Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors 102-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
One – It was a bitter way to end the five-game winning streak. The Raptors led the entire game, except for the last five seconds, as a series of unfortunate decisions put them at a disadvantage. It wasn’t a well-refereed game at all, with a missed trip call, a missed goaltender and a handful of side decisions that all burned the Raptors in the fourth quarter – allowing the brave Cavaliers to complete their valiant comeback. The Raptors didn’t do themselves so much service by not capitalizing on opportunities in the fourth, including point-blank glances or misguided jumpers, but they were just missing a possession tonight.
Two – The Raptors weren’t happy with the whistle in this game, and for good reason. Despite being tied on points in the paint, the Cavaliers had 19 free throws compared to just nine for the Raptors. It was absurd how much contact was allowed in this game, with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley constantly hitting people in the lane, but none of it got called out. Allen finished the game without a single foul on his ledger, while OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes combined to score 40 field goals without a single trip to the foul line. Anunoby and head coach Nick Nurse both did passive-aggressive searches on officials tonight, which were woefully bad. There were even streaks where the Cavaliers tried to foul intentionally, and even those were missed in one way or another.
Three – Anunoby got a reasonable look at the end. He was the obvious candidate to fire the last shot since VanVleet was cold, and the Raptors created a switch on the comeback where Anunoby found himself facing Allen. Anunoby smartly turned down the contested three-way top in favor of a practice towards the baseline, where he found a pocket of space between two defenders to stand up for a short jumper. The gaze lasted a long time, but Barnes smashed the glass on the weak side and nearly knocked it over for the match winner. Anunoby will be a popular choice for the final shot this season, especially in short clock situations, as his size allows him to create space to shoot it. The execution was good, he just missed it.
Four – Fred VanVleet might regret some of the shots he took in the fourth, where he was only 2 of 9 off the pitch. To his credit, VanVleet took a lot of tough shots in the fourth quarter in their final games, but the game wasn’t there for him tonight. Collin Sexton stalked VanVleet, pushing and pushing him all over the floor without appeal from officials, and VanVleet responded to the assault by forcing unbalanced looks.
Sexton fought to stay in front, and instead of resetting the game, VanVleet tried crossfades and other unbalanced techniques to get his shot, resulting in some really big hiccups. And of course, it didn’t help that VanVleet had a layup that was goalie by Cedi Osman in the final three minutes which could have turned the game upside down. Either way, it will always be difficult for VanVleet to create space late in the game due to his size, but the Raptors need him to be aggressive at all times, so he will need to take better advantage of his opportunities.
Five – Barnes was up and down on his return from a sprained thumb. He was adjusting his hand throughout the game, which isn’t surprising considering he got his thumb stuck last week, and it likely impacted his touch as Barnes missed a few of the pushing shots and short jumpers that supported him at the start of this season. Defensively, there were also a few streaks where Barnes was outmatched by Mobley’s length at the post, as Mobley was able to build his muscles to his points and shoot over them.
But overall, Barnes was aggressive, grabbed six offensive rebounds and was just as much of a problem for the Cavaliers in terms of physical play. Towards the end of the game, Barnes was strapped on a loose ball and returned a 7-foot foot to Allen flat on his back, just one of many outrageous displays of strength for the rookie forward.
Six – Gary Trent Jr. created two offsets on the end game for the Cavaliers. Both times he stripped Sexton, who spent a hellish night shooting 4 of 17 while constantly being stalked by Trent Jr., but both times Sexton was able to regain possession. This is the level at which Trent Jr. played all night, where he tallied six interceptions and two blocks in a total effort from the defensive end.
Offensively, Trent Jr. played in himself, found gaps in both arch and basket defense, while also dotting some pretty tough marks. It might have been the best game he’s played as a Raptor when you factor in both sides of the ball. While changes in the starting lineup are inevitable, there’s no way Nurse could put Trent Jr. on the bench while he’s in this type of groove.
Seven – Pascal Siakam is approaching his return. Siakam has obtained clearance to return from the surgeon and has already participated in live workouts over the past week. He was on the ground before the game, going through his usual warm-up routine, spending a good 30 minutes on 1-on-1 drills and three-point series of shots, before finishing his training with a stunt dunk.
The Raptors have two days off to practice Monday and Tuesday, before playing against the Celtics on Wednesday, and if all goes well, Siakam will be back in the starting five to give the Raptors a healthy rotation for the first time of the season. The main beneficiaries will be Anunoby and VanVleet, who will not have to play as many minutes with Siakam coming to share the load offensively.
Eight – The fit with Siakam will be interesting, and it will force a concession somewhere in the lineup. The best option would be to put Siakam in place of Precious Achiuwa, who is the worst performing member of the current starting lineup. The only downside to this move would be that the Raptors would be undersized in the paint, with one of the Siakam, Anunoby or Barnes having to struggle with crosses on a consistent basis, but the Raptors would undoubtedly have their top five players on the ground. . Swapping Siakam for Trent Jr. is another possibility, but that leaves them too light on the shot and Trent Jr.’s defense will be missed. Siakam could also replace Barnes, but he’s already too productive to think of a bench. Either way, it looks like the Raptors will have to sacrifice size or shot.
Nine – Siakam’s return will push Chris Boucher out of the rotation. Boucher has been a wreck all season, making rookie mistakes on defense that even Raptors rookies wouldn’t, while still being an offensive non-factor. The nurse put Boucher on the bench after a disastrous first shift which saw Boucher get overtaken at the station for one and one, not pivoting over the edge for a layup, opening a three, fumbling for an out of bounds pass , while leaving his feet on a pair of dummy pumps that allowed the Cavaliers to score.
Last season, Boucher was a productive player in a weak position, who made many of the same mistakes, but managed just enough three-way side spins to make it work. Now it’s under 20% out of three, and all that’s left are the same straightforward mistakes that would make even the most patient of coaches. The offense will return eventually, but he will always be limited by his inability to read the game. Rookies like Barnes and Dalano Banton have more discipline per month in their careers than Boucher who is now in his fourth season with the Raptors.
Ten – The nurse continues to use a platoon as a playmaker with great effect. Banton brings a change of pace and a dose of size that comes in handy around the rim, as he scored 11 quick points in just nine minutes of play. Malachi Flynn is for his quick defense against small guards and for his outside shots, and he had three interceptions while hitting a three. Flynn even took some of Svi Mykhailiuk’s minutes tonight, although it was more of the game than Mykhailiuk’s individual production.