TORONTO -- That one’s going to leave a mark.
If the Toronto Raptors wore their psyches on the outside, the whole NBA world would see the scars and blemishes that have been inflicted over the past three postseasons by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Instead, we’re left only with manifestations of the damage done, again and again. So many stitches, unseen but undeniably there.
Having already been eliminated from the playoffs by them in both 2016 and 2017, the Raptors’ streak of postseason losses to the Cavaliers reached seven Tuesday. Cleveland came from 14 points down to win in overtime, 113-112, and grab a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals series.
This defeat surely counted double, maybe even triple, given the advantages and the urgency DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the rest of the Raptors had coming in against their nemeses from northeast Ohio. And how thoroughly they squandered them all.
That home-court advantage at Air Canada Centre for which Toronto had worked so long and hard across six months and 82 regular-season games? Gone.
The Cavaliers had trudged through customs Monday as a tired team, pushed to seven games by Indiana, while Toronto had earned itself some rest by shedding Washington in six. Didn’t matter.
James and a supporting cast that actually provided enough for a change hung around through an early deficit, strung together buckets and stops when needed, and frankly got lucky with the number of good looks the Raptors bricked.
A team that ranked third in offensive rating (111.0 points per 100 possessions) and fourth in true shooting percentage (57.5) shot 8 of 31 in the fourth quarter and overtime, scoring just 25 points in those 17 minutes. Against a defense rated next-to-last in the NBA (109.5 points per 100).
The most glaring example of Toronto’s struggles not just at putting the ball through the basket but in terms of seizing the opportunity in Game 1 came near the end of regulation. Finally caught in the game’s 48th minute by James’ turnaround jumper from the right side to tie at 105-105, the Raptors got an open 3-pointer from reserve Fred VanVleet and then -- in rapid succession, each a bit closer to the rim -- failed putbacks by a falling DeRozan, by Serge Ibaka and by big man Jonas Valanciunas.
VanVleet got one more hero-or-no-hero shot at the end of overtime, missing from nearly the same spot with 3.4 seconds left. As he tugged his jersey up and flinched over his failure, the piano on his and his teammates’ backs got that much heavier.
“I don’t know if it was nerves or yips or what,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “A lot of things we did to ourselves.”
That’s where the Raptors’ legacy stands. They now must win four out of six games against a team that has them down 2-9 since the start of the 2016 East finals (with a couple more thumpings in the final weeks of this regular season as glimpses of hard times to come).
Tyronn Lue, the Cavs coach, was delighted afterward and didn’t run from the idea that his team stole the Game 1 victory.
"Considering the circumstances, we definitely stole one," Lue said. "I don't think we played our best game. I think they know that as well."
Notably, that includes James, who needed 30 shots to score his 26 points and went 1 for 8 on 3-pointers and 1 for 6 from the foul line. Of course, the Cavaliers star chipped in 11 rebounds and 13 assists for the 21st triple-double of his playoff career. But he wasn’t sharp, he looked and played tired, and the Raptors let that slip through their hands.
Asked directly about the degree to which he and his teammates are in the Raptors’ heads, beating them before the opening tip, James talked instead about the short turnaround time between surviving against Indiana on Sunday and plunging into this series against Toronto.
Considering the circumstances, we definitely stole one. I don't think we played our best game. I think they know that as well.
He did, however, answer a subsequent question in a way that seemed a bit more pointed toward a Raptors team suffering from LeBronchitis.
“We knew we were going to get their best shot today,” James said. “They knew we didn’t have much rest. They knew we didn’t have much preparation. They’ve kind of been waiting around for us. ... Just tried to make things happen at the right time.”
DeRozan and Lowry still sounded feisty enough, avoiding the defeated and deferential tones that came from them near the end of last spring’s sweep by the Cavaliers. But what they say and what we see hardly could be more different.
It was Lue making the game’s strategic masterstroke, running in Tristan Thompson to disrupt and bother Valanciunas out of his comfort zone. The 7-foot Lithuanian had feasted on Kevin Love and Jeff Green through three quarters, posting 19 points with 16 rebounds. But with Thompson on him, Valanciunas managed just two more points with five rebounds in nearly 13 minutes.
And it was Cleveland getting a more complete game overall, a group effort worthy of a legit contender. Worthy of the team they’ve been in reach the past three Finals.
J.R. Smith drained five of his six 3-point shots and scored 20 points. Kyle Korver logged nearly 38 minutes, put up 17 field goal attempts and scored 19. Green scored 16 points, Thompson added 14 and Kevin Love at least grabbed 13 rebounds (on a 3-for-13 shooting night).
That vaunted Toronto bench scored 35 points but the Cavaliers were better with 37. That’s a good night for a bunch of role players whose competency and character got questioned every time James went for 44 or 45 points in the first round.
Now it’s the Raptors -- the players, the coaches and the higher-ups -- hearing folks’ doubts and trying not to think of 59 victories and the team’s considerable stylistic changes as fool’s gold.
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