CLEVELAND, Ohio — The odds of the Cleveland Cavaliers beating the Toronto Raptors are really low — even on a night All-Star Kyle Lowry sat out because of an achy back.
Sometimes it’s up to the head coach to try to increase that chance. That’s what Larry Drew attempted to do in Saturday’s 106-95 loss.
Given the Cavs’ situation — an overall lack of talent, depth and far too many injuries — the expectations need to be lowered, especially against the team with the league’s best record. For the rebuilding Cavs, staying competitive against retooled Toronto is about the best outcome.
But Drew wanted more. Forget the moral victory this time.
Cleveland trimmed a one-time 21-point Raptors lead to seven with less than four minutes remaining with a mashed-together lineup that found success and he wanted to give that group a chance to finish.
So Drew tossed player development to the side for one night and rode that group the rest of the way. It wasn’t enough. But it was telling.
That decision meant putting prized rookie Collin Sexton on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. In the first three quarters, Sexton had scored 10 points on 5-of-12 from the field. But Sexton also committed three turnovers, as Toronto’s length and athleticism kept bothering him — just the same as Boston one night earlier.
It meant giving extended playing time to newbie Alec Burks, who scored 13 points in the second half.
Even playing Tristan Thompson 40 minutes, as Drew couldn’t afford to take him off the floor. Thompson scored 18 points to go with 19 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. With Thompson on the floor, the Cavs outscored the Raptors by a two, one of two players on the right side of the point differential Saturday night.
For much of the fourth quarter, Drew went with Jordan Clarkson, Burks, Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman and Thompson.
“With (Burks) in the game he gives us another ball handler,” Drew said. “He gives us speed in the open court. He gives some size. We’re able to do some things with him out on the floor, particularly when he’s out there with Cedi and Rodney, which I really like that combination. He plays a lot with JC. It’s really starting to look like they’re learning to play off of one another, which I was hoping would happen.
“Alec, he’s a willing passer. There’s calls for having the ball in his hands, if he looks to break the defense down, he’s a good passer. He makes the right play and that really helps JC out a lot. Helps all of our guys out a lot that we can put the ball in their hands and we can make a play.”
The last time the Raptors visited Quicken Loans Arena, they were heading back across the border staring at an uncertain future. That loss, which led to a sweep in the conference semifinals, forced the Raptors to reassess their future, ultimately opting for a head coaching change and a franchise-altering trade for Kawhi Leonard.
Following this most recent defeat, it was Cleveland’s turn to ponder what’s next.
Four straight losses have wiped away those good vibes felt just one week ago after a pair of impressive wins against the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets. Drew has more lineup calls to make while trying to implement one new player (Burks) and guys who will be coming back from injury soon. He will have to walk the line of trying to win and develop the youngsters. The front office has to figure out the best approach when it comes to trades.
Those are all questions facing the Cavs as the calendar has flipped to December. In the meantime, Cleveland needs to find short-term answers to boost its fading offense.
On Saturday night, the Cavs failed to reach the 100-point mark for the fourth consecutive game.
“You’re going to have your ups and downs and you’re going to have times where you play well and you’re going to have times where you play bad,” George Hill said. “We’re a young team, we’re still learning and it’s not like we’re going to wake up tomorrow and be a great, great team. That’s something that we have to build to, so we’re going through those moments right now but if we have to continue to try and learn from it.”
Against Toronto, Cleveland didn’t hit its first 3-pointer until early in the third quarter. The Cavs went just 5-of-22 from beyond the arc, as they remain a two-point team in an era dominated by 3s.
Against the switch-heavy Raptors, the Cavs got trapped in isolation frequently. It led to a 38.6 percent shooting night. They had just 14 assists on 34 made shots. The team ball at the center of a promising three-game stretch has vanished.
Meanwhile, the player added to shape Toronto’s future did his job. Leonard tallied a game-high 34 points and rebuffed Cleveland’s late run.
That’s why the Raptors will likely be playing into late May and the best the Cavs can typically hope for against this caliber of opponent is to fight until the buzzer.
George Hill quiet in return
Hill returned from a sprained shoulder after missing the previous 11 games. On a minutes restriction, Hill played just 19 minutes, getting the start alongside rookie Collin Sexton.
Hill scored eight points on 3-of-5 from the field.
The Cavs will travel to Brooklyn for a matchup against the struggling Nets who have lost six straight games. Tipoff is 7:30 p.m. on Monday night.