Following their Game 7 victory against the Pacers over the weekend, the Cavaliers stunned the Raptors in Game 1 of their second round series with a thrilling overtime victory at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.
Unlike the previous round, LeBron James got some much-needed help from his supporting cast in Game 1. It started with Jeff Green, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the second quarter, and extended to Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson. For the Raptors, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas combined for 61 points, but they each struggled down the stretch when the Raptors went ice cold as a team.
With that in mind, let's take a look at three factors that decided Game 1.
Tristan Thompson doing the dirty work
The Cavaliers had no answer for Jonas Valanciunas through three quarters, during which he exploded for 19 points and 16 rebounds. Almost all of his 13 third quarter points came against Kevin Love, who started at center for the Cavaliers.
While Love's 3-point shooting helps space the floor on offense when he plays center, he doesn't have the size to protect the rim and defend traditional fives. At 7-feet and 255-pounds, Valanciunas has an overwhelming height and weight advantage on Love. He's longer as well, sporting a 7-foot-6 wingspan compared to 6-foot-11 for Love. The combination helped him finish above and through Love whenever he caught the ball near the basket in the third quarter:
The difference in the fourth quarter and overtime was Tristan Thompson. Whereas Valanciunas scored 11 of his 21 points on the night when Love was his primary defender, Thompson limited him to two points on 1-for-7 shooting when they were matched up together. A lot of those misses came in the fourth quarter, when Valanciunas (1-for-7) and the Raptors (5-for-25) fell apart:
Valanciunas missed a couple of shots that he usually makes - his tip at the end of regulation being the most obvious example - but Thompson's length made those shots more difficult than when Love was guarding him.
Another benefit of having Thompson on the floor is he's one of the best offensive rebounders in the NBA and he's comfortable switching onto guards. He put the latter on display on the final possession of the game, when Thompson picked up DeMar DeRozan and forced him to kick the ball out to Fred VanVleet, who missed the game-winning 3-pointer in overtime, by not falling for any of his fakes when he got into the paint.
Based on how effective he was defensively in Game 1, don't be surprised if Thompson starts at center for the Cavaliers in Game 2.
LeBron James switching onto Kyle Lowry
Jonas Valanciunas wasn't the only Raptor who was ineffective in crunch time. Another adjustment the Cavaliers made in the fourth quarter was switching LeBron James off of Serge Ibaka and onto Kyle Lowry.
The Raptors changed their system this season to take some of the playmaking burden off of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but everything still revolves around their ability to create efficient shots for themselves and others. By switching James onto Lowry, the Cavaliers were able to take Toronto's second leading scorer and leading facilitator out of the game. After scoring an efficient 15 points in the first three quarters, Lowry was held to three points and three assists in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The biggest concern: Lowry shot only four times in those 13 minutes.
James poses obvious problems for Lowry. He has the foot speed to keep up with him off the dribble and the athleticism to contest his shots on the perimeter and at the basket. If the Raptors aren't able to get anything out of Lowry against James, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Valanciunas and DeRozan, which is going to be a problem if Thompson continues to defend Valanciunas as well as he did in Game 1.
Putting James on Lowry also gives the Cavaliers a solution when Lowry and DeRozan set screens for each other late in games, because James and J.R. Smith can simply switch assignments to prevent one of them from turning the corner:
If James is going to defend Lowry again, the Raptors need to figure out how they can get him open or how they can use his gravity to create scoring opportunities for others. Otherwise they run the risk of their offense grinding to a halt.
OG Anunoby limiting LeBron James
If there's one thing the Raptors can be encouraged by in Game 1, it's that they did an admiral job on LeBron James. James finished with 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds, but did so on 12-for-30 shooting from the field and 1-for-8 shooting from the 3-point line. He struggled down the stretch, too, missing 13 of the 16 shots he attempted in the fourth quarter and overtime.
A lot of those misses came when OG Anunoby was guarding him. Even though he's a rookie, Anunoby proved to be ahead of the curve as a defender in the regular season and matches up well with James physically. It showed whenever James tried to attack him in the post, where he was absolutely unstoppable against the Pacers in the first round. In addition to having the strength to keep James from bulldozing his way into the paint…
...Anunoby has the length to get a hand in LeBron's face when he goes to his patented fadeaway:
Having someone who can at least battle with James in those situations means the rest of the Raptors don't have to help as aggressively when he puts the ball on the floor. According to NBA.com, James shot 8-for-19 when Anunoby was his primary defender in Game 1, and many of those makes came at a high degree of difficulty. Had his teammates done a better job of keeping J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver off the 3-point line, the game might have ended differently for the Raptors.
For that reason, the Raptors will need a repeat performance out of Anunoby in Game 2 if they hope to tie the series up before going to Cleveland for Game 3.