TORONTO – On a LeBron James layup with 8:20 left in the fourth quarter, the Cleveland Cavaliers finally made it all the way back from an 18-point deficit to take their first lead of the night, 84-83, over the Toronto Raptors. They were in the midst of 14 straight possessions with a score, the home side was reeling and when 2½ minutes later they led by three, the floor seemed to have definitively tilted in their favour.
Only then, it wasn’t, and as quickly as the defending Eastern Conference champions had fought their way back into the game, things slipped from their hands in a 105-99 loss to the upstart Raptors on Monday night before a rowdy Air Canada Centre crowd of 20,367. Expected to return home, at worst, with a chance to clinch a spot in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers instead find themselves tied 2-2 in an Eastern Conference Finals many observers never predicted would reach this point.
And suddenly a team that had been 10-0 in the post-season before heading north has some questions to answer, from how to counter Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan defensively to how to avoid the kinds of poor starts that cost them in Game 3 and 4 losses.
"(The comeback) wasn’t enough because we got off to a horrible first half once again in this building, and you’re playing catch-up the whole game," said James, who had 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting with nine rebounds and six assists. "So every defensive possession feels even more intensified when you’ve given up so many points in the first half. … We’re not starting off games the right way. The second quarter has been really bad for us here, so we’ve got do a better job of that where we can’t dig ourselves such a big hole and now every possession feels even more intensified late in the game."
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The Raptors outscored the Cavaliers 33-23 in the second quarter Saturday night to lead 60-47 at the break in Game 3 and 30-17 for a 57-41 edge at halftime Monday. On Saturday, there was no comeback but this time James and Kyrie Irving, who had 26 points on 11-of-21 shooting after a 3-for-19 night his last time out, pulled them back into things.
James set up Richard Jefferson for a dunk with 4:53 left that put the Cavs up 96-94 but a DeRozan jumper 16 seconds later tied things up, he made two free throws after Channing Frye missed a three-pointer and the Raptors didn’t trail again.
"I thought at the start of the game, they hit us first," said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. "We still continued to react until I think late in that third quarter when we got aggressive, started blitzing the pick-and-rolls, just having trouble guarding at the point of entry one-on-one, attacking us one-on-one, taking the challenge defensively one-on-one."
The poor start and porous defensive play were the post-game focal points for the Cavaliers as their performances in Toronto stood in stark contrast to their dominating efforts at home in two lopsided wins to start the series.
Those blowout victories created a sense that the Raptors would be fortunate to pull out a single victory in the best-of-seven, but then they shot 46 per cent on Saturday and 54 per cent on Monday in cutting up a defence that had totally shut them down.
Asked what was happening on the defensive end Monday, Frye replied: "Obviously nothing. They shot 54 per cent. We’ve got to look at the film and do better, that’s some bull****."
Frye scored 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting, all from three-point territory, as one of the few offensive complements to James and Irving the Cavaliers could find. Kevin Love, coming off a 1-for-9 performance, added 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting but was on the bench in the fourth quarter after tweaking his knee landing on an official’s foot.
He doesn’t expect his knee to keep him out – "I’ll be fine," he said tersely – but save for that one extended stretch between the third and fourth quarters, the Cavs didn’t threaten offensively.
"I feel like we slowed them down in the second half and made them more tentative. I feel really good about the second half, us outscoring them, playing some great defence," said Irving, adding later: "We just want to stop that snowball effect where they get some great possessions going down in transition or in their halfcourt, just got to limit them, have consecutive stops in that first half coming into halftime."
Love relayed a similar sentiment when he said combatting the slow starts is "going to be an emphasis moving forward now, it should be every game. Maybe come out with a sense of urgency and sense of purpose."
That’s probably a good idea, as the Raptors made the Cavaliers muck it up physically, and it worked, turning what looked like a cakewalk into the NBA final into a real competition. If they didn’t take their opponents seriously before, they had better now.
"Nobody’s like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to come in here and whoop this team,’" said Frye. "We take it as one game at a time, this is the NBA playoffs, they know it and we know it, how tough it’s going to be. They fed off their crowd and give them credit; they’re a good team. "
Despite that, the Cavaliers nearly came back in Game 4, and had a couple of missed shots gone the other way, things might have turned out differently.
"We felt that we had an opportunity – just talking in the locker room – to not play well and still win that game," said Lue. "We came up short. We had a few defensive breakdowns that you can’t have down the stretch of a game, especially in the playoffs, and they executed every time we made a mistake."
How they respond Wednesday will determine if the two losses to the Raptors were merely a blip, or a sign of things to come for one of the NBA’s elite teams.