The first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals confirmed what most observers thought entering the series — that the Cleveland Cavaliers are far superior to the Toronto Raptors and every other team in the conference. Cleveland took a 2-0 lead in the series by a combined 50 points, extended their playoff winning streak against the East to 17 games, and essentially made their participation in the NBA Finals a formality. Meanwhile, the Raptors looked overwhelmed and overmatched, a conference finalist more by default than by merit.
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Game 3 didn't necessarily change the sense of this series in a meaningful way, but the Raptors at least managed to salvage some pride and prove that their 2-1 record against the Cavaliers this regular season is not irrelevant to this matchup. Toronto took the first home conference finals game in franchise history by a convincing 99-84 result, leading by double figures for much of the contest and proving that the Cleveland offense can look relatively ordinary. The Cavs are still overwhelming favorites in this series despite suffering their first East postseason loss since Derrick Rose banked in a buzzer-beating three-pointer in Game 3 of the 2015 conference semis, but the Raptors have at least put considerable pressure on them for Monday's Game 4 and beyond.
The Cavs' 84-point total tells the biggest story of the night. After several series in which they set records for three-pointers and generally looked like an unstoppable offensive force, the Cavaliers cooled off considerably to shoot 35.4 percent from the field, including 34.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Playing without starting center Jonas Valanciunas for the sixth-straight game, the Raptors stepped up their defensive pressure at every position, kept the Cavaliers out of the paint, and forced them into tough jumpers. With Kyrie Irving (3-of-19 FG and 1-of-7 3FG) and Kevin Love (1-of-9 FG and 1-of-4 3FG) experiencing especially poor shooting nights, the Cavs struggled to score consistently and lacked the unreal shooting streaks that have typified their romp through the rest of the conference this spring. Only Channing Frye made better than 40 percent of his three-pointers among the five Cavs who attempted more than two. With little room inside, they had no great options and settled for jumpers.
On the other side, the Raptors got a necessary boost in their own outside shooting after going just 14-of-57 (24.6 percent) in the first two games of the series. Toronto shot 9-of-18 from beyond the arc in the first half to lead by as many as 18 in the second quarter and 60-47 at the break. With DeMar DeRozan scoring 21 of his eventual game-high 32 points and the team as a whole committing just one turnover before halftime, the Raptors got a steady stream of scoring as Kyle Lowry suffered through considerable foul trouble (just 10 first-half minutes). Lowry-less minutes had been a death knell for the Raptors throughout the series, but they persevered on their home floor in Game 3.
However, the biggest performance by a Raptor came from someone who didn't score at all until the final 97 seconds of the third quarter. Rugged big man Bismack Biyombo had been a mixed bag as Valanciunas's fill-in, but he was amazing on Saturday with a franchise-record 26 rebounds, including eight offensive, and four blocks. That rebounding mark ties Hakeem Olajuwon and Dwight Howard for the most rebounds in a playoff game since 1984.
Biyombo's effort and toughness inside obviously had the practical effects of ending and extending many possessions, but he also sent a message that the Raptors would not be easily eliminated despite the tenor of the first two games. Others scored more, but Biyombo's night is the best evidence of why the Raptors won this game.
That effort served Toronto especially well as their shooting reverted to form in the second half, when they went just 3-of-13 on three-pointers. On balance, this was not an ideal offensive night for the Raptors — they shot a good-not-great 45.8 percent from the field and went to the line for just 13 foul shots, a very low number given the extent to which Lowry and particularly DeRozan usually depend on fouls shots. DeRozan had nine of those attempts, but his trips were far from given. In fact, his 32 points were arguably more impressive for how he got them than for the total itself.
The Cavs likely will not be terribly worried about their ability to win Games 4 and 5, because they're the better, more experienced team and nearly went into the fourth quarter down just seven points before Cory Joseph made this buzzer-beater:
Massive underdogs usually win Game 3 if they're going to take any one at all, and the Cavs offense has been so dominant this postseason that it's more likely Game 3 was an outlier than a shift in form. They'll expect a better performance on Monday and remain likely to end the series sooner rather than later.
Nevertheless, the Raptors look reinvigorated and ready to compete in Game 4 and beyond. This win showed impressive character and resilience, enough to suggest that the Raptors should be able to avoid blowouts no matter how well they play from here on out. For that matter, head coach Dwane Casey did not shy away from complaining about inconsistent officiating in his post-game press conference — he arguably protested too much to convince of his point — and seems to be angling for a style that plays to his stars' strengths in an attempt to even the series.
Again, the Cavs aren't in extreme danger just yet. Whatever results come to pass, though, the Raptors have given everyone reason to pay a lot more attention to what looked like a chore of a series. Another win like this one would change that dynamic considerably and perhaps bring back the ever-present pressure that seemed to test the Cavs' chemistry throughout the regular season. If nothing else, Cleveland no longer looks impervious to whatever the rest of the East throws its way.
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