Why the Toronto Raptors Can’t Escape the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Trap

May 3, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) reacts in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game two of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
May 3, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) reacts in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game two of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Raptors offence has struggled mightily against the Cleveland Cavaliers and it all starts with their inability to break the trap.

One thing I’ve learned while covering the Toronto Raptors is that great teams can make others look bad. Like comically bad; like, five points (on 2-of-11 shooting), three rebounds and three assists, bad. Like, 2-0 in the most dispiriting way bad. Like, why am I even a fan of this team, bad.

The playoffs are a haven for great teams, it’s a place where weakness are picked at and picked at until it tears the team apart. The Cleveland Cavaliers have weaknesses, but they’re relatively easy to cover up. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are liabilities, but that can always be mitigated through cross-matching and teammates compensating. When you look at the other side of the floor the Raptors’ weaknesses are glaring, particularly on offense.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are dynamic scorers in the league and have finally found a way to translate their playing to the postseason (sorta) but how much can individual scoring talent take you? The further you advance into the season the more advanced the defence becomes.

The Cavs decided to put the clamps on the guards by trapping every opportunity. Pick-and-roll, full court, half court, whatever. The trap is coming.

Like any guard led team, the key is to get the ball out of the star player’s hands, it’s too risky for them to go off, and make the others beat you. Cut off the head of the snake and the body will die.

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Both DeRozan and Lowry struggled mightily in the first two games and that’s to be expected when you’re getting trapped every time you cross half court. It’s then up to the ‘others’ to make the plays. I’m not talking about a Rajon Rondo-like double crossover turning into a fake layup, which turns into a behind the back pass to the corner for three type of plays. It’s the simple but correct plays. The catch, pump fake, two dribble into bounce pass plays. Those plays, the plays your Tim Duncan and highschool coach would shed a tear after seeing.

In the regular season that’ just a nice fundamental play for a backdoor two points. In the playoffs, though, it’s a play that destroys a defence. And it’s a play no player other than the guards can perform on the Raptors.

Those simple plays are an absolute necessity when dealing with traps. Becoming the escape valve that your stars need to is partially what makes Draymond Green as astounding as he is today. The ability to catch, take a few dribbles and make a decision contorts the defense into making bad decisions. They have to commit to the ball handler or a pass and without that external threat the Cavs can double the initial ball handler without recompense. Instead of putting the Cavs into panic mode, you get this, a few stilted dribbles and no real progress made towards an open shot.

Nobody has ever accused the Cavaliers of being a good defence, but the trap gives them a way to cover for their deficiencies. There aren’t any good 1-on-1 defenders on the Cavs not named LeBron James on this team so by trapping they take the Raptors prolific 1-on-1 scorers out of the picture. The Raptors aren’t a productive passing team, averaging 18.8 assists per game in the postseason, which ranks them lower than the Thunder. So, sure the ball swings but if it swings to someone who can’t actively do anything with it, your Kyle Korver and Kyrie Irving’s of the world get to live to see another day.

Getting trapped off the pick-and-roll isn’t a new concept to the Raptors. They all saw it in college, they saw it in round one and it was a fatal flaw in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers last year. Coming out of that series it was clear the Raptors needed more shooting to feed off their All-Stars and better defence if they were ever going to challenge the would-be champs — and Masai Ujiri acquired just that. For defence and shooting at the forward spots, Serge Ibaka filled both and P.J. Tucker primarily filled the former.

Toronto Raptors
Apr 27, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) shoots over Milwaukee Bucks guard Jason Terry (3) during the second quarter in game six of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Tucker was acquired for mere Nuka-Cola bottle caps but Ibaka came at the price of Terrence Ross. Say what you will about T-Ross but the man was a bona fide gunner this year, the type that lets it fly with reckless abandon.

He wasn’t necessarily a sniper akin to J.J. Redick or Klay Thompson (T-Ross only shot 36.3 percent from range this year) but he was reputed as a shooter, someone must be stopped beyond the three point line. In that Ibaka trade the Raptors lost the threat of ‘the shooter’.

The Raptors have shooters now, but they aren’t marksman by any stretch of the immagination, Norman Powell, Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, Ibaka and DeMarre Carroll can shoot the three but they don’t strike fear into a man’s heart when the ball leaves their finger tips. They all shoot an average to below average rate except for Powell who is shooting 63.8 percent from deep and CoJo is hitting 47 percent, but they’re only attempting 2.7 and 2.13 attempts respectively. All of the Raptors shooters, don’t shoot as their primary option, it’s an ancillary tool in their arsenal that is put to use more than expected.

Meaning the Cavaliers can adopt a ‘prove it’ mindset.

Patterson is wide open for three? Well he’s only shooting 33 percent from range in the postseason, he’s going to have to prove he can make that shot consistently before the Cavs change up their trap scheme. They aren’t afraid to leave anyone open so they can scrunch down into the paint just a smidgen more to make the floor look that much smaller to the ball handlers. The smaller the floor gets the harder it gets for DeRozan and Lowry to get to the basket, which means smaller point totals, which also means getting torched by double digits each game.

Next: Breaking Down Toronto Raptors’ Game 1 and 2 Losses by the Numbers

You can look at DeRozan and Lowry’s struggles and say they simply need to play better but without the help of their supporting cast, they’re going to get outscored anyways. The offence is a symbiotic relationship and if the others can’t hold up their side of the bargain, by taking heat off their star guys, then the All-Stars are going to find it excruciatingly hard to score. Just ask DeRozan after laying an egg in Game 2.