CLEVELAND • Dwane Casey was saying on Saturday morning that the Toronto Raptors have played good defence at times in the playoffs.
“Closing the quarters, we haven’t done a good job defensively,” he said.
I don’t think he meant it in an ominous way, but it was a prescient observation nonetheless.
Despite fighting and clawing and generally harassing the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first 19 minutes of Game 3, the Raptors stumbled through a stretch of blown assignments and sloppy play to close the half. The result was a 16-2 run for the Cavs, a 15-point halftime lead, and a spike in the heart of Toronto’s playoff chances. In the final sequence of the second quarter, LeBron James drove the lane and then found Kevin Love at the top of the arc for a wide-open three-pointer. After a Raptors turnover, James found Jeff Green cutting to the basket utterly unmolested by any Toronto defender. He paused and recited the Pledge of Allegiance — well, he could have — and dunked just before the buzzer sounded.
That disastrous stretch proved too much to overcome, even as the Raptors fought and fought some more in the second half, only to be killed one more time by the murderous reign of King James. He had 38 on the night, but the final two, a running, fading jumper that somehow went off the glass and in as he sailed past the baseline, was the difference in a 105-103 Cleveland win.
That first-half stretch was an inexplicable bit of play, and yet it was totally in keeping for the Raptors in this post-season. One of the great mysteries of these playoffs has been their disappearing defence. They stormed to 59 wins with the fifth-best defence in the NBA as measured by points allowed per 100 possessions, and stout play on that end of the court has been a staple of Casey’s squads over the last few years. Casey was a defensive assistant before he came to Toronto as head coach, although he has bristled in recent seasons when it has been suggested that his specialty is on that side of the ball.
That consistency, though, has disappeared in the post-season. The Washington Wizards averaged just over 113 over the first four games of the first round, before the Raptors cleaned things up a bit and held them below 100 for the final two games, both Toronto wins. Cleveland then scored 113 in Game 1 before going off for 128 in Game 2; the Cavaliers averaged just under 95 points per game over their seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers.
In past playoff struggles, the Raptors have swooned on offence thanks to spotty play from DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but their all-stars have been solid this time around. It’s just that the team isn’t getting enough stops. They have been 13th out of 16 playoff teams in defensive rating. The only teams below them are Portland, Minnesota and San Antonio, all of which did not get out of the first round.
“In stretches we’ve played pretty good defence,” Casey said on Saturday morning before Game 3. “But it’s not long enough is the way I want to describe it.” The coach said the lack of focus after halftime of Game 2 was particularly troubling.
“Coming out of the locker room, that’s just inexcusable, to come out of the locker room and have a turnover, and being relaxed defensively, or let Korver come off a pindown and get a wipe open shot,” Casey said. “Those things, we can do a hell of a lot better job of covering those.”
(For Casey, ever the polite Southern gentleman, that counts as righteous fury.)
But Toronto’s defensive lapses haven’t just been caused by the hazard of trying to stop a team led by James, a unique offensive force.
“It’s been a while since we’ve felt good (defensively) for a full 48 minutes,” DeRozan said on Saturday morning. “We can’t have quarters or halves — like, we didn’t force them into a turnover in the second half last game. Any team that takes care of the ball like that, they’re damn near guaranteed to win. We’ve got to put pressure on them, and understand once we put pressure on a team, that’s when we get out and play and we’re at our best.”
He wasn’t wrong about it having been a while since they were close to their defensive peak. Over the last 15 games of the regular season, the Raptors were 13th in defensive rating, a period over which they went just 9-6.
Lowry noted that the offence hadn’t been bad at all through two games against Cleveland, and yet they were, staring at a daunting hole.
“We’ve got to do it better on defence,” Lowry said. “I have been saying it all year and you know how Dwane Casey is all about defence. We have had slippages this year and we weren’t happy about them and we can’t be having slippages at this point.”
They kept having slippages. Once again, there were moments of inspired defensive play on Saturday night — DeRozan forced James into turnovers on two consecutive possessions at one point in the third quarter — but far too many easy Cleveland baskets. When Toronto had it to just a four-point deficit late, they left Kyle Korver wide open for a corner three. Bam. Seven-point deficit.
The Raptors said they needed 48 minutes of defence and they came up with 43 minutes of it.
They said they needed to find themselves. They are still searching.