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For an eight-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers needed only to run a single play. Its mechanics weren’t terribly complicated—an off-ball screen segued into a dribble handoff is standard NBA fare—yet it bore makes for Cleveland on 11 consecutive possessions. LeBron James orchestrated scores from the high post, Channing Frye flicked in three-pointers before the defense could find him and Richard Jefferson worked the seams. The final damage: 27 points scored without a single miss or turnover, a ridiculous run even for one of the league’s top offenses.
All the while, Toronto held firm. The Raptors came up short of Cleveland’s perfect pace during that stretch by a mere three misses; rare are those cases when going 8 for 11 from the field isn’t quite good enough, though the ridiculous execution of the Cavs (and the somewhat mindless defense of the Raptors) rendered it so. Game 4 threatened to tilt with every one of Cleveland’s haymakers. Within moments of each, however, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry or Cory Joseph would emerge from a group of defenders to knock in some challenging, off-balance shot. The Raptors survived, and for the second straight game Toronto’s offense crackled with the kind of defiance emblematic of its franchise-best regular season.
That renaissance is rooted in the play of Lowry and DeRozan. Toronto’s stars have played better basketball at home virtually throughout the playoffs, but the contrast in their play has been especially stark in this series. In Games 1 and 2, Lowry and DeRozan combined to shoot 25 for 63 (39.7%) from the field—an untenable number for a team’s two highest-usage players. Once back at the Air Canada Centre, those same scorers converted 47 of 80 (58.8%) combined attempts. Neither has allowed his game to be mired in the misses; the thick narratives of Toronto’s playoff run have largely given way to a more typical range of inconsistency.
It can be tempting to evaluate each progressive game of a playoff series as a discrete development. That seems especially dangerous in the case of a team like the Raptors, who have oscillated so wildly between individual games. Toronto has learned how to better defend against Cleveland through the first four installments of this series, without question. DeRozan has found a world of opportunity in attacking J.R. Smith. Lowry, if nothing else, appears to have settled into a confident rhythm. Yet all involved should expect the pendulum to swing certain factors in what has quickly become a competitive series. Every basketball game is party to certain random elements. Cleveland, by virtue of its talent and construction, is better equipped to rectify that chaos on a game-to-game basis. That it couldn’t on Monday night changes nothing regarding the overall station of these two teams.
Toronto has to contend with that, along with the proposition of eventually winning a game on the road. To their credit, the Raptors’ more balanced defense and less frantic closeouts have brought about some clear discomfort in the Cavs’ offense. If not for Kyrie Irving connecting on a number of daunting shots in the third quarter, this game could have ended in a blowout. Cleveland will regroup. We won’t see the Cavs miss 28 shots from beyond the arc in Game 5, in part because they won’t likely attempt 41 from that range. Elements of the offense will evolve—this is the luxury of a team that can move James and Irving around the floor with shooters stationed at every other spot. Even a few more makes on Cleveland’s open looks would dial up the pressure on Toronto’s stars to compensate.
It remains to be seen how much more Lowry and DeRozan can offer beyond their dazzling showing in Game 4. Those two were everything the Raptors needed them to be on Monday night, including mainstays through exhausting, extended minutes. Lowry logged 44 minutes, DeRozan 40, and the increasingly important Bismack Biyombo played 42. Fatigue or foul trouble could cost any of those three a few precious minutes at any time, even if they’re otherwise playing their best basketball. Toronto would have little recourse in that case; there are only so many ways for the Raptors to construct balanced lineups, particularly if Lowry or DeRozan’s shooting wavers for any significant stretch. It didn’t in Game 4 and all went well. Game 5 takes the series back to Cleveland, the setting of Toronto’s considerable struggles earlier in this series. The dynamics at play in this series are more complex than a home-or-away split, but hitting the road shifts one more element out of Toronto’s favor.
We’ll soon see the Raptors’ resurgent offense tested under those circumstances, along with its leading practitioners. There’s some truth in Toronto’s upward trend line. Whether it’s enough to scare the Cavs—and threaten the balance of the series—is another matter entirely, subject to an intimidating order of magnitude.