|David Richard/USA TODAY Sports|
May 1, 2018
On Sunday, April 29, in his postgame press conference, Lebron James told the world he was burnt out. That he was tired. That he wanted to go home.
This after a tumultuous 7 game series, which he capped off with a grueling 43-minute, 45-point game to drag his team past the Indiana Pacers.
Whether James uttered those words on purpose or not – I’d like to think he did – it was about the smartest thing he could’ve said.
Critics, of course, will say, you’re not supposed to appear defeated. You’re not supposed to let the enemy know you’re weak. I’d argue, this is exactly what James wants the Raptors to think.
If the Raptors take the bait – if they believe James is wounded and not his usual, dominant, inhuman self – then they’ve already lost.
Forget the cramps James suffered in Game 7. Forget his cries of being burnt out.
They can’t afford to take him lightly. Or to think he and the Cavs will just roll over and die without a fight. Not for one second. Because as long as James is breathing, he’s still the biggest threat they’ll ever face.
It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a tough, back and forth, grind-it-out type of a series.
But the Cavs, as they are currently constructed, have never been more beatable. And the Raptors have never been more equipped to beat them.
They have 2 young, mobile, athletic players who can stick with James in OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. They have the depth. Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry are both healthy and rested – a byproduct of their season-long minutes reduction.
And for the first time in this playoff matchup, the Raptors are waiting for the Cavs at home. Not vice versa.
Notorious Raptor killers like Kevin Love and Kyle Korver are still around, fangs ready. But this time there’s no Kyrie Irving. Rotation players have been in and out of lineup due to injury and complete lack of trust from Tyronn Lue.
Plus the Cavs saw a complete mid-season overhaul to its roster and are still getting used to playing as a unit.
The icing on the cake – the games will be played every other day throughout the entire series. Although this doesn’t bode well for old man Ibaka and the Lithuanian Lamp Post, it’ll be a huge advantage as we go deeper into the series and James continues to amass more and more minutes.
Much like the Wizards series, the Raptors do not have the best player. But like the Wizards series, the Raptors have the better team. They just have to play like it.
And if they play their cards right – not just right, perfectly – they have a chance to do what they’ve never done before. Overthrow the King.
So what are these cards? There are many. But I’m going to focus on 7 – most of which will fall squarely on the unsteady shoulders of Dwane Casey.
Card 1: Play James 1-on-1
Don’t worry about stopping James from scoring. It can’t be done.
No one outside of a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala has even come close. Last I checked, the Raptors don’t have either of these players.
But what they do have is 2 athletic, lengthy, high energy players. Give James a steady diet of OG and Siakam all game. None of this C.J. Miles or Derozan shit.
Just cover James enough to make him work for it – to make things difficult for him. Do not let him drive and kick. Once he gets others involved and racks up the assists, that’s when James and the Cavs are most deadly.
He can’t drive on every play. If he does, he’ll tire himself out.
And for god fucking sakes, don’t help off the shooters. Just don’t. Especially guys like Love and Korver. That’s what James wants. Let OG or Siakam work their magic on their own.
And try to limit the and-1s as much as possible.
Ultimately, let James have his points as long as the you cut off his passing game.
Card 2: Treat the ball like a delicate puppy
And by that, I mean take care of the ball. Limit the turnovers.
Just like the Wizards, the Cavs like to get out and run. Turnovers, especially live ball ones, fuels the Cavs’ offence while simultaneously killing any Raptors momentum.
In the 2 losses versus the Wizards, the Raptors gave up 18 turnovers in each game. In their last 2 games to close out the series, they gave up just 10 and 6 respectively.
They’ll have to keep their turnovers under 10 if they want a chance to beat the Cavs. Otherwise, it’ll be a track meet with James stuffing the ball down the Raptors’ throats.
A lot of this will depend on Derozan being smarter with the ball. After almost 10 years in the league, Derozan still has yet to drop the ill-advised, turnover-waiting-to-happen jump pass from his game.
If I had a dime for every one of these dimes that got picked off…
Card 3: Get back on D like the series depends on it
Because it does.
Like the Wizards, the Cavs love to push the ball. They aren’t as effective in the half court. So make them a half court team. How?
Forget about the offensive rebound. Just get back on D. Leave one man up while the other 4 sprint back on defence. Cut off all their fast breaks before they begin.
This is the strategy that Gregg Popovich used to use on teams that liked to run. It worked on Nash’s 7 seconds or less Suns team.
Also, be aware of the outlet pass. Both Love and James love to do this. They grab the rebound, look up the court and, all within milliseconds, fire a long outlet pass to a streaking J.R. Smith or whoever.
Card 4: Attack. Attack. Attack.
Attack the shit out of the Cavs’ defence. Or lack there of. Be relentless. Especially when Tristan Thompson’s on the bench.
The Cavs have zero interior defence without Thompson and one of the worst defences overall.
The Raptors must take advantage of this. Get to the line. Still take the 3s when they’re available, but be the aggressors. For once. Take the contact. Don’t let up. It’s also the only way the Raptors will get any calls from the refs.
Unfortunately, when it comes to attacking the rim, this is a pretty soft team. The softest of them all – the all-star, Demar Derozan. In fact, he avoids contact like it’s a flesh-eating disease.
Yes, sure. Okay. He’s collected quite a number of fouls over his career, often appearing in the top 10 in free throw attempts each year.
But if you watch him closely enough, the majority of his free throws come from pump fakes and rip-throughs, which the league has cracked down on this year.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Cavs coach, Tyronn Lue. In last year’s playoff matchup, Lue proclaimed he would fine any Cavs player who bit on a Derozan pump fake during the series.
It's a thing that actually happened. Google it. Yahoo it. Bing it.
Can you imagine an opposing coach doing such a thing to any other all-star? The answer is no, by the way. A solid no.
And it worked. Throughout the 4 games, only one player, one time got fined for biting. Sorry J.R.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Derozan should be commended for so many things in his career. For improving his game each year. For adding a 3 this year. For playing while his father is ill. For playing while dealing with depression. For passing more and being one of the primary reasons this new system works.
But he still lacks that killer instinct that his idol Kobe Bryant has. That willingness to continuously drive to net. To take the contact and not be denied.
The reality is, on the occasions Derozan does decide to drive, he contorts his body or does up-and-under dipsy-doodles to avoid any and all contact.
If the Raptors want to beat the Cavs, Derozan is going to have to man up and relentlessly attack their subpar defence with next to no rim protection.
Card 5: Pass the fucking ball
Ball movement. Yeah, it works. It’s the reason the Raptors had their most successful season in franchise history. And I’ve seen all the seasons.
It’s the reason they won 59 games.
It’s the reason they’re here.
And if they continue to move the ball like they’ve done all year – if they just play their game –they have a good chance of defeating the Cavs.
Unfortunately, when the Raptors face any sort of pressure, their old ways come flooding back.
As the Wizards went on a 24-8 run over the final 7:40 to close out Game 4 of the first round series, I thought, can we hit the culture reset button on this game?
The Raptors worked their asses off the entire year to completely overhaul the way they play, just to see it all go right back to the fucking beginning, like none of it ever happened.
It’s not just about ball movement and 3-point shooting. It’s about being unpredictable.
The whole point of the new offence was to be unpredictable. But with just a teensy bit of pressure, the Raptors go into panic mode on offence and revert back to their old predictable, iso-heavy, hero ball, I-want-to-smash-something ways.
Though none of this should be a surprise since their crunch time offence was their biggest weakness the entire season. If the Raptors didn’t blow teams away by the 4th quarter, even with a lead, the outcome of the game was always in question.
It doesn’t help that Derozan, who’s supposed to be the all-star and co-leader of this team, turns into DeFault DeRozan when we need him the most.
Instead of moving the ball and taking quality shots, he goes full Kobe, chucking up low percentage, highly contested, turnaround jumpers and floaters, like he did down the stretch of Game 4.
The problem is, he is not Kobe.
People will often fire back and say, you want the ball in your best players’ hands when the game’s on the line. But that’s not the point. In fact, it misses the point entirely.
Of course you want Derozan and Lowry to have the ball with game in the balance. But that doesn’t mean they should swallow the ball and take low percentage, predicable shots.
Pass the ball around like you did practically all season, until you get a better shot.
I’d also argue that Lowry is waaay more of a clutch shooter than Derozan. Yet 99.9% of the time it’s Derozan taking the final shots.
In conclusion, move the fucking ball.
Card 6: Wright as the primary ball handler is just wrong
Wright should never ever again be the primary ball handler.
He should never be on the floor without one of Lowry or Fred VanVleet. He’s way better and so much more effective playing off the ball.
This was never clearer than during the first 5 games of the Wizards series. Before VanVleet made his triumphant and well-needed return.
This is where the major drop-off was happening in each game. Once Lowry hit the bench and Wright took over point guard duties, the offence just dried up. Especially when leading the all-bench unit to start the 2nd quarters.
This clearly wasn’t working. Yet Casey, after observing this predicament numerous times, continued to force a round peg into a square hole. He could’ve used Brown along with Wright. Or hell, even Siakam could’ve brought the ball up. Nope.
In Wright’s defence, this was a new role for him. The entire season, he played with either Lowry or VanVleet or both. And in those situations, he was never the primary point guard. With the all-bench units, the majority of the ball handling duties always went to VanVleet.
Wright often takes too long to initiate the offence, over-dribbling the ball. You saw its effect on other bench players like Siakam and Jakob Poeltl, both of whom saw major dips in their games.
That is until Steady Freddy returned in Game 6. Hopefully VanVleet will be healthy for the Cavs series. But even a 70% VanVleet at point guard is 100x better than Wright.
Card 7: Play the matchups with JV
In this series, Casey is going to have to be very strategic in how he deploys JV, letting matchups dictate is playing time.
If Love is playing the 5, I don’t want to see JV. Staple his ass to the bench. Or better yet, send him to the locker room. I don’t even want to see him on the bench.
JV just can’t guard perimeter bigs like Love. He’s too slow. It’s a fact.
Where the Raptors always get burned by the Cavs is when JV leaves Love to help on James, then James kicks it out to Love for an open 3.
Every. Fucking. Time.
Sometimes, when JV’s getting back on D, he’ll just mosey on over to the paint without even looking to see where Love is. In the meantime, Love is draining yet another open 3. It’s like his caveman brain can’t compute it.
Yes. JV can take advantage of Love on offence. But the math just doesn’t work here. As far as I can tell, 3s are better than inconsistent 2s.
However, if Thompson is manning the 5, then by all means – unleash the Lithuanian lightning.
Also, as the playoffs and series goes along, Casey will have to be more conscious of JV’s minutes. He gets winded quite easily. And the Cavs have some athletic players. So it’s better to use him in short bursts instead of playing him for 10 straight minutes to start a quarter.
Take him out around the 6-minute mark. Because, at some point, you’re getting diminishing returns.
Cards on the court
These are just some of the cards Casey has to play with. And he’s been dealt a pretty good hand by Masai Ujiri.
If Casey plays them perfectly, James’ minutes continue to mount and his supporting cast continues to royally shit the bed, then the Raptors have a chance to finally behead the king.
But it all starts with winning Game 1.