During the 82-game regular season, just one game separated the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors in the standings. During Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, though, it became very clear that these two teams are separated by a hell of a lot more than that.
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The Cavaliers destroyed the Raptors on Tuesday night, leading by double-figures for the final 34 1/2 minutes in a 115-84 win at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland is now a perfect 9-0 in the postseason, and holds a 1-0 lead in its best-of-seven matchup with the second-seeded Raptors. The 31-point margin is the most lopsided victory in Cavaliers postseason history; that, my friends, is a statement.
After eight full days of rest following a second-round sweep of the Atlanta Hawks, and having played only eight games in the last month, you'd be forgiven if you were wondering just a bit about whether the Cavs would enter Tuesday's tilt rusty. It took all of two minutes for Cleveland to knock that rust off, though, responding to a game-opening 7-0 Toronto run by scoring 33 points in the next 10 minutes, making 13 of their next 18 shots as their superstars got untracked.
The onslaught began in earnest in the second quarter, though. With Toronto trailing by five after 12 minutes, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey opened up the second with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson all on the bench, hoping to get his All-Star guards and power forward a breather after they'd played the whole first frame.
A Raptors rotation already disjointed by starting Patterson in place of Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo for the injured Jonas Valanciunas wound up producing a lineup — Biyombo, DeMarre Carroll, forward James Johnson, swingman Terrence Ross and reserve point Cory Joseph — that hadn't seen a single second of floor time during the regular season, and that looked to have precious little chance of scoring.
Making matters worse, it also had little chance of stopping a downshifted bombs-away Cavs lineup — LeBron James and Channing Frye up front, Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert on the wing, Matthew Dellavedova on the ball — that likewise hadn't played together during the regular season, but that had (probably one of) the best player(s besides Steph) to run the show and shooting everywhere to capitalize.
Eighty-two seconds into the quarter, a pair of quick 3-pointers had pushed the Cavs' lead to 11. A 16-2 quarter-opening run would extend it to 19 with just under seven minutes to go in the first half. Toronto would never get closer than 12 the rest of the way.
Having watched the Cavs bury the Hawks beneath a barrage of 3-pointers created by great ball movement that took advantage of aggressive help, Casey had his club make a concerted effort to stay true on the perimeter, avoid double-teaming and run Cleveland off the arc. The good news: Cleveland went just 7-for-20 from 3-point land on Tuesday. The bad news: the Raptors just could not credibly check James or Kyrie Irving one-on-one, as the Cavs' top two penetrators and facilitators got into the paint and all the way to the rim all night long.
"For us, we want to push the tempo, we want to move the ball from side to side, and we want to attack," James said. "With myself and Ky, we love to live in the paint, we love to attack, and then when the defense collapses, we're going to spread it out to our shooters. Tonight, they wanted us to be in the paint, and we just tried to take advantage of that."
Irving led the way with 27 points on 11-for-17 shooting to go with five assists, two rebounds, two steals, two blocks and two turnovers in 30 minutes of work. He broke down the Raptors defense time and again, using his remarkable handle and footwork to earn his way into the lane and finish at the cup.
"I'm always on Kyrie about staying aggressive, you know, being aggressive, because guys can't guard him one-on-one," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. "Especially in transition, where we can get out fast, get it out early to him, he can attack early to the basket. And LeBron's the same way."
James added 24 points on 11-for-13 shooting — he didn't miss his first shot until the 8:05 mark of the third quarter, going 9-for-9 to that point — with six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in just 28 minutes. He made it clear early that he intended to prove Carroll — for the second straight postseason, gamely accepting one of the sport's biggest challenges despite being less than 100 percent after a knee injury — has absolutely no shot of checking him in this series.
LeBron bullied the Raptors' top free-agent acquisition, backing him down on the block and blowing past him on face-ups, getting to the bucket whenever he wanted and finishing — loudly — in a fashion that seems entirely too bombastic for someone with more than 46,000 NBA minutes on his legs.
With James and Irving leading the charge, Cleveland lived at the basket. The Cavs made 22 of 25 shots inside the restricted area through three quarters — before the game turned into extended garbage-time — and outscored Toronto 56-35 in the paint, shooting 55.4 percent from the field overall in a performance that'll send Casey right back to the defensive drawing board.
"You want to take away one thing, but you don't want to open up a whole can of worms to give them layups," Casey said. "And that's what we've got to be disciplined with, and understand where the help is coming from, the angles of your closeouts, the angles of your foot position, of your stance on the basketball [...] That's what we've got to get, that balance."
On the heels of consecutive seven-game series, with just one off-day between their second-round clinching victory over the Miami Heat and Tuesday's tip, the Raptors needed to bring their A-game to Ohio to follow in the Oklahoma City Thunder's footsteps and spring a potentially series-shaking upset. Sadly, that A-game seemed to have been held up at customs.
Lowry, the Raptors' best player in Games 6 and 7 against the Heat, was held in check by an aggressive Cavs defense, mustering just eight points on 4-for-14 shooting and mitigating his five assists with four turnovers in 31 1/2 minutes. DeRozan was hot early, but had to make a number of tough shots to score his team-high 18 points on 9-for-17 shooting, and received scant offensive help from a Toronto club that, by the early third quarter, largely looked like it wanted to be anywhere in the world but on the court at the Q.
By the early fourth, the most interesting element of ESPN's broadcast was color commentator Jeff Van Gundy attempting to deploy hip-hop vernacular:
So, at least there was that.
We don't have to look back too far — hey there, Spurs/Thunder! — to be reminded of the perils of overreacting to Game 1. It's worth wondering, though, if it really counts as an overreaction if what you're responding to is the real-time unfolding of the exact scenario that just about everybody envisioned heading into this series: the Cavs spreading the Raptors' defense out and carving it up, dialing up the defensive intensity to make life miserable on bellwether ball-handler Lowry, and applying pressure until Toronto broke.
The Raptors have better games than this in them. They can play better individual perimeter defense, contain the ball better, move the ball better, and reach a higher level than they managed at any point on Tuesday.
"It's one game," Casey said. "The series is not over by any means. We have another game in another night. The score is embarrassing, but again, it's just one game."
The central question of this series, though, is whether the Raptors can reach the level at which these Cavs are operating. They didn't come close in Game 1, and the conference finals' first 48 minutes didn't offer much hope for Toronto and its fans that more promising answers would be forthcoming soon.
In the meantime, the Cavs appear content to continue playing to their own standard in advance of sterner tests ahead.
"We will face some adversity," James said. "We will. And we have to be able to handle that, which I think we'll be ready for."
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