“Lately I just feel so out of character
The paranoia can start to turn into arrogance
Thoughts too deep to go work ’em out with a therapist
I get a blank page when I try to draw a comparison
I’m getting straight to the point with it”
Drake, Views (Titular Song)
It has been quite the run for Toronto, spearheaded by their global ambassador, Drake, who just so happens to be the most popular musician in the game. Drake swindled his way into hosting the NBA All-Star game in Toronto, and in doing so, brought new life and recognition to a budding city. You can find him court-side at every game in the Six.
Drake’s Raptors are now a tantalizing figure in the 2015-2016 NBA playoffs after most of the league was focused on everyone but them. Head Coach Dwane Casey has said all post-season long, over and over, that his team is not getting their due respect, and he isn’t wrong. The NBA world was fixated on the Western Conference Finals, and for obvious reasons. It was widely debated whom the Cleveland Cavaliers would play in the Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Golden State Warriors. The Cavs were a shoe-in to make it to the Finals.
The basketball world wrote off the Raptors after they were severely out-matched through the first two games of the series. The Raptors were embarrassed, manhandled, and made to look utterly inferior to the top-seeded Cavs; however, as the scene shifted to the Six, a whole different animal came to play in games 3 and 4.
With Drake sitting court-side for the Raptors first Eastern Conference Finals home game, the team did a complete 360. All-Star backcourt mates, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, found their regular season groove that we haven’t seen from them since the Playoffs began. The duo showcased why they were All-Stars, dominating the game and their individual match-ups en route to tying up a series that many thought would go chalk.
While it’s hard to play in on their home turf, the Raptors gave us no reason to think they stood a chance against Cleveland in the series. Yes, the Cavs have LeBron James, Uncle Drew, and Kevin Love, but even the best of players in the league are due for off games. When two of the Big 3 did not show up for game 3, the Raptors inched closer to a tied series. LeBron did LeBron things, orchestrating the Cavs’ offense, imposing his sheer will, and reminding the NBA that he is the best player in the world by abusing everyone in the post; his running mates, however, did not show up to play. Kyrie and Love put in their worst games of the playoffs at the same time: multiply their poor play, with the stellar re-emergence of the Raptors backcourt, and you have a whole new series. In a series that should’ve been an easy 5 game-out, this series looks to have turned into a dog fight for the Cavs.
There are a few glaring difference between this match-up and the ones that the Cavs waltzed through in the first two rounds. Aside from the obvious talent difference, the Raptors have particular players who can cause problems for the Cavs. As great as Kyrie is offensively, he isn’t exactly a player you would consider to be a great defender. Kyrie has struggled against Kyle Lowry in the past, a fact that got quietly swept under the rug. While Lowry has difficulties guarding Kyrie as well, Lowry, on the other hand, has been scoring and dishing when it matters most.
The most glaring issue with the Cavs’ playoff run has been the fools-gold they are selling the world through their shooting percentages. In the first two series of the playoffs, one might think the Cavs were the best three-point-shooting team in the history of the NBA. They were setting team records left and right, routinely making 20 threes a game as they blew the doors off any opponent in their way:
It seems they have been seduced by the long-distance shot: in the two losses they registered, Cleveland took 41 threes in each. In their two losses, the Cavs took more three-point attempts than two point attempts, which is hardly a winning recipe when you’re built around one of the best finishers at the basket in NBA history. The Cavaliers were reminded why the Raptors were the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto buckled down on defense and ran their half-court offensive sets smoothly to find high percentage shots.
Cavs’ Head Coach Tyronn Lue looked like a rookie head coach who was in way over his head throughout the 2 losses. He simply rode the back of LeBron James, playing him 46 minutes, including the entire second half. LeBron James was exhausted just as Cleveland mounted a comeback after being down by 18 points. The Cavs came out to start the fourth blazing, scoring on 11 straight shots to gain the lead. The ball was moving as they literally ran the same play over and over again against the Raptors.
As the game got tight, Lue did not seem to know what he was doing, and LeBron did not help the matter. Toronto switched Kyle Lowry onto James during some late possessions, and shockingly, he passed the ball away each time despite being guarded by a much smaller player. James didn’t score a point in the last five minutes of the game.
The Cavs are still the favorites to advance to the Finals, but they are playing with fire by giving their opponent confidence late in the series. Neither team has lost on their home floor this series as the Cavs head home for the next matchup. The Cavs need to capitalize on their strengths and stop relying on barrages of three point shots from streaky shooters. We have yet to see LeBron have one of his classic dominant performances to will his team to victory, but both teams know that LeBron’s game will arrive in timely fashion if such a performance is due.
The Cavs will need to manage the rebound battle better, especially if injured big man Jonas Valanciunas comes back into the fray for a pivotal Game 5. If the Cavs cannot contain their dribbling, or find answers for Lowry and DeRozan, they will find themselves in a close game – and a closer series than they bargained for.