The Toronto Raptors had Game 1 of their conference semifinal series on a tee against a fatigued LeBron James and his struggling ClevelaCavalierssupporting nd cast. Toronto was rested, home and confident.
Here’s what happened: James had his least impactful game of the playoffs. Kevin Love had one of the most miserable 20 minutes of basketball in his career. The Raptors had a 13-point lead in the third quarter. They had a five-point lead going into the fourth quarter — a situation where the Raptors were 30-1 at home this season. They even had three quality looks to win the game in the final seconds of regulation.
But the Cavs are ahead 1-0, pulling off yet another close-game victory with a 113-112 overtime win Tuesday night. They have now won five postseason games by a total of 15 points.
“Shots weren’t going in for me,” said James, who missed 18 shots in the game and was 3-of-15 in the fourth quarter and overtime. “It was probably one of my worst games of the season.”
When James is saying things like that, the opposition is usually celebrating a win. But the Raptors, harkening back to darker times from the past few years that they’d spent the season trying to bury, went into a cocoon down the stretch.
They shot just 26 percent in the game’s final 17 minutes, missing a horrific 11 consecutive shots at the end of the fourth quarter. Kyle Lowry (18 points, 10 assists) and DeMar DeRozan (22 points) had decent-looking stat lines, but the Cavs were able to force the ball from their hands when it really mattered.
Thanks to excellent rotations and defensive strategy — not something the Cavs are particularly known for — DeRozan was twice forced to give up the ball on huge possessions, one at the end of the fourth quarter and one at the end of overtime. Fred VanVleet ended up with open 3-pointers on both, but he missed.
One of the reasons it didn’t work was Tristan Thompson. After Jonas Valanciunas crushed Love and other small lineups on his way to 21 points and 21 rebounds, Cavs coach Ty Lue called on Thompson the way he had in Game 7 against the Pacers.
Thompson was his energetic self, racking up 14 points and 12 rebounds. Maybe most important, he didn’t bite on pump fakes that DeRozan tried to throw at him. The Cavs have a standing $100 fine for falling for DeRozan’s trap, and Thompson didn’t want to pay.
“I’m not trying to give up that money,” Thompson said. “I just had a kid, so I’m just trying to save up for their college tuition.” You might have read about Thompson’s new addition to the family in your local supermarket tabloid.
Anyway, the Raptors’ season-long effort to shift the burden from their stars to their role players didn’t work in this case. VanVleet couldn’t deliver, and the Raptors were faced with questions about not leaving it in the hands of their stars. Such is life as the No. 1 seed in the postseason.
“I’d love him shooting that shot 10 times out of 10,” DeRozan said. “We got a good look, and it just didn’t fall.”
James had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for a nice-looking line, even if it was below his high standards. But for the first time this postseason, James truly got deep and meaningful help from his teammates.
Using an array of small lineups, the Cavs were able to get into their offense and create looks around the floor. JR Smith scored 20 points and nailed five of six 3-pointers. Kyle Korver had 19 points, hitting five 3-pointers. Jeff Green had 16 points and played defensive center and point guard at times.
This is how we play. LeBron has the ball, and we play off of him,” Korver said. “We’ve got to help him out. He’s playing a ton of minutes. He’s carrying a big load, but this is how we play. It’s not going to change.”
The Raptors are now 1-11 in their past 12 Game 1s and 1-7 at home. And for the third year in a row, the Cavs are up 1-0. In a stat that is hard for the Raptors to swallow — and the reason why the Cavs have quiet confidence — the Cavs have now won four consecutive playoff games at Air Canada Centre dating to 2016.
“At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is to try to get a win,” James said. “My teammates were unbelievable. They stepped up when I wasn’t at my best.”