The Cleveland Cavaliers ended the Toronto Raptors’ postseason run the past two years with a steady diet of three-pointers and ball movement. The Raptors got a small measure of revenge this week using the Cavs’ own formula. And the whole night summed up the way things have been going for the two teams lately.
The stylistic changes in Toronto have been well documented, and Cleveland got a front row seat in a 133-99 demolition on Thursday. This was not the Raptors team that the Cavs dispatched with ease back in May.
The Raptors fired up 42 three-pointers, won the rebounding battle convincingly and pushed the pace at every opportunity. That led to a parade of dunks, layups and open jump shots. The Cavs contributed with questionable effort and trailed by 25 points at half-time.
“They kicked our butt tonight,” Cleveland head coach Ty Lue said postgame. “We’ve got to demand more from everyone – myself, the players, the coaches.”
He added: “If guys have agendas, we’ve got to get rid of the agendas and play the right way.”
A sign of things to come?
The excuses are obvious for Cleveland: it is just the regular season, Isaiah Thomas is still finding his legs after a lengthy injury, they are an older team and so on.
But Toronto (and Boston) have reason to feel optimistic as they look towards the playoffs, especially with the Cavaliers defense ranking among the league’s worst. Aside from LeBron James, they have very few above average defenders. Toronto took advantage, playing at a pace that unsettled Cleveland. Thomas, Kevin Love, JR Smith and Dwyane Wade all had quiet nights.
“They were faster; they were getting by us,” Lue said. “They were attacking us in transition. We’ve got to play better.”
Meanwhile, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey downplayed the significance of the game and the outcome. “We’re still a work in progress,” he explained. But he also spoke proudly of how his young players stepped up in the absence of Kyle Lowry (injured) and Serge Ibaka (suspended). Casey also praised the way that DeMar DeRozan (eight assists) embraced the role of facilitator on the night. Whether Casey wants to admit it or not, this was a statement win.
Toronto (now 29-11) will get another big test on Saturday when they host Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. As for Cleveland (26-15), their disappointing road trip - they were blown out in Minnesota earlier in the week - is almost over. James and company are still most people’s favourites to represent the East in this year’s NBA Finals, despite the defensive flaws. But the question marks are growing.