Following Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers appeared to have a distinct advantage over the Toronto Raptors, which would lead the Cavs to a sweep. The first two games of the series resulted in Cavs blowouts and extended their playoff-winning streak to 10 games (in other words, Cleveland hadn’t lost in the postseason to that point).
Even though the series was changing scenes to Toronto for Games 3 and 4, few people thought the Raptors could even win one game. Even fewer people thought they could win both contests. Well, following a thrilling victory in Game 4, the Raptors managed to even the series as both teams head back to Cleveland for Game 5.
All season long, fans expected the Cavaliers to run through the Eastern Conference and challenge one of the several Western Conference powerhouses in the NBA Finals. This hope is still realistic, but with how things went in Toronto, the momentum in this series clearly belongs to the Raptors. If LeBron James and company are going to keep their quest for a championship alive, they will have to respond to the challenge as the series becomes a best-of-three set.
How much close are the Cavaliers to actually losing the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors, though? Even with the series tied, most people would tell you that Cleveland will still manage to advance. However, if they don’t do the following three things, it could be another long, disappointing offseason for the Cavs.
3. Protect home-court
Protecting home-court should be easy enough, right? If the Cavaliers simply win the remaining home games in this series, there’s no way they will lose because they still own the home-court advantage. Game 5 on Wednesday will occur in Cleveland. So will Game 7 (if necessary) on Sunday. Here in the postseason, the Cavs have yet to lose at Quicken Loans Arena, where they are a perfect 6-0.
Entering Game 5, though, the Raptors might have as good a chance as ever to upset the favored Cavs on the road. The momentum Toronto built in Games 3 and 4 is no joke. They outperformed the Cavs in nearly all phases of the game, building confidence that they can beat Cleveland on any given night.
Further, the Raptors prove time and time again throughout this postseason that they can win critical games on the road. While it’s vital for Cleveland to protect its home-court, Toronto is tough and riding a wave that may carry them to an upset, getting them over the top in this series.
2. Contain Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan
When the Raptors’ pair of All-Star guards are playing at the top of their game, Toronto becomes a legitimately elite team. In both of Toronto’s wins in this series, this fact rang true. Game 3 saw the duo go off for 52 combined points, which seems mediocre compared to the 67 points they scored in Game 4.
Both Lowry and DeRozan have the driving and shooting abilities to be truly lethal. They carried the Raptors to the best season in franchise history and despite a rocky postseason at times, they are the key to Toronto’s ability to advance to the NBA Finals. In Games 1 and 2, the Cavaliers managed to keep the pair in check, holding them to 26 and 32 combined points.
If they keep them to those kind of numbers throughout the remainder of this series, the Cavs will win without much of a problem. However, both Lowry and DeRozan have renewed confidence, and they boast the talent to beat any team on any night. Going up against Cleveland’s own scoring duo, Kyrie Irving and James, will determine the Eastern Conference champion.
1. Get more production from the supporting cast
Irving and James have done their thing throughout the first four games of this series, scoring and setting up the offense for success. However, the other Cavaliers have struggled to play at a high level for a majority of the series.
Kevin Love has been nonexistent in the past two games (to be fair, he sustained an injury in Game 4). J.R. Smith had one good game, but hasn’t been much of a factor in the other three contests. Bench players like Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert could stand to play better as well.
In support of Lowry and DeRozan, on the other hand, the Raptors received better play out of their supporting cast, especially in the last two games. Bismack Biyombo owns the glass right now and is playing truly inspired basketball. Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson have contributed off the bench as well.
While the stars in this series will likely determine the winner, the role players will have a big say in the outcome when all is said and done. For the Cavs, if they can’t get more production from those not named Irving or James, an unexpected loss in the Eastern Conference Finals could be their fate.