Coming off consecutive drubbings in Cleveland, we knew the Toronto Raptors needed a few things to change in Friday’s Game 3. With All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry suffering from a sprained left ankle, they needed DeMar DeRozan to find his touch and carry the Raptors’ offense. They needed to find a way to keep the Cavs from bombing away with impunity from 3-point range. And they needed to play with a level of urgency befitting a team that would be in a nigh-on-insurmountable 0-3 hole with another loss.
They got all that. And it still didn’t matter.
Despite playing without Lowry, who was active for the game but never took off his warmups, the Raptors led at halftime and were within two points after three quarters, thanks largely to a Herculean scoring effort from DeRozan. But LeBron James took over in the fourth quarter, Kyle Korver lit Toronto up from 3-point range, and the Cavs completely suffocated the Raptors late, holding DeRozan and company without a field goal for nearly six minutes.
That turned a three-point game into a 19-point game, and after LeBron responded to the “spin the ball” controversy with another trip to the turntable …
… the Cavs pushed the lead to 20 before cruising home for a 115-94 win that gives Cleveland a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals. Tyronn Lue’s club can close out its second consecutive sweep on Sunday at Air Canada Centre; Game 4 tips off at 3:30 p.m. ET.
James scored 13 points in the fourth quarter on just two field-goal attempts, repeatedly bulling his way to the front of the rim and drawing fouls on Toronto defenders en route to an 8-for-8 mark at the charity stripe in the fourth. He’d finish with a team-high 35 points — his sixth 30-plus-point outing in seven games this postseason — on 9-for-16 shooting to go with eight rebounds, seven assists and a steal in 41 minutes, once again proving to be the problem the Raptors just couldn’t solve. Join the club, guys.
DeRozan bounced back from a brutal Game 2 with a brilliant performance, scoring a career-postseason-high 37 points on 12-for-23 shooting. With Lowry sidelined and spot starter Cory Joseph expending most of his energy harassing Kyrie Irving on the defensive end, DeRozan spent more time in Game 3 handling the ball in the middle of the floor. While he finished with just three assists, he served as a much more effective facilitator, drawing out the Cavs’ traps, splitting their double teams, and making the next pass to keep the ball moving and set his fellow Raptors up with great looks.
There was just one problem. Toronto’s second-best offensive player wasn’t playing, and with the exception of center Jonas Valanciunas, who scored 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting in a return to the starting lineup in place of Patrick Patterson, nobody could seem to knock any of those great looks down.
The Raptors missed their first 12 3-point tries on Friday, many of them coming in rhythm and without a Cavs defender in the neighborhood, on their way to a dismal 2-for-18 showing from beyond the arc.
Through 3 games, Cleveland has outscored the Raptors 135-51 from beyond the arc in this series, a difference of 84 points.
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) May 6, 2017
Non-DeRozan and Valanciunas Raptors shot just 18-for-54 from the field in Game 3, with Serge Ibaka continuing to struggle with shot selection and effectiveness on his way to 12 points on 6-for-14 shooting.
Joseph did yeoman’s work on Irving, limiting the star scorer to just 16 points on 7-for-21 shooting in Lowry’s stead. But he missed 10 of his 12 field goals, chipping in just four points and six assists in 33 minutes. Forced into the unenviable task of guarding LeBron and needing to provide secondary offense while working his way through a tweaked ankle after a nasty roll in the first half, swingman Norman Powell needed 19 shots to score 13 points.
And yet, despite the offense running almost entirely through DeRozan, Toronto was right there, trailing 79-77 heading into the fourth. But with DeRozan having played just under 34 of the game’s 36 minutes to that point, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey decided to give his star a breather to start the fourth. On top of that, he also kept Joseph and Valanciunas on the bench to start the period, meaning the Raptors would need to figure out how to generate enough offense to tread water with a fivesome of Ibaka, Patterson, Powell, P.J. Tucker and second-year point guard Delon Wright.
The Cavs, on the other hand, started the quarter with James and center Tristan Thompson alongside three shooters: Korver, Iman Shumpert and Deron Williams. That was a slightly curious unit for Lue to toss out there — as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted, that group hadn’t played together at all this season before Friday night — but it performed brilliantly, opening the quarter on an 8-2 run that pushed the lead to 87-79 before Casey could get DeRozan and Joseph back in the game.
By that time, Cleveland had gotten in rhythm, and the defending champs were off and running. After a pull-up jumper by Wright with 11:06, the Cavs ripped off a 17-1 run over the next 5 1/2 minutes, blowing the game wide open.
“Our second unit guys came in and gave us a big push. Kyle, D-Will, Shump — that lineup that we had out there was big for us,” James told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi during an on-court interview after the game. “Double-T stepped up in the second half and gave us great energy.”
And, in doing so, seemed to sap all the energy out of the Raptors and their fans.
Even down 0-2, and even after the way those first two games went, Toronto could be forgiven for believing there might still be a chance; after all, the Raptors did take two games off the Cavs at the ACC in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals after similar series-opening pastings at Quicken Loans Arena. But this ain’t last year, and while the Cavs didn’t seem especially locked in through the first three quarters, they cranked up the intensity when they sensed weakness and a chance to get one win away from some more sweet, sweet rest.
“We knew we was going to get their best shot,” James said after the game. “DeMar had it going all game. He had his pull-up going. He was getting to the free-throw line, which we didn’t want [him] to do. He put the pressure on us, and we just tried to combat that by playing great basketball when it counted. And we did that.”
The Raptors will have to do that, and then some, come Sunday to stave off elimination, save their season and, perhaps, prevent the total teardown of the core that’s presided over the most sustained success in franchise history. Even if they can, though, it feels like they’d just be delaying the inevitable.
Lowry or no Lowry, additions of Ibaka and Tucker aside, the Raptors just aren’t as good as the Cavaliers. All that’s left, it seems, is to see how Toronto falls, and how much time LeBron gets off before his next assignment.
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