Cleveland Cavaliers, Collin Sexton take big step in responding to Raptors’ challenge, show they won’t back down to anyone

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — Collin Sexton is a marked man.

The top name on the scouting report for anyone who plays the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sexton always draws the toughest defender. Jimmy Butler. Marcus Smart. Jaylen Brown. Dejounte Murray. Norman Powell. Fred VanVleet. That’s just a sampling over the last week.

Opponents have also been sending multiple defenders at Sexton recently, springing traps to get the ball out of his hands, believing he doesn’t have the vision or passing acumen to make the proper play. They’ve hounded him on each touch, often picking him up in the backcourt, testing his handle and decision-making. Sometimes the strategy involves size and physicality. Other times it’s about speed, quickness, and lateral agility.

Sexton is the Cavaliers’ backbone. Beating them starts there. Everyone recognizes it now.

In the closing seconds of the first half Sunday night, Sexton was in Toronto’s crosshairs. Only this time it had nothing to do with a specific defensive scheme.

After slapping an inbounds pass in front of the Toronto bench and watching Chris Boucher brick a last-second jumper, Sexton exchanged words with VanVleet. Neither player backed down. Then came angry Powell, who bumped Sexton, got in his face, and started barking. Pascal Siakam and Boucher also came over. Four Raptors surrounded Sexton before Jarrett Allen, Isaac Okoro and others saw the scuffle and intervened.

“It’s competition,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said following the Cavs’ 116-105 win over the slumping Raptors. “Norman Powell’s a great competitor, Collin’s a great competitor, so they just got into it, words were exchanged and we moved on.”

“Emotions are high,” Dean Wade said. “Some contact here and there. People didn’t like it. Is what it is.”

“Just basketball,” Sexton explained. “I think it was at half court and Norman Powell tried to set a screen or whatnot. I got over. They was jawing earlier when I was at the free throw line, said some stuff back. I don’t back down.”

According to a source, Powell and VanVleet took offense to some of Sexton’s choice words while Sexton was peeved at what he believed was a dirty, illegal screen from Powell that involved an extended elbow — a motion Sexton kept making as he walked away from the fracas and toward the locker room. Powell even re-enacted the play with Larry Nance Jr. on the court a few minutes before the third quarter started, trying to show that it was a typical pick intended to free up his teammate for a buzzer-beater.

Those details aren’t all that important. The Cavs’ response was.

The NBA’s laughingstock since LeBron James left in 2018. On their fourth coach during this rebuild. Excluded from the Disney bubble last August. A roster that opposing executives delight in lambasting. Picked to have the second-lowest win total. Often on the other side of on-court barbs or joyful celebrations. Belittled because of their playoff aspirations, which many consider delusional. The easy win on the schedule. The Cavs are done being pushed around. Sunday night was their stand.

The Raptors took aim at their best player — the up-and-coming guard who received All-Star consideration and has become the face of Cleveland’s potential turnaround.

The Cavs didn’t retreat. They backed up Sexton. Literally and figuratively. They came out swinging in the third quarter, showing they weren’t going to be bullied. It’s one thing to say it. But actions always speak louder. The scoreboard gave them the last word Sunday.

“It could have went either way. They could have came out and punched us. We could have came out and punched them,” Allen said, using the figurative phrase that has become Bickerstaff’s go-to throughout the season. “We didn’t back down for a second. (Sexton) didn’t back down for a second especially. We were the aggressors in the second half.

“You guys know Collin. You see him on the court. He’s always locked in. But saw a different fire in his eyes. A different fire to go at Norman Powell, to go at VanVleet, to go at all of them. Just prove that he’s not one to be messed with.”

Bickerstaff issued a challenge to his team in the locker room. He warned them that the battle-tested Raptors — No. 2 in the Eastern Conference last year and NBA champions the season before — were going to bring it in the first few minutes of the second half. They needed to be ready. The third quarter has been a season-long issue for the Cavs. But if there was any night to turn that around, to not open the quarter with lethargy, it was Sunday, in the face of Toronto’s test.

“When you have those incidents, you have to be prepared to back it up,” Bickerstaff said. “I thought that was impressive to me, how we responded in the third quarter. Collin’s play in the third quarter was huge, but he can’t do it by himself, he’s got to have his team’s support. I thought all those guys rallied around him and then he led the way.”

The third quarter began with stingy defense — Allen forcing Siakam into a contested fadeaway. Then came a Darius Garland 3-pointer followed by Nance blocking a layup attempt. The Cavs were just getting started. They scored the first 12 points, punctuating that early surge with Sexton’s triple in Kyle Lowry’s face. Sexton pumped his fist and celebrated briefly before crouching in his defensive stance.

“Coach J.B. came and was like, ‘Alright, you woke them up, now what are you going to do?’ As a team we responded pretty well and we just continue to fight,” Sexton said. “We knew they are a playoff team and we know what they’re capable of, especially when one of the players is high intensity right then. So we knew they was gonna come out and try to be physical and just pretty much try to punk guys.”

Sexton — and the Cavs — didn’t allow it. He scored seven of the team’s 12 points in the first three minutes, erupting for 14 total in third quarter. Cleveland let its play do the talking, outscoring the Raptors 32-18 during those decisive 12 minutes.

“We knew that Collin, he was motivated, to say the least,” Dean Wade said after scoring 16 points off the bench. “He came out and he was attacking from the start. I think it helped us more than it helped them, just the way he came out. We were shooting the ball well, we were flying around on defense. We came out and we were hitting on all cylinders, it was great.

“There’s always that aggression in Collin’s eyes. Always. Every time he steps on the floor he’s got that chip on his shoulder. He’s 100 miles an hour, he’s going to attack every possession. That makes him so great, he’s doing whatever he can to help the team. I think he came out with an even bigger chip on his shoulder. But he didn’t take it too far where he was being too aggressive and making mistakes. It was awesome.”

Sexton, who can be an irritant because of his relentless style and won’t-back-down attitude, scored 23 of his game-high 36 points in the second half. There’s a reason they call him “Bull.”

While Sexton was at the center of Sunday’s dustup, the win over the Raptors wasn’t just about him. It was about the collective, the team coming together in the face of adversity and responding to a verbal challenge. From the Raptors. From Bickerstaff.

This season is about growth. It’s a group learning how to become a team. It’s a core of youngsters developing meaningful habits and figuring out how to win after back-to-back lottery trips. There are steps every rebuilding team must take. No shortcuts. Occasional stumbles. It’s all part of the process.

Even though Toronto is crumbling, having now lost eight consecutive games, plummeting near the bottom of the conference, it’s still a talented team with champions and All-Stars, picked by many prognosticators to make another playoff appearance. The Raptors kept coming Sunday night. They cranked up the pressure late, forced 27 turnovers and closed to within five points on VanVleet’s deep 3-pointer with around a minute remaining. They put a scare in the crowd. Made the Cavs execute until the end. Cleveland’s answer was notable. Another positive step forward.

“I think what it says about us is we’re a good team,” Wade said. “Sometimes we don’t put it all together and we make a few too many mistakes here and there. But overall, when we play like we’re supposed to — play together and just having fun — I mean, we’re a good team. I think tonight showed that.”

Allen echoed those sentiments.

“If you just take basketball out of the situation, I think it was a step for maturity,” Allen said. “It was a step that we were going to hold our ground and go out there and play basketball and show toughness. A step for us growing as people and players.”

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