Just when the Toronto Raptors finally looked like they’d exorcised their playoff demons against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cavs once again found a way to haunt them. Despite not leading for a single second during regulation time, LeBron James and the Cavaliers beat Toronto 113-112 in overtime of Tuesday night’s Eastern Conference semifinal Game 1, handing the Raptors their ninth loss in 11 playoff games against Cleveland over the past three seasons.
Much of the focus in the wake of Game 1 will be on Toronto’s blown opportunities to put the Cavs away — and rightly so. The Raptors led by as many as 14 points early in the game, and according to ESPN’s NBA win probability model, they had a 94 percent chance of winning when they held a 10-point edge with 9:58 to go in the fourth quarter. It was a prime moment for Toronto to prove that its Game 1 issues were really a thing of the past. (Before beating Washington in their first-round opener, the Raptors had lost 10 consecutive postseason Game 1s.) But the Raptors’ fourth-quarter meltdown only renewed doubts about Toronto’s true playoff potential.
Toronto shot 5-for-25 (20 percent) from the field during the final period of regulation, including an agonizing 3-for-17 on shots in the restricted area. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, those 14 restricted-area misses were the most by any team in any quarter in the last 20 postseasons. The Raptors had eight second-chance opportunities during the last five minutes of regulation and failed to score on any of them, including missing four shots in the final seconds. After that, they needed James to miss a buzzer-beater just to force overtime.
One of the saddest parts for Toronto was that it had spent the game’s first three quarters playing the type of offensive basketball that had made it look like a contender all season. The Raptors were the league’s third-best offensive team during the regular season (according to NBA Advanced Stats), averaging 111.0 points per 100 possessions. Through three quarters Tuesday night, they’d scorched Cleveland for 120.6 points per 100 possessions, with DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and even a renewed Jonas Valanciunas generating high-quality chances. But in the fourth quarter and overtime, Toronto’s offense cratered to 79.3 points per 100 possessions, time and again preventing them from putting the game away.
And on the Cleveland side of the ball, there were signs that the Cavs are starting to rediscover the shooting touch that’s led to so much postseason success against the Raptors over the years. After knocking down only 32 percent of their three-pointers1 in the first round against Indiana, Cleveland shooters hit 14, at a 40 percent clip, against Toronto on Tuesday. And that was with James going a paltry 1-for-8 from beyond the arc; Cavs not named LeBron made 48 percent of their threes. It was a big reversal from the first round, when we were wondering if James’s teammates would ever step up and make some of the shots he was creating for them. It was also a long-awaited return to the form that saw Cleveland hit 42 percent of its threes while burying the Raptors in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs.
No doubt the Cavs looked bad against Indiana — at times, really bad. Outscored by a total of 40, they had the third-worst point margin for any postseason series winner in NBA history. But maybe Cleveland’s shooting just needed to reawaken itself: According to Second Spectrum’s quantified shot quality metric, on passes from James in Round 1, his teammates collectively shot for an effective field goal percentage that was 10.3 points below what we would expect based on their track records. That couldn’t last. (Although it should also be noted that, in Game 1 against Toronto, the Cavs shot 11.1 percentage points above expectations on that metric.)
Of course, by the same token, the Raptors are probably not going to miss so, so many chippies around the basket again after Game 1. According to Second Spectrum, they “should” have shot for an effective field goal percentage 35.5 points higher than they actually did during the fourth quarter Tuesday night. Second Spectrum’s numbers also indicate that, on Toronto’s three missed tip-in chances near the end of regulation, there was a 95 percent chance at least one of them would go in — any of which would likely have been enough to secure the victory.
Maybe that means these teams should settle in for a long series, once the luck evens out on each side. But Toronto has to be kicking itself about the missed opportunity to take early control of the series in Game 1. After working all season to get home-court advantage in a hypothetical series against Cleveland, Toronto threw it away in an astonishing flurry of fourth-quarter misses. Bad luck or not, that could end up helping the Cavs haunt the Raptors’ postseason dreams yet again.