TORONTO — Before the Toronto Raptors faced the Cleveland Cavaliers here at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night, Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue was asked about the prospects of facing a Raptors team missing Kyle Lowry, its star point guard, and Serge Ibaka, its starting power forward and best shot blocker.
“The way we’ve been playing, we don’t have to remind [the players] of anything,” Lue said with a laugh. “We’ve got to be professional.”
Then Lue and the Cavaliers went out and were anything but.
The final score — Raptors 133, Cavaliers 99 — wasn’t indicative of the beatdown the Raptors put on the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions. Toronto finished with 31 assists and just nine turnovers, shot 50 percent from the field, 43 percent from three-point range, and out-rebounded Cleveland 63-35 — including 18 on the offensive end.
It was the latest impressive performance from a Raptors team that is on pace for the best record in franchise history, and the latest clunker from a Cavaliers team that has now surrendered its three highest point totals of the season in its last three games, and sits 29th among the 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency halfway through the season.
It would be easy to look at the details of that last paragraph and decide that this year will be different; that Toronto will be a force come playoff time, and that LeBron James’s run of seven straight trips to the NBA Finals will not extend to eight.
The truth, though, is that despite the very different ways both teams performed Thursday night, they find themselves in exactly the same place: toiling through an 82-game regular season with the knowledge that nothing that happens before the playoffs begin will truly change how people view them.
“You are talking about the regular season and the playoffs, and they are two different things,” Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said when asked about the psychological effect of a victory like this one. “I’m sure the next time we play them, they are going to remember this game.
“It’s going to be a whole different type of game, and we have to be ready for that.”
The fact that Toronto hasn’t been ready for that the past several seasons left the Raptors determined to make changes heading into this season. In recent years, it felt like Toronto was replaying the same season over and over: excel in the regular season behind the individual brilliance of Lowry and DeRozan, then fall apart in the playoffs as each crumbled under the weight of opposing defenses over the course of a seven-game series.
So Coach Dwane Casey sought to change things. Gone are the days of Toronto relying on one Lowry or DeRozan isolation after another offensively. In their place has emerged a far more egalitarian system, designed to make Toronto far less predictable when it enters the crucible of the NBA’s postseason.
“It wasn’t like we were broke,” Casey said before Thursday’s game. “But once playoffs do start, teams can load up, they can game plan for you. When that ball’s moving and they don’t know where it’s coming from, it’s more difficult to guard. We’re trying to establish that style of play.
“I said it before the season: There’s gonna be ups and downs, there’s going to be reverting back to doing a bit too much individually. [But] I think, big picture, we’re headed in the right direction.”
They certainly looked like it Thursday, when they took advantage of a rare national television appearance to demolish the Cavaliers. In a game where Lowry didn’t play because of an injury, Ibaka didn’t play because of a suspension and DeRozan finished with 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting, Toronto still dominated from start to finish thanks to a balanced attack that featured seven players in double figures.
That DeRozan was the sixth-leading scorer was the perfect example of how Toronto hopes to transform itself into a potent postseason threat. But until the Raptors prove they don’t have those moments of “reverting back,” doubt will follow them.
For Cleveland, it works the other way. It’s hard to believe a team with a defense ranked 29th in the NBA remains in a position where it is considered a postseason contender. Then again, most teams in that position don’t have three straight Finals trips on their résumé, nor do they have the best player in the world on their roster.
But the Cavs have often looked old, slow and disinterested this season — which is precisely how they looked Thursday night. It’s also how they looked in Monday’s blowout loss in Minnesota, and in last week’s blowout loss in Boston.
Suddenly, the same team that had gone on a stretch of 18 wins in 19 games has been replaced by another wearing the same jerseys that’s now lost six of its last eight.
“I mean this is just us,” James said. “This is four years since I’ve been back and this is just us. We’ve had great months. We’ve had not-so-great months. Times where we’re not playing well. Times where we are playing well. This is just us. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at times.
“The potential is always there.”
Ah, yes: the potential. There’s little doubt this Cavaliers team has plenty of that, and plenty of talent. And it’s not surprising this recent downturn has coincided with the return of Isaiah Thomas, who is trying to get up to speed after spending the past several months rehabbing his injured right hip.
But if someone only watched the way the Cavs played Thursday, he or she would question how in the world anyone thinks they can get back to the NBA Finals. And with the defending champion Golden State Warriors on deck Monday in Cleveland, there could easily be another score line this ugly on the Cavaliers’ ledger if they don’t start figuring things out.
Then there was a curious comment after the game by Lue, who said, “If guys have agendas, we’ve got to get rid of our agendas and play the right way.”
Meaning what, exactly?
“Just what I said.”
When asked about it afterward, the players were confused, with each saying they didn’t have one.
To put it mildly, it’s clear all is not well in Cleveland.
But here’s the thing: None of this matters.
There will undoubtedly be plenty of questions asked about Cleveland’s defense over the next three months, and about whether they can make another run through the postseason with an aging roster that’s struggling to stop anybody, let alone the best the league has to offer.
Until someone manages to beat James four out of seven times before the NBA Finals, however, the Cavaliers are still going to be favored to beat any opponent in the Eastern Conference playoffs. That’s the kind of latitude seven straight Finals trips allows — just as Toronto’s repeated failures in the playoffs the last four years means no one will give them the benefit of the doubt that they can duplicate Thursday’s performance for an extended period in the postseason.
That’s why two teams played two very different games Thursday night, but left Air Canada Centre in the same exact place: waiting for the spring, when the real versions of both will emerge.
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