TORONTO – It was an innocent question.
“What,” DeMar DeRozan was asked before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, “impact would playing at home have?”
DeRozan answered with a question, which said everything:
“Have you been here before?”
Exactly. The Toronto Raptors are likely not going to the NBA Finals. It’s not even clear how long their first visit to the Eastern Conference Finals will last, although they have already made a greater dent in the Cleveland Cavaliers than anyone else has this post-season. They have avoided being swept, which itself is a Bismack Biyombo finger wag – more on that later – in the face of much of the NBA establishment.
But among the franchise’s accomplishments in this landmark season was establishing their home court as one of the most respected, if not feared, environments for opposing teams in the NBA.
“It’s a great environment, it’s one of the best we have in our league,” said LeBron James before the ball went up for Game 3 and 20,000 Raptors fans let their inner dog out. Before James was vilified for his oh-so-blatant flop in the little skirmish that broke out before the end of the first half.
The crowd was hooting and hollering. They were angry. They were loud. James went down as if shot when hit by his teammate Tristan Thompson’s errant elbow and the Cavs star tried to sell it like he was hit by the Raptors’ DeMarre Carroll.
"I’m not trying to sell a call," James said, shocked that someone would suggest such a thing, even though the same mountain man who carried DeRozan on his back for a three-point play looked like he’d been tasered when hit in his mouth, with no evidence of even a fat lip. "I got hit with an elbow. I didn’t know from my own teammate. I thought it was DeMarre [Carroll], but I watched the replay, it was from my teammate. So no – sell a call for what? There was no call there to be sold."
Well, except if he thought it was coming from Carroll, but now we’re cross-examining.
The real takeaway is that at the moment the basketball game was about to turn into some kind of wrestling match with James as the heel, the crowd was on point, missing nothing. They didn’t show the play on the big screen above the court, wisely perhaps as there was a riot-like feel to the crowd. It was great.
How do you quantify the value of home court? Well, how much was the Raptors’ surprising 99-84 win in Game 3 – the first time the franchise has hosted a conference finals game – worth?
How much is two more days of hope and staving off the embarrassment of a sweep?
There’s no math equation, but this post-season the Raptors are 3-0 in elimination games – two Game 7s and Saturday night, which wasn’t officially one but was in the practical sense. The Raptors are still underdogs against the Cavaliers, but if Cleveland went up 3-0 the series was over.
"We get nights like this often now, and it’s fun," said Kyle Lowry, who shook off some early foul trouble to finish with 20 points, including 4-of-8 triples after he started the series 1-of-15. "We need it. We want it. I don’t know if the fans know how much we appreciate it, but we really do appreciate it, and we want them to be as loud as they possibly can. I think it affects other teams, and it gives us just that energy. We know we make a big run or we make a big shot or Biz gets a block and he goes and does his little thing, they love it. We feed off that positive energy."
Yeah, there’s no doubt. The Raptors had lost the opening two games of the series by 31 and 19 points – no team in NBA history opened a conference final losing both games by such massive margins. The Cavaliers were 10-0 so far in the playoffs and scoring with an efficiency that surpasses what the Golden State Warriors were doing during their 24-0 streak to start the season.
Clearly all the Raptors needed was the kind of adrenalin shot that home crowds at the Air Canada Centre are gaining a reputation for providing in amounts not seen since John Travolta was playing doctor in Pulp Fiction.
They got it. The Raptors’ win may have come out of nowhere but it started at home with the energy of a crowd that can change games and maybe even series.
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No one gets the crowd more electrified than Bismack Biyombo who wins every wrestling match, wins races to loose balls and is good for a few simply jaw-dropping blocked shots each game. The Raptors’ home-court energizer set a franchise record with 26 rebounds and that might have been the least memorable accomplishment of his remarkable night. There were blocks and there were finger wags and hard fouls, all part of what was essentially a 39-minute hustle play by the free agent-to-be.
"It was amazing, honestly, it was amazing, man," said DeRozan. "Twenty-six rebounds. Protecting the rim. He was big time tonight. Without him tonight, we probably wouldn’t get this win."
It was fitting Biyombo sealed what will go down as the most unlikely and purely fun win in Raptors playoff history with a personal 6-0 scoring run late in the fourth quarter – remarkable in part because he had just one point when he went on his little tear. Until then it had been DeRozan carrying the Raptors – he scored 31 of his 32 points in the first three quarters and then found Biyombo for two of his four assists down the stretch.
And then for those who like a little symbolism, his heavy foul on James with 3:21 left that sent ‘The King’ to the wood on a lay-up was thick with it. For one night at least, James had been toppled.
The crowd loved it. The King? Not so much. He popped up as if to advance on Biyombo, though not with much enthusiasm.
"You know, obviously teams and a lot of players are kind of taking [advantage] a little bit," said James, who finished with 24 points on 17 shots, with the Raptors making an effort to turn him into a jump shooter after he dominated them at the rim through the first two games. "At the end of the day, I’m important to this team. I can’t afford to react in any kind of way that will get me thrown out of a game, but I will protect myself. I will protect myself."
Are the Raptors in the Cavs’ brain yet? Maybe, maybe not, but if the seed with regard to their seeming invincibility hasn’t taken root yet it has at least been planted, and the ACC crowd helped put it there.
The finish made real what seemed impossible before the game started. Cleveland has been that good in the playoffs, the Raptors were still waiting to play something even close to their best game.
They got it Saturday night as the Raptors locked in defensively, holding the Cavs to just 14 points down the stretch and 35.4 per cent shooting on the night while winning the rebounding battle 54-40.
Biyombo had lots of help on a night when they won three of the four quarters and never gave up the lead after they jumped in front 13-12 with 4:35 gone in the first quarter and was as large as 17 in the first half and was 10 heading into the fourth quarter.
With Lowry playing just 10 minutes in the first half with foul trouble, Cory Joseph, who has struggled in the series (6-of-16 from the field) and at times against Miami (40 per cent from the floor) stepped into a three like he was born for it as he scored nine of his 14 points in the first half; Patrick Patterson banged a three also, while Biyombo seemed to turn away every other Cavs field goal attempt, including a simply spectacular chase-down block on Kyrie Irving, as the Cavs’ leading playoff scorer was held to 13 points on 3-of-19 shooting. They also limited Kevin Love to three points, robbing James of his supporting cast.
It was the first time in the series the Raptors didn’t give up any backbreaking runs; there was no loss of focus. It was a game to be framed.
They played lock-down defence. DeRozan was at his shot-creating best on offence, Lowry survived his foul trouble and they got contributions from all over the lineup in roles big and small. And Biyombo was electric.
Was it perfect? No game is. But the ACC crowd? It was without flaw. Of this there is no doubt. If you’re a Raptor, it’s always good to be home and if you’ve been here, you’d understand.