CLEVELAND – Toronto guard Kyle Lowry went deadpan Tuesday, eliciting laughs without really intending to and at least alleviating some of the tension that accompanied the Raptors into Quicken Loans Arena for their clean-up work after Game 1.
Given his solid individual stats line in a mostly dreary defeat, Lowry was asked, was he at least happy about that? “We lost. I’m never happy when we lose,” he said. “I’m barely happy when we win.”
Someone tried another way. Upon viewing game footage, what did Lowry like about Toronto’s performance in the opener? “I liked that we had opportunities to be better,” he said.
Hard to argue with that. The Raptors spotted multiple failings on both sides of the ball in Game 1 that gave them much to chew on Tuesday in practice. (Game 2, 7 ET on TNT)
Offensively, they didn’t react well to Cleveland’s swarming of DeMar DeRozan and, to a lesser extent, Lowry. The ball needed to move more quickly to open men. They also failed to respond aggressively enough after the Cavaliers’ made shots, their only hope of forcing a faster pace on the game if the Cavs weren’t going to miss.
That flowed right into Toronto’s defensive concerns, with LeBron James as a constant migraine, some tough talk about needing more physical play and the haymaker impact of Cleveland’s many corner 3-pointers.
The Cavaliers, for what it’s worth, were said to have limited their work day to film review and treatment. By scratching any formal practice, they also could scratch any official media availability -- and dip back into the spa conditions of their evidently beneficial weeklong layoff that preceded this Eastern Conference semifinal showdown.
Cleveland shooters launched 34 3-pointers in Game 1 and hit 14 of them, but the deadliest by far were those from the left and right corners. They were 5-of-10 on what is widely regarded in 2017 as the most efficient shot in the NBA, given its shorter distance (22 feet to the center of the rim) than 3-pointers around the arc (23 feet, 9 inches) and premium point value over anything closer. Most of them came early, too, while Cleveland was defining the night with its 18-point lead in the second quarter.
It had been that way all season, as the Cavs led the NBA with 351 corner 3-pointers, 76 more than any other team (according to NBA.com/stats), and ranked No. 1 from either side of the court. And it’s even more so now in the playoffs.
Cleveland has made 56.9 percent of its corner 3-pointers (29 of 51) in seven games against the Pacers and Raptors, compared to 41.6 percent during the 82-game season. Its success around the arc (“above the break” is the NBA’s designation for that zone) hasn’t been as good, regular (37.1 percent) or postseason (33.6).
The Raptors felt they failed to close out quickly enough on Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving or Kyle Korver in the corners Monday. Fixing that is no simple matter, given how well Cleveland zips the ball around – led by James’ strong-armed flings – and how warped and vulnerable that makes the Toronto defense.
“We’re getting a late contest,” forward P.J. Tucker said. “Running them off the line, making them dribble changes the percentages dramatically, and it’s something that we’ve got to do to be able to beat this team.”
“Staying home” on corner shooters gives James or Irving maximum floor space and minimal resistance to attack the paint. Helping against either of them invariably leads to a pass or several passes that find the open man.
“Gotta get on your horse,” Tucker said. “Show your body, get on your horse, get out and run them off the line, and then get ready to back into another rotation. It’s hard work. It’s not easy. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
During the season, Toronto had mixed success defending those corner shots, ranking 17th on the left (38.2 percent) and 1st (32.5) on the right. But the Bucks hit 17 of 41 from the corners in the first round (41.5 percent), followed by Cleveland’s 50 percent in Game 1.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey believes his team has the quickness need to contest the faraway salvos, though he talked of anticipation for where the ball is headed -- based on film work studying tendencies -- more than raw foot speed. He also sounded realistic about completely neutering what has been, in results and in roster design, probably Cleveland’s second most-potent weapon after James himself.
“The league is changing,” Casey said. “Believe me, you’ve got to change or get stuck in the mud. It’s more of a scoring league now. You saw what San Antonio had done to them [a 126-99 loss to Houston Monday]. We’ve got to score points, we’ve got to manufacture points and not get our dauber down because the other team scores.If they score, boom, we have to have a next-play mentality.
“Not saying defense is not important, it is. But we can’t get caught up in ‘we’ve got to stop them.’ I think the days of the 24-point quarters, the 25-point quarters are kind of sliding away. We’ve got to make sure we have the mentality and ... the players to put points on the board tit-for-tat and slow them down as much as possible.”
It’s a fine line, impressing upon players the need to outscore an opponent without ignoring defense entirely.
Lowry spoke of taking better care of the ball (Toronto had five turnovers in the first quarter), spacing teammates to thwart Cleveland’s traps and double-teams and just getting up the floor swiftly.
“When they score, you can’t put your head down,” the Raptors point guard said. “You’ve got to get the ball out. You’ve got to run down the floor and not look to get a play-call. The play-call is secondary. Try to get something easy. Try to get a jump shot or open look quicker or get a layup.”
Casey had one more fix he was willing to share.
“We have to get a size smaller shoe for [Tucker] so he gets off that line a little bit,” the coach said.
Tucker made just one of his four 3-point attempts, but he hit three more shots that were listed at 23-, 22- and 22-feet.
He might want to take them from down in the corners, where that’s far enough. And potent enough.
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