Cavaliers rebound to show Raptors they’re NBA title contenders

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are one win away from the NBA Finals after Kevin Love’s resurgent Game 5 performance against the Toronto Raptors.
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What a terror it is to have the Cavaliers’ full, undivided attention. Cleveland’s two-game swoon in Toronto bore the classic markers of an unfocused series favorite, down to its occasionally careless offense and distressingly inattentive defense. The Cavs had allowed themselves to slip; whether chalked up to dragging on the road, responding sluggishly to Raptor runs, or playing into Dwane Casey’s adjustments. The broader story of Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals would not be complete without mention of Cleveland’s lapsed attention to detail. The Raptors made themselves a presence in this series in part due to their collective will and in part because the Cavs allowed it.

That trend changed in Game 5, as Cleveland went about systematically addressing its most stark shortcomings from its time on the road. Within minutes it became clear the more resolute Cavs had returned. A tone was set within minutes, along with a conference finals record margin (31 points) by halftime. The first 24 minutes were so dominant as to make the final 24 a formality, but Cleveland ran up a 35-point third quarter for good measure en route to an eventual 116–78 victory on Wednesday and a 3–2 series lead. There was no adversity to be found.

Whatever rhythm Toronto had found offensively was muted by Cleveland’s pressure. Traps deployed against Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan led to reckless passes into pressure. Subsequent trips down the floor were stalled in their initiation, and before long the Raptors were so tightly wound they turned the ball over more or less unprompted. A normally careful offense committed 18 turnovers in the first three quarters alone, the sum of which returned 30 Cleveland points. Some of the pressure was honestly as simple as the Cavaliers committing to the traps, the close-outs and the whole of their defensive process. Some crucial defensive steps may have been skipped in the previous two games, but the refocused Cavs seemed to take nothing for granted.

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That includes Kevin Love, who became a focal point for the Cavs’ early offense rather than a kick-out afterthought. Posting Love against Luis Scola leveraged an easy advantage and out of which came others. Cleveland layered its top scoring threats effectively to tug at the defense from various directions, none of which allowed it to settle. Love found a groove in the space provided; 12 of his 25 points came in the opening frame, and he would miss just two of his 10 attempts from the field in 24 minutes of action. Love’s home vs. road splits have been especially exaggerated these playoffs for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Sometimes the nature of Love’s usage is purposefully different, as was the case in Cleveland. Otherwise, a significant portion of his performance hinges on whether the same kinds of relatively open shots—many of which are three-pointers—fall. 

Cleveland weaned itself off of that kind of variance in Game 5 by attempting just 21 three-pointers, its second-lowest total of the postseason. Five of those, too, came after the starters had checked out for good. This seemed a pointed shift from the 41 threes the Cavs attempted in each of their losses in Toronto. There isn’t anything intrinsically damaging about taking threes in that volume, though Cleveland apparently thought it healthier to work the ball back inside for interior passes, foul-drawing opportunities and more fully developed offensive possessions. That basic formula (executed by way of LeBron James’s playmaking) balanced the offense beautifully, pacing the Cavs at a dazzling 140.4 points per 100 possessions through the first half.

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Toronto didn’t have a chance to keep up. Not while Lowry and DeRozan struggled to read the floor, the Cavs followed the ball diligently and only one of the Raptors’ many first-half misses was recovered for an offensive rebound. Two straight wins in these conference finals bought the Raps a measure of pride and legitimacy. It also earned them a harrowing look at the best the Cavs had to offer, thereby reinforcing the divide between a championship contender and its merely solid opponent.