By LeBron James of the Cavs loses the handle under pressure from Raptors DeMarre Carroll and Bismack Biyombo in Game 4 at the ACC.
Taming the Cavaliers’ ‘monster’ takes some doing, but DeRozan, Lowry and the Raptors answered the bell in Game 4 to tie Eastern final.
At some point — maybe the second quarter, maybe the third, maybe earlier, maybe late — Toronto Raptors fans allowed themselves to hope. Everyone and their uncle figured the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to blast back, restore order, but it was the Raptors who were flying, the Raptors who pushed the lead as high as 18. At some point, the Raptors allowed their fans to hope, really hope, they wouldn’t let them down.
Somehow, they didn’t. With 6:08 left Cleveland had erased the lead and led by three, and LeBron James was coming like a monster, and it looked like a collapse. But in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final, in front of the oceanic thunder of one hell of a crowd, the Raptors were the more poised, precise, desperate team down the stretch, and won 105-99. The series is tied 2-2, and the Cavaliers don’t look nearly as inevitable as they once did.
“It’s one game,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s one game in a seven-game series. We’re in it. Someone said we were in it just to win one game. I disagree.
“Nobody thought we were going to be here. Nobody gave us a snowball’s hope in you-know-where to beat Cleveland.”
“They executed every time we made a mistake,” said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue.
The game was worthy of the stage, and the Raptors were, too. A year ago Toronto was swept by the Washington Wizards, and now they were trading shots with LeBron and the Cavaliers in the biggest quarter in franchise history, that’s all. The 18-point lead was gone. LeBron sat for two minutes in the second quarter, and never again. He played a one-man monster press on defence, and was a bigger monster on offence. Cleveland made its first 11 shots of the quarter: six scored or assisted by LeBron. He got Richard Jefferson dunks, and Richard Jefferson is 35.
And still, the Raptors didn’t fold. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both lived up to the moment. The Raptors scored nine of the last 12 points of the game, as Lowry and DeRozan scored seven of them. The entire team dug in defensively. The series is tied.
Lowry finished with 35 points on 20 shots, DeRozan with 32 on 23 while often being guarded by LeBron. They were both saying, back in the Miami series, that this team would be scary if they both got going at once. They both mentioned the NBA final as the place they could go.
Well, in the biggest game in franchise history the Raptors, for one of the only times ever, lived up to what you wanted them to be. I asked Lowry when he allowed himself to believe that this is possible. “I believe every day,” said Lowry. “I believe every time I work out in the summertime. I never don’t believe.”
“We’ve been counted out, and we like that challenge,” said DeRozan.
Here’s what these two games showed: Cleveland is mortal, and Cleveland can be beaten. Kevin Love tweaked his knee stepping on a referee’s foot and is a mess right now. At times, all of Cleveland’s bad habits were there: Kyrie Irving taking contested jumpers, J.R. Smith taking contested jumpers, LeBron taking jumpers at all. Per basketball-reference dot com, LeBron shot .361 from three to 10 feet this season, .348 from 10 to 16, .404 from 16 to the three-point line, and .309 beyond that. The Raptors wanted LeBron to play weightless basketball, alone.
For a while, he did. On some shots they left LeBron wide open, and didn’t bother running with the scrambling ferocity they had displayed all half. He missed. LeBron finished with 29 points on 16 shots, and six assists, but he didn’t deliver at the end. Lowry and DeRozan did. The Raptors believe they can beat this team. Jonas Valanciunas and his sprained ankle were active for the Raptors, but he just sat and watched one hell of a show.
“When they punch, we punch back, and if they punch three times, we punch four times,” said Lowry. “We got to continue to understand that they’re not going to lay down . . . we ain’t laying down either.”
There are cracks to the Cavaliers, and the Raptors are finding them. Cleveland shot .362 on threes in the regular season, good for seventh in the league, but came into this game blazing away at a .435 pace in the playoffs. Every shot was easy, every shot was something you could just step into, no worries. Well, they were 14 for 41 in Game 3, and 13 for 41 in Game 4. Toronto has identified Cleveland’s weakest defenders — they are attacking Smith with a vengeance — and the fact that they don’t have anyone to protect the rim. Seven of Toronto’s 10 fourth-quarter field goals came in the paint.
They said that in the Leafs dressing room, where Cleveland’s owner and his entourage were gathered, someone threw something messy at the wall. Suddenly, for Cleveland, it doesn’t look so easy.
“We can’t dig ourselves such a big hole,” said LeBron. “We’ve got to be more well-balanced.” Suddenly, for Cleveland, it doesn’t look so easy.
The Raptors believe. When Toronto got here after the slogs through Indiana and Miami, nobody gave them a chance. They were laughingstocks after the first two games, fodder.
Well, pack that away. LeBron James has reached five straight NBA finals, and he is the King. He is still two wins from the final this year, sure.
The Raptors are, too.