As February turns to March and the clock runs down on a season chockfull of ups and downs, The Raptors will need some help and plenty of luck if they hope to salvage a once-lost campaign.
But first they must learn to help themselves.
The Raptors (23-35) did themselves no favours on Wednesday night, coughing up an early 14-point lead and suffering another setback – this time of the defensive variety – falling 103-92 to a Cleveland Cavaliers team missing their best player.
Following an embarrassing home loss to the Wizards on Monday, Dwane Casey hoped his team would respond to what he referred to as a "wake-up call". This seemed to be the case early on as they came out of the gate with the tenacity they were lacking two days prior.
Toronto took a 23-9 lead late in the first quarter before the Cavaliers (20-38) engineered a 23-point swing in just over 14 minutes to capture the momentum they would eventually ride to victory while their leading scorer Kyrie Irving watched on from the sideline. Irving missed his second straight game resting a hyperextended right knee that kept him out of Tuesday's win over the Bulls.
Fast Break Points
A Determined DeRozan
DeRozan has been one of the lone bright spots in each of his team's last two losses. Coming off a 25-point effort in the loss to Washington, the Raptors' guard played all but 17 seconds in the second half where he scored 21 of his game-high 34 points. It took him just 19 shots to reach that figure thanks to a career-high matching 14 free throws, on 15 attempts from the stripe. Although the Raps have come up short in both contests – his defence, like the rest of the team's, is partially to blame – he continues to prove his naysayers wrong with his work on the offensive end of the floor. Over the past month DeRozan has proved that he can successfully co-exist with Gay on the wing and has begun to do it in an efficient manner.
Unlike Monday's performance, where DeRozan was a one-man show, both of Toronto's wing players carried its offence against the Cavs. Gay, who shot 1-for-11 for seven points in the Wizards loss, scored 24 to go along with eight rebounds and six assists on 10-of-21 from the field. Both players struggled on defence – no one could seem to stop Dion Waiters, who led Cleveland with 23 points – but came up big, leading the team on a night in which Toronto got little-to-nothing from its previously dependable second unit.
Second Quarter and Bench Production
Casey was forced to lean heavily on DeRozan, Gay and Amir Johnson – who chipped in with 10 points, nine rebounds – playing each of them over 40 minutes because of how drastically his bench was out-played on this night. Toronto's reserves were outscored 39-8 with Landry Fields and Alan Anderson contributing four points apiece while Andrea Bargnani and John Lucas III were among the group held scoreless.
The momentum, which was controlled by Toronto in the first nine minutes, quickly swung to the home team once the four listed above were integrated into the lineup. Defensively, the intensity the Raptors started the game with instantly vanished as the Cavs ripped off an 11-2 run to close out the first quarter before shooting a ridiculous 71 per cent in the second frame en route to a 57-point first half.
The Raptors' bench scored 59 points when these teams last met at Quicken Loans Arena – a 113-99 win for Toronto on December 18th – giving them a whopping 38-point advantage over Cleveland's reserves. This seemed like ancient history for a group that shot just 4-of-14 and was even more porous defensively on Wednesday.
Personnel Decisions in Crunch Time
The Raptors never regained the lead after coughing up their advantage early in the second quarter but the efforts of DeRozan and Gay kept them within striking range until the final minute.
Despite an abysmal sequence to end the third quarter and open the fourth – including a 13-0 Cavs run and seven-minute scoreless drought – Toronto cut its deficit to five with just over three minutes remaining. The group Casey had on the floor to close the game included Bargnani, who was 0-for-2 without a rebound in five minutes at the time. He would go on to compile one board and two more missed jumpers in 10 fourth-quarter minutes, routinely missing defensive assignments, leaving the team vulnerable around the basket and getting beat on the glass.
Rookie Jonas Valanciunas, whose early energy was a big part of the team's quick start, did not see the floor in the final quarter. In Casey's defence, Byron Scott and the Cavaliers had also gone small with a lineup featuring six-foot-nine Tristan Thompson as their only big. However, the Raptors could not seem to come up with the big stop or rebound they needed late in the game. With eight rebounds and three blocked shots in 24 minutes, the presence of Valanciunas may have come in handy to contest and even prevent some of the easy looks Cleveland got down the stretch.
Too Many Long Jumpers, Turnovers
Although the Raptors scored 50 points in the paint, outscoring Cleveland by 14 in that category, they settled for too many outside jumpers on a night when they just were not falling. Toronto shot 2-of-20 from three-point range, the primary culprits being Gay (1-of-5) and Kyle Lowry (1-of-6). Lowry, who finished with 11 points and eight assists, did a much better job running an offence that was held to just 13 assists on Monday. 25 dimes on 35 made-field goals was a notable improvement but the team was unable to protect the ball, committing 15 turnovers, which led to 20 Cleveland points.
DeRozan scored 30 points or more for the third time this season and first since December 28th in New Orleans. He has now scored 18 or more in nine of 12 games since Gay arrived in the trade from Memphis. DeRozan has also attempted six or more free throws in a career-best seven consecutive games.
The Raptors were up by 14, their largest lead of the game, when Bargnani checked in with just over three minutes remaining in the first quarter. When he checked out six minutes later, the lead was just two. Cleveland closed out the opening period on an 11-2 run coinciding with Bargnani's presence – or lack thereof – in the paint, where he was exploited by the Cavs' second unit, who scored eight of those points around the rim. In his defence, he was unfairly paired with Landry Fields in the frontcourt as Casey went small, using a lineup that is not exactly optimal for defensive purposes.
Casey opted to use the more physical Aaron Gray briefly in the third before curiously going back to Bargnani down the stretch. He finished the game 0-for-4 with one rebound and one assist in 15 minutes. He was held scoreless for the third time in his last four games.
The Cavs are now 4-9 without Irving in their lineup this season. The All-Star point guard, sixth in the league scoring 23.3 points per game, sustained a knee injury during practice last week and struggled with it in a couple outings over the weekend before sitting out the previous two contests. He is considered day-to-day.
Toronto opens the month of March with a big weekend back-to-back set at home to the Pacers on Friday (7:00 PM on TSN) and in Milwaukee Saturday (8:30 PM on TSN2). Although the Raptors have had success against Indiana this season, winning two of three, they'll have their work cut out for them in the final meeting – the Pacers, who currently sit second in the East, have won five straight. The Raptors dropped their only home encounter with Milwaukee, 107-96 January 13th, but should have Saturday's tilt circled as a must-win if they hope to make an improbable late-season run at the playoffs. The Bucks, owners of the East's eighth and final postseason slot, currently sit six games above Toronto in the standings.