CLEVELAND -- It’s only one game, Serge Ibaka said, and of course he was right.
It’s always one game. More accurately, it’s always one loss.
The Toronto Raptors did Monday what they always do, starting an NBA postseason series by kicking away the opening game. This time, again, they did it against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a particularly dangerous opponent to spot a game in any best-of-seven situation.
The Raptors lost 116-105 but their pattern of coughing up Game 1 never was in doubt. They fell behind 30-18 in the opening quarter of the opening game, plucked their way to respectable deficits a couple of times and then spent the game’s final 20 minutes mustering no threat at all.
That makes it 10 series in a row in which Toronto has started 0-1. And 12 of 13 in franchise history, the only exception coming in the 2001 conference semifinals against Philadelphia (Sixers won in seven). You don’t need David Fizdale to tell you that the math -- winning four times out of six to survive and advance -- gets awfully tough from there. It explains the Raptors’ six first-round ousters and inability ever to back their way to the Finals.
More than just a bad habit, it’s a chronic failing that makes life more difficult against average playoff opponents and downright impossible against the defending champions. A year ago, on their way to the title, the Cavaliers punched the Raptors so hard to open the Eastern Conference finals, 115-84, that a whole nation’s fans felt their eyes tearing and noses bleeding.
This time, the margin wasn’t as great but the impact might well be. While Toronto was going about its business as usual, licking wounds and vowing adjustments, Cleveland was self-assessing and picking nits about its rhythm and its conditioning. The Cavs had not played in eight days, yet they showed up with precision and professionalism. Their shabbiest moments came in allowing the Raptors to scratch back in the second and third quarters before putting down the hammer.
Toronto? Home, road, higher seed, lower seed, rested or worn out, it somehow manages to hit the snooze button on every series. Probably there are multiple explanations. It’s possible the Raptors could be both good enough to take Milwaukee lightly two weeks ago (and lean too heavily on their edge at Air Canada Centre) and not nearly talented or mature enough to start out right against Cleveland.
It should have been a little unnerving for the Raptors, frankly, to hear LeBron James and other Cavs talking about fixing Monday’s flaws and fending off complacency. As coach Tyronn Lue said: “We’ve got a mature group. We know this is only one game. They’re a good team. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. ... We’ve still got to play better – and we know we can. We won’t relax. We won’t get comfortable. Because we know what this team’s capable of doing. ... We've got to stay the course and just be professional about the situation.”
One team’s professional, the other team’s not quite there yet, not at a championship level. One team’s assertive, the other one’s a tad tentative. One has James – still the NBA’s best player, reinforced by his 35 points, 10 rebounds and intimidating amount of energy – and the other one by comparison has a roster of little brothers.
The Cavs’ star did provide, in talking about his own approach to playoff series and games, something of a primer for the Raptors. How, exactly, are he and his teams able to lock in game after game, round after round?
“I don’t think about the past or the future, James said. “I’m all about the present. That’s my whole mindset, ‘How can we get this win? Today is Game 1. How can we get this win? How can we play? What can I do to help our team be successful?’
“That’s how I’m able to stay fresh, because I don’t think about the past and the future is a mystery. So I’ve got to live in the present.”
Ibaka is new to Toronto’s postseason history, so he didn’t sound rattled that he already is two series deep in becoming part of the pattern. Playing at the Air Canada Centre two weeks ago as the higher seed, the Raptors lost the opener against Milwaukee before taking four of the next five. And even then, it took a ferocious Bucks comeback in Game 6 to revive Toronto to the point that Game 7 wasn’t necessary.
“It’s the first game, man,” Ibaka said late Monday in the visitors’ dressing room. “We’re gonna learn from tonight and then we’re gonna make changes, I’m sure.”
One of these years -- or not -- Toronto will be the team forcing the first adjustments. It will put the other guys on their heels. It will give its remarkable fan base a rare opportunity to build momentum and volume from the first game to the second, rather than starting from scratch to generate enthusiasm anew.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey and current leaders Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan now are 0-7 in Game 1 dating back to the 2014 postseason. Casey knew the record before Monday’s loss. There was nothing over the weekend or on game day screaming at him and his staff “We’re not ready!”
But after seven consecutive 0-1 starts, you might expect some common threads to reveal themselves, right? Casey has tried to fine-tune, landing in the same hole each time.
“A lot of things as far as preparation,” he said. “Not as much film work -- trying to cut back on that to keep their mental freshness, cuz we’d just come out of the other series. But you don’t want to under-prepare, because then you get criticized for not preparing enough.
“So there’s a fine line. It’s something that, if you could put your finger on it, you’d do it. We’ve tried to change quite a few things. But again, it’s a mindset coming in. ... Believe me, we’ve look at a lot of different things.”
It’s been suggested that Toronto, after so many years as an NBA afterthought, has an underdog mentality hard-wired into its core. Ditto for the players, who don’t live and play in one of the league’s more glamorous, “destination” markets by most U.S. athletes’ standards. Lowry and DeRozan certainly have felt overlooked in their careers, carrying a chip that gets picked up by teammates, too.
They have done well coming back late in games, perhaps becoming urgency junkies along the way. So how can they drop this bad habit?
“It’s too late to act now,” DeRozan said. “We’ve already got that foot in the hole. We fight well under adversity, we’ve done it all year. That’s been our mantra. So that’s something that we’re going to have to exploit the next game.”
At least DeRozan was heeding one of James’ lessons, staying in the present. His team's next Game 1 might be a little too far in the future.
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