— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 18, 2016
CLEVELAND—The Toronto Raptors have been here so many times, it’s almost become their comfort zone.
The day after being throttled by Cleveland in the opener of their first-ever Eastern Conference final, the Raptors find themselves having to claw back from behind, and hope that recent history means something.
The Raptors dropped a horrific 115-84 decision to the Cavaliers on Tuesday night. But they’ve lost every Game 1 of this post-season, and are 6-0 in games after losses.
“I see these guys, I see it in their eyes, and we’re a very resilient team and we always come back strong,” general manager Masai Ujiri said. “If I asked everybody here if they knew the Miami game, Game 7, was going to be a blowout, everybody would say no. And it was a blowout. There are going to be blowout games, and in the playoffs, every single game is different.
“We just have a resilient team. These guys fight, they’re going to have ups and downs, and I think they’ve fought through some down times in the playoffs and this year. They respond well.”
Things couldn’t go much worse than they did Tuesday at Quicken Loans Arena. One telling statistic: the Cavaliers held Toronto’s all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to zero free throw attempts between them. In the 298 games that Lowry and DeRozan have played together, that had never happened.
“That’s a phenomenal number,” coach Dwane Casey said. “I’m not very good at math, but that’s almost mathematically impossible as much as we drive and kick.”
Lowry had been so solid against the Cavaliers in their three regular-season games, averaging 31 points on 66 per cent shooting. But the scrappy point guard was held to just eight points Tuesday night.
Asked about that spark in the eye that Ujiri spoke of: “There’s always a fire if you get your ass kicked like that.
“You gotta want to win,” said Lowry, wearing a backwards Maple Leafs ball cap. “We didn’t just get here to be like ‘OK.’ We want to win games. We want to compete. Our competitive nature as professionals, as NBA players is going to be at a high level.”
And although the Raptors weren’t keen to fall back on excuses, fatigue surely played a role. The Cavaliers hit the court running after a nine-day break. Toronto, on the other hand, has had games virtually every second day for nearly a month, including three overtime games versus Miami.
“We don’t have time to be tired. We’ve got to keep pushing, keep grinding,” DeMarre Carroll said. “Gotta dig deep inside, man. We’ve got a lot of warriors, got a lot of guys here who’ve got chips on their shoulders, who’ve been through rough times, a lot of obstacles.
“I guarantee you, (Thursday) our effort . . . will be way better.”
Carroll had arguably the toughest job of the night Tuesday in trying to contain LeBron James. The four-time NBA MVP blew by Carroll a few times, including on windmill dunk in the second quarter that was played over and over on Wednesday’s highlight reels.
“He’s a physical beast,” Carroll said of James. “It’s one of those things man, you’ve just gotta do what you can. I feel like I can do better, especially staying in front of him, try to make tough twos, but I see now that they tried to go straight to the post.”
The Raptors, so intent on stopping Cleveland’s three-point assault, were burned badly in the paint as a result.
The Cavs averaged a whopping 17 threes a game against Detroit and Atlanta, which “kind of made us nervous,” said Lowry. “They had like nine dunks and countless layups (Tuesday), but it’s just an adjustment.”
Ujiri also lamented the loss of Jonas Valanciunas, who badly sprained an ankle in Game 3 against Miami. The Lithuanian centre is out for Game 2, and whether he’ll be able to return at all before this series ends remains unknown.
“I saw him walking, so that was positive, he wasn’t sitting,” Ujiri said. “You wish a guy like that could be playing, because I feel that’s a difference. He would be the best big guy in the game, by far. That would have helped us, but we don’t have that, that’s the nature of the NBA and you move on.”
Following Thursday’s Game 2, the series moves to Toronto for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Sunday.