over a third of the Cavs (34) points. That was the Raptors getting to the rim at will.

Just check out the two teams' different shooting charts to see who was getting better shots. The Raptors were 23-38 in close, the Cavs only 17-34. They also made three more turnovers. You can't let opponents shoot more free throws, make less turnovers and shoot over 50%. That will even counteract going 12-24 from three.

As a result of the loss, the Cavs also surrendered the homecourt tie-breaker to the Raptors who beat the Cavs twice in Toronto against a win for the Wine and Gold at the Q. That makes the loss a two game swing in the standings.

Toronto’s a very good team, but the Cavaliers have to be worried for other reasons. They need to do a much better job limiting dribble penetration and they’ve typically had lots of trouble maintaining that high level for more than six minutes at a time. It’s been an Achilles heel going back to last season, and Mozgov’s regression seems to have made things worse.

LeBron’s faith in Timo may have reached such a low that it’s hurting the team. We saw this play where LeBron nearly fumbled the ball out of bounds. A few plays earlier he’d thrown a beautiful behind the back pass which had hit Timo's left hand and gone out-of-bounds. So rather than throw to the guy one foot away, wide open under the basket, LeBron tried to bounce a pass to Shumpert in the corner.
This was intercepted and resulted in a three the other way when Mozgov and James failed to utilize the one chance they had to switch back assignments leaving Timofey covering Terrence Ross on the perimeter, obviously not Timo’s strong suit, and Ross drained a three over him. It seems to us LeBron really needed to switch.
In LeBron’s defense, Timo is kinda cluelessly watching ball, but it’s not like LeBron couldn’t yell at him – hell, he’s almost close enough to grab his shoulder. It’s just another emblematic play of how the team failed each other down the stretch.

The Cavaliers are still learning what they want to do. They are like anybody learning a new role, sometimes they flub or forget their lines. There are still 25 games left before the playoffs, and in some aspects, particularly offense, there are noticeable improvements. Last night the ball moved, even in the fourth quarter and nobody played ISO/hero-ball down the stretch.

On the other hand the team’s defensive focus isn’t great, and they don’t always physically get into players. Last night they let the Raptors dictate the pace and didn’t get loose like they like, only scoring 6 fastbreak points to 3 by Toronto and matching them with 13 second chance points. Those are easy points, categories the Cavaliers want to dominate.

The Cavaliers still have a ways to go. They have all the talent to win the championship, but their chemistry, mental toughness and attention to detail in close games leaves something to be desired. With a passel of back-to-backs coming in March, we’ll get a lot better idea of whether they can maintain focus through exhaustion.

But in the end it’s hard to escape the sense of these games as sort of a job training course. They’ve been promised a job, so it sorta doesn’t matter how they do, but they’ll have a lot better chance of keeping that job a while if they don’t let this time go to waste.

The Cavs next opponent is the Washington Wizards on Sunday at 1pm. The Wizards have made a number of moves in the last week, adding J.J. Hickson, whose contract was bought out by the Denver Nuggets, and Markieff Morris, obtained from the Suns.

They’d like to make a playoff run to seem more attractive to summer free agent and former area resident Kevin Durant. They’ve got talent but Wall and Co. have been chronic underachievers.

Still the Cavaliers need to watch out. The Wizards play very uptempo and push the ball much more than the Wine and Gold could probably ever hope. The Cavs avenged a home loss to start December with a road victory in Washington in January.

We’ll posting analysis, video and snark on Twitter. You can follow us @CRS_1ne and you can read our postgame analysis Monday morning, here on the Scene and Heard blog.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.