CLEVELAND â€” Monday night’s game was less than three minutes old when LeBron James threw down a monstrous alley-oop dunk, tossed spectacularly off the backboard by Kyrie Irving.
The showy play set the tone for the night â€” another Game 1 loss for the Toronto Raptors, and another thrashing in Cleveland.
“Defensively I didn’t think we played with the physicality that we had to in this game,” said an irked Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “They were well rested, they were moving, flying around almost like half a step quicker than us all night.”
James scored 35 points â€” and clearly was having fun doing so â€” to lift Cleveland to a 116-105 romp over Toronto in the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday. After drawing a foul on a missed layup, James playfully galloped over to the courtside waitress, and grabbed a beer.
“I’m not a beer guy,” James grinned. “If she’d had red wine I probably would’ve taken a sip.”
Kyle Lowry had 20 points and 11 assists, while DeMar DeRozan finished with 19 points. P.J. Tucker had 13 points and 11 rebounds, Serge Ibaka chipped in 15 points, and Norman Powell finished with 12 points.
The game turned, said Lowry and DeRozan, on Toronto’s defensive lapses.
“They get big spurts, and we fight back, and they do another big spurt. We’ve gotta find ways to limit the spurts,” Lowry said. “We know they’re going to be a high-flying team, up and down, shoot the ball well at home. But we’ve got to find a way to not let them get going and get everyone involved, and getting the crowd involved. We’ve got to find ways to completely just slow it down, and not let them get out in transition.”
The ball flew around the Cavs, who had 26 assists on the night and headed into the fourth quarter with just four turnovers (they would finish with 12).
“When the ball’s moving, guys are being aggressive, there’s no questions about the moves that guys are making, the shots that are being taken, we’re all just trusting one another, and the basketball gods end up being in our favour when we play like that,” said Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving.
The loss dropped the Raptors to 1-12 in playoff series openers, their lone victory coming in the second round against Philadelphia in 2001.
Asked how they can kick their opening-game curse, DeRozan said: “That’s a great question. It’s too late to happen now. We already got that foot in the hole. And that’s when we kick in and understand we fight well under adversity. We did it all year. That’s been our mantra. So it’s something that we’re going to have to exploit next game.”
In a game of wild runs, the Raptors would trail the Cavs by as few as two points late in the second quarter, and by as many as 25 points late in the third. The Cavaliers led 96-74 to start the fourth quarter.
But the Raptors would come no closer than 16 points over the final 12 minutes, and when Channing Frye drove to the hoop for a dunk with two minutes to play, it put the Cavs up by 22 points, and victorious Cleveland fans began to bolt for the exits. Both coaches then emptied their benches.
Tristan Thompson of Brampton, Ont., grabbed 14 rebounds to go with 11 points for the Cavs.
The Raptors shot 44 per cent on the night, and were 10 of 26 from three-point range. They coughed up 18 points on turnovers compared to just eight for the Cavs. Cleveland also went to the free throw line nine more times than Toronto did.
The Cavaliers, who were the league’s No. 2 three-point shooting team in the regular-season, went 14 of 34 from long range.
Since 2015, the Cavaliers have gone 29-4 in the post-season against Eastern Conference opponents, including 16-1 at home.
Game 2 is Wednesday in Cleveland then the series shifts to Toronto for Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 on Sunday.
Tuesday will be adjustment day for Casey and his staff, as they look for better ways to contain James and the Cavs.
Quicken Loans Arena was awash in yellow “Defend the Land” T-shirts. Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar and Browns cornerback Joe Haden were among the fans. Old school hip hop artist Montell Jordan sang his 1995 hit “This is How We Do It” at halftime. Photos of Justin Bieber and Nickelback flashed on the Jumbotron during Raptors free throws.
The hostile environment was nothing new for Toronto after its three games in front of an even louder, earsplitting crowd in Milwaukee.
The Cavs clobbered Toronto 115-85 in last year’s Game 1, but the Raptors had just one day to prepare after their seven-game series with Miami, and Casey talked about how they’d been “ambushed” in that game.
The Raptors still didn’t come out with the physicality they needed against a rested Cavaliers team, which raced out to a 12-point lead, and roared into the second quarter up 30-18.
Trailing by 18 points early in the second, the Raptors replied with a 19-3 run capped by a three-point play from Lowry that pulled Toronto to within two points. But then the Raptors went cold, going 3-of-12 to end the half. The Cavs regained momentum, finishing with a 21-9 run to take a 62-48 lead into the halftime break.
The Raptors pulled to within seven points in the third, but the Cavs replied once again, and a cutting layup by Thompson had Cleveland back up by 25 with 38 seconds left in the third.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press