TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors insisted it’s not over. They pointed out it’s the first team to win four games.
But in a post-season that was supposed to be so different, on the heels of a heady regular-season that had shattered franchise records, the storyline Thursday night was way too familiar.
LeBron James had 43 points and 14 assists to lead the Cavaliers to a 128-110 throttling of Toronto, and now Cleveland takes a 2-0 lead in the second-round series back home, where the Raptors have never won in five playoff games.
How can the Raptors possibly come back?
“It’s the only option, (that’s) how we look at it, we don’t look at it no other way,” DeMar DeRozan said, his basketball cap pulled down low.
“We thrive off adversity, every single guy on this team, we thrive off adversity. We’ve been in tough situations before, and sometimes when you’re put in tough situations that’s what brings the best of you. That’s what point we’re at now. It’s the first team to win four. We understand where we at, and we’re going to fight.”
DeRozan had 24 points, while Kyle Lowry finished with 21 for the Raptors, who lost two consecutive games at home for the first time this season. Jonas Valanciunas chipped in with 16 points and 12 rebounds, and Fred VanVleet had 14 points off the bench.
Twice already Toronto has been dispatched by Cleveland in the post-season. It happened in the Eastern Conference finals in 2016, and then last season, when the Raptors were swept in the second round, prompting Masai Ujiri’s culture reset and revamp of the team’s playing style – and DeRozan to say after Game 4 “If we had LeBron on our team too, we would’ve won.”
LeBron got a little help Thursday from Kevin Love, who had 31 points and 11 boards.
The Raptors led for most of the first half, but never by more than nine points, and were clutching just a two-point advantage at halftime.
On a night #LeBronto was trending on Twitter, LeBron burst the Raptors’ figurative balloon in a game-turning fourth quarter. The four-time NBA MVP had 15 points, and the Cavs opened with an 18-5 run, sucking most of the energy out of the Air Canada Centre.
“We just we need more effort, way more effort,” Lowry said. “Yeah, we gotta play harder. Somehow, some way.”
The quarter was just seven seconds old when Serge Ibaka, who’s been virtually M.I.A. for most of the post-season, turned the ball over. He then missed a shot, and Raptors coach Dwane Casey subbed him off for good with 22 minutes still left to play. The Congolese big man had just two free throws, and shot 0-for-5.
“I’m just so disappointed in myself in that moment,” Ibaka said on his benching. “It’s a moment where you start thinking a lot, ‘I wish I could be out there playing the best game I can to help my team.’ It sucks, man. It sucks.”
Cleveland took a 98-87 lead into the fourth quarter, and the ugliness continued. The Cavs opened the frame with a 7-0 run to take an 18-point lead. The Raptors would pull within 13 points on a basket by Valanciunas midway through the period. But there was no answer for James, who by then was scoring seemingly at will, many of his shots falling – agonizingly – at the shot-clock buzzer.
And when J.R. Smith calmly drilled a three with 4:23 to play, hundreds of heartbroken Raptors fans headed for the exits.
James was asked: Can a player or team have a mental advantage over an opponent?
“I don’t know. I have no idea,” he said. “For me, if our ball club, no matter who we’re going against, we just try to be as great as we can be, no matter if it’s the Indiana Pacers or the Toronto Raptors or whatever team we’ve played in the last four years, we just try to go out and play as well as we can be.”
The series now shifts to Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, where the Raptors are 0-5 in post-season appearances, losing by a colossal average of 24.2 points.
“One thing you have is pride, to go into Cleveland and play for pride,” Casey said. “I don’t know what the history of down 0-2 is but one thing I do know is tonight wasn’t us, how we normally play for longer periods of time. We’ll find some answers, whether we change the lineup, whatever it is, to keep the offence moving, keep the game moving, and keep the pace going.”
The Cavs shot 59 per cent on the night, including 73 per cent in the third quarter. The Raptors shot 54 per cent.
Game 3 is Saturday with Game 4 Monday in Cleveland, and a Game 5 if necessary would be back in Toronto on Wednesday.
The Raptors gave away a 113-112 decision in overtime in Tuesday’s Game 1, starting out strong and leading throughout regulation but missing countless shots down the stretch. Making matters worse, the NBA announced Wednesday it was upgrading Love’s elbow to DeRozan’s head to a Flagrant 1 foul. The Raptors should have had two free throws and possession of the ball after the incident that happened with just over a minute to play.
The white-clad capacity ACC crowd included Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Drake, who was far less animated in his courtside seat than Tuesday’s game. Drake and Cleveland’s Kendrick Perkins were jawing in Game 1, prompting a call from the NBA to the Raptors.
Drake left the arena with two minutes to play on Thursday.
The Raptors went into the game 6-1 all-time in playoff Game 2’s at home, winners of four straight of those games. But the mighty Cavs came in boasting an even better stat: 18-1 all-time in playoff Game 2s after winning series openers. They padded their league-best record to 19-1 Thursday.
Lowry couldn’t miss in the first quarter, going a perfect 4-for-4 including a pair of threes for 10 points in the frame. A driver floater from DeRozan put the Raptors up by seven, but the Cavs closed with a 6-2 run and the Raptors led 29-26 going into the second.
Delon Wright found VanVleet with a lovely pass for a three-pointer that stretched the Raptors’ advantage to nine points with about five minutes to play in the first half, but the Cavs closed the quarter with another run capped by James’ pullup shot with a second to play, and the Raptors went into the locker-room at the break up just 63-61.
© 2018 The Canadian Press