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Raptors' bench continues to come up empty

Cavaliers use 22-2 run against Toronto's bench unit to take control of Game 1 of Eastern Conference finals

POSTED: May 18, 2016 11:09 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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Raptors on Game 1 Loss

The Toronto Raptors speak with the media following their Game 1 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals.

— The result of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals wasn't exactly stunning.

While the Cleveland Cavaliers stormed through the first two rounds, the Toronto Raptors' 14-game journey was much more of a struggle. And on Tuesday, there was no meeting in the middle, rather an easy, 115-84 victory for Cleveland that makes it hard to think that this series won't be the Cavs' fourth straight playoff sweep of Eastern Conference opponents.

The game was competitive early. If you watched the Raptors' first two playoff series, you may have been wondering what was going on, because both teams were putting the ball in the basket at a high rate of success in the first quarter.

Toronto held a lead with just over a minute to go in the first. And at other points of the season, that would be a great sign, because late in the first quarter and early in the second has typically been the time when the Raptors' bench took control of the game.

The Raptors had, statistically, the best bench in the Eastern Conference this season. They ranked 26th in bench scoring, but second (behind only the San Antonio Spurs) in aggregate bench plus-minus. Throughout the season, they were at their best with Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson on the floor, and their lineup of Kyle Lowry plus four reserves ranked as the league's fourth best lineup that played at least 200 minutes together, outscoring its opponents by more than 16 points per 100 possessions.

We've been out of rhythm for a little while now. Tonight is not the first night.

– Raptors coach Dwane Casey

But things have changed dramatically in the playoffs. What was a strength has become a weakness. The Raptors rank 12th in aggregate bench plus-minus in the postseason and have had, by far, the worst bench among the four teams still playing.

In Game 1, with starters resting on both sides, Cleveland outscored Toronto 22-2 in a six-minute stretch spanning the first and second quarters. It was the Cavs' bench that took control of the game and at that point, the rout was on.

Toronto was only a minus-13 in 66 minutes with Lowry off the floor in the first round. Since then, though, the Raptors have been outscored by 71 points in 84 minutes with their starting point guard out of the game.

Part of Toronto's bench problems has been the absence of Jonas Valanciunas, who was lost to an ankle injury in Game 3 of the conference semifinals. That pushed Bismack Biyombo into the starting lineup, where Patterson was already, because Luis Scola was largely ineffective in the first round.

All the lineup shuffling has taken what's left of the Toronto bench out of its comfort zone. The lineup of Lowry, Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patterson and Biyombo hasn't gotten consistent minutes together and didn't play at all on Tuesday.

"We've been out of rhythm for a little while now," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the loss on Tuesday. "Tonight is not the first night."

DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors' other All-Star, is typically on the floor when Lowry is not. But the Raptors' bench regression starts with Joseph, who has not only shot poorly, but has had issues on defense. That end of the floor was a problem in the Raptors' Game 6 loss in Miami on Friday, where Goran Dragic got to the basket at will. And it was the problem, for everybody on Toronto's roster, on Tuesday, when the Cavs got to the rim early and often.

With things going south so quickly in the second quarter, Casey pulled Joseph less than three minutes into his first stint on the floor and brought him back for just another short stint before halftime. Joseph had never played so few minutes in the first half (5:21 total) all season.

As the stakes have risen and the competition has gotten tougher, Joseph has gone from one of his team's most important players to a liability.

"It's different, of course," Joseph said about the Raptors' modified rotation. "At the same time, it's the next man up. We got to work with what we have. It starts with me. I'm the point guard with the bench. I have to be better than that. And the next game, I will be better."

"We've got to find that rhythm with that second unit," Casey said, "and we've got to get some productivity from those guys, starting with the second quarter."

While the Raptors have lost their bench mojo, the Cavs have found theirs. A lineup of Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, LeBron James and Channing Frye never played together in the regular season, but is now a plus-38 in 43 minutes in the playoffs after doing a lot of the damage in the 33-16 second quarter on Tuesday.

"The game ball definitely goes to our bench tonight," James said afterward. "Coach Lue is able to mix and match some lineups that he feels best fits, and that's one of the lineups that's been working pretty good for us throughout this postseason."

There were a lot of things that went wrong for the Raptors on Tuesday. When you lose by 31 points, there's a lot to fix. And even if a few of the leaks are plugged, their chances of winning this series are slim. And they have absolutely no shot if their bench continues to get outplayed.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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