Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers were playing some of their best basketball of the season against the Toronto Raptors in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, but the tide shifted *temporarily* when the series went back to Toronto. No such shift occurred tonight, as the Cavs handled the Raptors 115-94 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.
The Raptors were without All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry tonight, as he injured his ankle in Game 2 after Cory Joseph was incidentally pushed by Tristan Thompson into him early in the third quarter, and while he came back into that game momentarily, the team decided in warm-ups that he would not be fully ready to play tonight (though he was active and available if necessary). Joseph replaced Lowry in the starting lineup, and after a strong offensive showing in Game 2, Jonas Valanciunas was re-inserted into the starting lineup.
The Cavs offense started strong in the opening minutes, led by Kevin Love’s 10 first quarter points. The Raptors adjusted their defensive strategy and were much more effective from the outset, and the increase in effort and aggressiveness on both ends was a stark contrast from what we saw from them in Cleveland. The Cavs only attempted 3 three pointers in the first quarter (an oddity for this team), but they shot an efficient 52.6 percent from the field in the first quarter while dominating the boards and shooting well from the free throw line.
The Cavs started the second quarter strong as well, but again became lackadaisical and allowed the Raptors to keep the game close. The Cavs have a bad habit of playing down to their competition, and with Lowry not playing in this game, it appears that was the case again tonight. Despite going 0-9 from three in the first half, the Raptors played very well in the second quarter and capitalized on the Cavs’ inactivity to take the lead at halftime, 52-49.
After a disastrous start to this series, DeMar DeRozan had a great first half of basketball, scoring 21 points on 7-12 shooting in the first half to lead the game in scoring. On the Cavs side, Kyrie was still struggling to find his shot, scoring 10 points in the first half but needed 13 shots to get there. After going 9-16 (56.25 percent) from two point range in the first quarter, the Cavs only went 3-14 (21.4 percent) from that range in the second quarter. On the other hand, the Raptors shot 50 percent in the first half in total, but what stands out is that they shot 22-35 (62.8 percent) from two point range.
DeRozan came out of the locker room like he was shot out of a cannon and continued to carry the load for the Raptors, scoring 15 points in the third quarter. I think it’s safe to say DeRozan more than made up for this lackluster start to this series in this game. The game became a back-and-forth affair in the third quarter, as it was about a one score game throughout the third quarter. Kyle Korver ended the quarter with back-to-back threes to give the Cavs a 79-77 lead after three quarters.
DeRozan started the fourth quarter on the bench, and the Cavs took advantage by going on a quick 8-2 run to take their largest lead of the game to that point (8 points). The Cavs really came out strong in the fourth quarter with a revamped bench lineup, featuring Tristan Thompson instead of Channing Frye. Ty Lue used this lineup briefly in Game 1 when that lineup wasn’t knocking down shots and the defense wasn’t good enough to make up for the lack of offense. The lead continued to stretch, as the Cavs locked down the Raptors on defense and the lead continued to grow, slowly ballooning from a 2 point lead to a game-high 23 point lead as the quarter progressed and quickly put the game out of reach for the Raptors.
LeBron had yet another dominant performance, scoring 35 points on 16 shots (as well as 15-16 from the FT line!) and also chipped in 8 rebounds and 7 assists. Kyle Korver found his stroke in this one, scoring 14 points on 5-7 shooting and 4-6 from three to lead the Cavs’ bench in scoring. Iman Shumpert again had a strong impact on this game without contributing a lot statistically, touting a game-high plus/minus of+29 in 25 minutes off the bench. Kevin Love had 16 points on 9 shots to go with 13 rebounds in 32 minutes and looked as good offensively as he has this postseason. Kyrie is still attempting to find his shot, scoring 16 points on 21 shots and struggling to find his rhythm, but it ultimately had no bearing on the final result.
The Cavs outscored the Raptors in the second half 66-42 and more than made up for their slow start. The Cavs also dominated the boards in this game, outrebounding the Raptors 49-25.
After going down 2-0 in last season’s ECF, the Raptors brought in Bismack Biyombo (who hadn’t played much throughout the entire season) as a last-ditch effort to try and make that series competitive, and it worked out better than they ever could have hoped. His stifling interior defensive presence, along with the frenetic energy of the home crowd, spurred the Raptors on to two straight victories to even that series at two games apiece.
Now back to this season. Bismack Biyombo wasn’t there to turn to when they needed him most, and the Raptors had no one waiting in the wings to fill his shoes. After getting shellacked in Game 1, the Raptors replaced Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll in the starting lineup with Patrick Patterson and Norman Powell, respectively, but the result was the same. With no Energizer Bunny and no surprise cameos waiting in the shadows to jumpstart the Raptors this time around, the Cavs took advantage of the Lowry-less Raptors late and now stand on the brink of a third straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
The Cavs will look to complete the sweep over the Raptors on Sunday at 3:30 ET (ABC) at Air Canada Centre.