Before Wednesday’s Game 2, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey spoke with media about how his team needed to pick itself up off the mat after a Game 1 pasting at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and about the importance of getting into the fight rather than just watching one of the great ones work. As he did, he reached back to his days as an assistant coach with the Seattle SuperSonics teams that did battle with Michael Jordan’s dynastic Chicago Bulls.
“We used to have to tell Gary Payton and those guys, ‘Hey, he puts his pants on one leg (at a time),'” Casey said before the Raptors’ Wednesday practice, according to Tom Withers of The Associated Press. “I think that’s natural. It’s human nature to watch a Michael Jordan or a Karl Malone, spectate until they hit you in the mouth. When a guy hits you in the mouth a few times — now what are you going to do?”
The Raptors’ answer on Wednesday night: get hit in the mouth again. And again. And again.
This era’s heavyweight champion, LeBron James, had his way with the Raptors at Quicken Loans Arena — again. He led a long-range-shooting clinic that left Toronto unable to get within arm’s reach of the lead after the first few minutes of the game — again.
And he held serve on his home court, again, getting the Cavs halfway to a third straight Eastern Conference finals as they head out on the road … where James-led teams have won at least one game in 27 straight series.
James entered Wednesday needing 25 points to pass the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and move into second place on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. He got there early in the third quarter and kept going, pouring in 39 points on 10-for-14 shooting in 36 1/2 minutes to lead the Cavs to a 125-103 blowout victory. Cleveland is now 17-1 at home in the playoffs against Eastern Conference competition since LeBron came back and 30-4 against the East overall, and holds a 2-0 lead over the Raptors in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals.
Cleveland tore the Raptors apart from long range, shooting 18-for-33 from beyond the 3-point arc to bury Toronto under a barrage of deep buckets. Reserve sniper Channing Frye hit five of them in seven tries, kicking in 18 points with five rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench. Kyrie Irving struggled with his finishing inside the arc, but went 3-of-6 from deep on his way to 22 points with 11 assists — his second straight double-digit assist game — as he continued to break down the Raptors defense and find teammates for open looks.
James got into the act, too, continuing a bounce-back season from distance — 36.3 percent on 3-point tries during the regular season, up from 30.9 percent last year, and 44 percent (11-for-25) in the postseason entering Wednesday — by knocking down four of his six long-ball tries. When he’s making moves to the rim this decisive …
… and looking this comfortable from deep …
LeBron James just spins the ball right in front of Serge Ibaka and splashes the 3 in his eye ???? pic.twitter.com/EfVqyFNJao
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 3, 2017
… then you’re in for a long night. And the Raptors had a looooong night on Wednesday.
“I’m just playing in my zone,” James told TNT’s Kristen Ledlow after the game. “Playing in my comfort zone. I know what they want to take away. I know what I want to try to get to with our team. My teammates did a great job of feeding me, and I’m the one who’s got to knock down the shots, so I just trust in my ability, and I was able to make a couple of plays and help us get this win.”
Whether the Raptors can actually do anything to take James out of that “comfort zone” remains unclear. Through two games, though, they sure haven’t offered much reason to believe things will change once the scene shifts to Air Canada Centre for Game 3 on Friday night.
The 125 points are the most any Cavs team has ever scored in the postseason, topping the 124 they put up in beating the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the 2010 Eastern semis. It also ties the most the Raptors have ever given up in the playoffs, equaling the 125 that John Wall, Paul Pierce and the Washington Wizards hung on them in Game 4 of their 2015 first-round sweep.
After struggling to match Cleveland’s scoring in Game 1, Casey shuffled his starting lineup, inserting versatile forward Patrick Patterson and Round 1-changing wing Norman Powell in place of Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll. The Raptors briefly looked to have some additional punch, taking a quick 9-7 lead with Patterson and Powell each getting a bucket in the early going. And then, the Cavs did what the Cavs do: spreading the floor, bombing away from deep, forcing to guard them on the perimeter, and letting James and Irving use their playmaking gifts to carve you up underneath.
Cleveland ripped off a 12-0 run in just under three minutes of game time, bookended by 3-pointers by Kevin Love and J.R. Smith off feeds by Irving to take a double-digit lead just past the midpoint of the first quarter. Try as they might, the Raptors really just couldn’t get close enough to make it a legitimate contest after that. They trailed by 12 after 12 minutes despite strong starts by Lowry and revitalized bench mobber Valanciunas, and saw the deficit increase by two points despite scoring 26 points on 52.4 percent shooting in the second quarter because they just could not stop the Cavs from knocking down deep shots.
The Raptors played well enough for this game to be close but the Cavs made all their threes. It is what it is.
— William Lou (@william_lou) May 4, 2017
James scored 15 of his 39 in the second quarter, carrying the Cleveland offense and weathering the storm of shot-making from Valanciunas (19 in the first half) and Lowry (15 through two quarters) to stake the Cavs to a 62-48 lead heading into intermission.
With All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan again struggling to find breathing room away from the defense of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, and failing to knock down the clean looks he did find, the Raptors needed even more from Lowry. Less than a minute into the second half, though, Raptors fans felt their stomachs sink as they watched Lowry hit the deck in a heap and in evident pain, after Cavs center Tristan Thompson pushed Powell to the ground and he rolled into Lowry’s left leg:
Lowry limped back to the locker room under his own power, and came back just over a minute later with what the Raptors termed a sore left ankle. He was clearly laboring, though, hobbling as he checked Irving on defense and gritting out every probing drive.
The Cavs, meanwhile, just kept right on plugging along, with Irving penetrating and getting himself to the line or swinging the ball to open shooters on the perimeter. The Raptors have had a hard time handling Kyrie’s shift to facilitating in the pick-and-roll. On one mid-third possession, he danced behind a Thompson screen up top, and when Valanciunas stepped up to hedge on the pick-and-roll, Thompson slipped toward the rim, leaving the Raptors big man, not Cleveland’s, in Lowry’s path as he tried to track Irving:
valanciunas setting that screen for kyrie lmaooooo. look at poor lowry pic.twitter.com/zaBL6OfN9y
— Harsh (@IamHarshDave) May 4, 2017
The result of the play? Thompson rumbling through the paint all along, where Irving hit him for a dunk that pushed Cleveland’s lead to 20.
It would get as high as 30 early in the fourth, as James worked with the shooting-heavy reserve lineup of Frye, Shumpert, Deron Williams and Kyle Korver — and, y’know, just to try some things out …
… as they delivered the knockout blow that ended the Raptors’ evening. Again.
Lowry would limp back to the Raptors’ locker room late in the third quarter and wouldn’t return, finishing with 20 points and five assists in 29 1/2 minutes. Valanciunas scored 23, while backup point guard Cory Joseph added 22, the bulk of which came in the fourth quarter, long after things had been decided. DeRozan didn’t hit his first field goal until the fourth quarter, and finished with five points on 2-for-11 shooting.
The Raptors need a lot to go right between now and Friday’s Game 3. They need DeRozan to get right. They need Lowry’s ankle to get right. They need to find a five-man unit with a prayer of limiting the Cavs to fewer than 33 3-point attempts. And hey, if the Cavs decided to take things easy with a 2-0 lead — well, “easier,” I guess, because I don’t think the Cavs have felt concerned enough by the Raptors to play at anything resembling their top gear — that sure wouldn’t hurt, either.
Not that they should bank on that. This isn’t the regular season anymore, and while LeBron might not consider being even-up with the Raptors an “adverse situation,” that doesn’t mean he’s particularly eager to spend any more time getting through the Eastern Conference bracket than is absolutely necessary. He might not like resting during games, but he doesn’t mind the long layoffs that come after quick series.
“We’re not a complacent team,” James told TNT’s Ledlow. “We understand that their home court is very dangerous. We found that out last year in the Eastern Conference finals — we had a 2-0 lead, and we dropped two on their floor. So we have to learn from that experience and get better going into this year.”
After a decisive Game 1 win, James said he believed he and his team would play even better in Game 2. They did just that, and now the Cavs will look to keep their rhythm rolling as they head north of the border.
“If we play like we played in the first two games, with the sense of urgency defensively and the ball movement offensively, then we’re going to give ourselves a good chance to win Game 3,” he said.
The Raptors, for their part, head back home needing an overhaul, one Casey hopes comes from a combination of pride and anger.
“We should be embarrassed. We should be angry. We should be pissed off,” Casey told reporters after Game 2. “Now what are we going to do about it?”
Here’s hoping, for Raptors’ fans sake, the answer changes by Friday.
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