Let’s start here: entering the 2018 postseason, teams that have fallen into an 0-2 hole in an NBA playoff series owned a combined all-time record of 19-273, according to historical data compiled by WhoWins.com. Five teams fell into that same hole in Round 1 this year — the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves — and they all lost, running the mark to 19-278.
Only four of those 19 teams to climb out did so after losing the series’ first two games at home: the 1968-69 Los Angeles Lakers, who came back on the San Francisco Warriors; the 1993-94 Houston Rockets, who did it against the Phoenix Suns; the 2004-05 Dallas Mavericks, who knocked off the Rockets; and the 2016-17 Boston Celtics, who ripped off four straight against the Chicago Bulls. In other words, if you’re looking to win four out of five playoff games after losing the first two, you’re probably going to need one or more legends — a West, a Wilt, a Hakeem, a Dirk — or for one of the other team’s most important players to suffer an injury in the middle of the series.
The Toronto Raptors have many good players, and a couple of very good ones, but they don’t have a Great One. Instead, they’re facing one of those, and they’ve already given LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers the road win they need to steal home-court advantage and tilt the odds of this second-round matchup in their favor. Take another one in Toronto in Game 2 on Thursday, and the Cavs find themselves on the sunny side of that 93.6 percent probability of advancing when you’ve got a two-game edge … and the Raptors find themselves on the brink of a third straight elimination at LeBron’s hands, and on the brink of organizational disaster.
With the specter of that sort of bummer looming, and the grim memory of all those missed putbacks and clanged jumpers fresh in their minds, it’s somewhat surprising, then, that the Raptors cut a confident figure between Games 1 and 2.
“We should have won,” All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan told reporters at Toronto’s Wednesday practice. “We should have had that game, and it was more [like], ‘Damn, we gotta wait to redeem ourselves, to get this feeling off of us. That was more the feeling. The confidence hasn’t went anywhere. If anything, it heightened to even want to get back out there.”
“I think we’re just more, just like, ‘OK, we know what we did wrong,’” All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry added. “[The] last couple years, I think we played the first two on their floor and it was blowouts … but that’s in the past. I think this year, we’re just equipped differently. We’re just an overall different team.”
Toronto’s been ringing that bell for months, asserting time and again that the postseason struggles of yesteryear don’t hold any sway over the best team in franchise history, a squad that ripped off an East-leading 59 wins and finished the regular season ranked third in the NBA in net rating — which measures whether you outscore your opposition over the course of 100 possessions, or vice versa — behind only the Western juggernauts from Houston and Golden State. The Raptors insisted that their so-called “culture reset,” an identity shift away from overreliance on individual isolation play from Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and toward leaning on a more ball- and body-movement-heavy attack that empowers the conference’s deepest roster, would pay dividends come the postseason.
It did in the opening round, when multiple members of Toronto’s second unit showed out, and a combination of an energized Lowry, emboldened center Jonas Valanciunas and the Raps’ vaunted second unit eliminated the Washington Wizards on the road, setting the stage for a third straight meeting with James’ gang. And even in the midst of a heartbreaking Game 1 loss, the Raptors seem to have taken solace in the notion that, while they lost, they did so in keeping with their rebooted identity and style — not trying to do too much individually, trusting the pass, trusting one another — and that that will pay dividends it they just stick with it.
“We played the right way,” said Lowry, who finished with 18 points and 10 assists but struggled to break free in the fourth quarter and overtime when blanketed by the size of James and Jeff Green. “We played our game. We executed the plays down the stretch. Gotta roll with it.”
At issue for the Raptors: to a large extent, the Cavs can say the same. Cleveland won despite LeBron missing 18 shots and Kevin Love missing 10, and did so because even after falling down by 14 early, they stuck to their game plan, kept looking for opportunities to create open shots, and trusted that if they kept grinding, it’d pay off. It started to in the second quarter, when defensive miscues led to multiple wide-open 3-pointers that got complementary scorers like Green, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith going and gave James the help he needed to cut down Toronto’s early lead and get back within striking distance.
Despite Love’s individual offensive struggles and Valanciunas’ persistent punishment of the power forward-turned-center on the block for the first three quarters, the Cavs routinely got great looks with Love at center, which is why coach Tyronn Lue plans to keep running it out there, Valanciunas’ feasting be damned.
“We need Kevin to play the 5 for the spacing, and I think it helps us offensively,” Lue told reporters Wednesday. “And showing the tape and the film this morning with what we showed the guys, their bigs are coming to help. So when JR drives or Bron drives or [George] Hill drives, their bigs are coming, so we’re going to have open shots on the perimeter. We just have to knock them down.”
We know, given the chance by overzealous helping or by big men forced into uncomfortable positions defending on the perimeter, that LeBron will keep finding them to give them the chance to do so.
“We’ve just got to keep chipping in as much as we can,” Smith told reporters Wednesday. “He can’t play Superman every night.”
He didn’t have to in Game 1, and Cleveland still came away with home-court advantage. The bet is he won’t misplace his cape twice in a row, though, which means the Raptors can’t afford the sort of indecision that cost them so dearly on Tuesday. They need to stick to the script, double down on trusting themselves and one another — after missing a pair of would-be game-winning 3-pointers, reserve spark plug Fred VanVleet sounds like he’s champing at the bit to get those same looks again — and avoid the kind of mental and physical mistakes that get lesser teams beat this time of year. In short, they need to play in May the way they did from October through mid-April.
It sounds a lot easier than it is, and especially than it’s been in Toronto over the years. But it’s nowhere near as hard as what these Raptors will face if they can’t pull it off.
“For us it’s a really, really important game, a really big game for us as a team,” Lowry told reporters. “But we keep with our confidence that we’ve had all year … I’m sure they’re happy and they’re going to come out differently. But we’re going to come out and be us, be a better us.“
If they don’t, history says they won’t get too many more chances to prove themselves.
There might yet be six more games in this series, but for all intents and purposes, the Raptors play a Game 7 on Thursday night, with the fate of the best team in franchise history in the balance. Beat LeBron or be branded a failure is an unfair standard, but, well, here we are. These are the stakes; this is how it feels when it matters this much. Time to find out if the Raptors are different enough in the ways that count to make good on their confident between-games chatter, participate in their own salvation, and give LeBron and company something worth fretting over on their flight back to Ohio.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers and 2007-08 San Antonio Spurs as teams that won a series after falling down 0-2 at home. The ’03-’04 Lakers were the higher seed, but the Spurs had home-court advantage by virtue of having a better record. The New Orleans Hornets were seeded higher than San Antonio in 2008. We regret the errors.
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