The Raptors’ two most important players right now are a probably-hurt tiny point guard who, until recently, was having a historically-bad playoffs and an offensively inept center who played 22 minutes per game this regular season. That doesn’t sound like a formula for defeating a team led by LeBron James that has been on an unholy tear through the first 10 games of the NBA playoffs, and yet, here the Raptors are, all tied up with the Cavs heading back to Cleveland for a best of three series finish with all the momentum.
About those players: Kyle Lowry scored almost as many points tonight as he has in the rest of the series combined. His 35 was a game-high, and he only needed 20 shots to get there. The Raptors have lagged and looked truly ugly without him boosting their offense, but tonight he was assertive as he’s been all playoffs, knifing into the lane, twirling around pick-and-rolls on the perimeter, and finally hitting some jumpers. He helped his team grab a big lead early which they would not relinquish until the fourth quarter. It’s fitting that he got to put the game on ice.
Incredibly, he also guarded LeBron James for large chunks of the fourth quarter and did a decent job of pudgily pushing him on the block until help arrived. The Raptors treated LeBron like a complete non-shooter, so all Lowry had to do was sag well off him and manage the action Cleveland ran off the elbow. LeBron had an efficient 29, but Bismack Biyombo had him looking shook.
Biyombo had three blocks tonight, but he was an unclimbable mountain down low. The Raptors don’t have a slew of game-changing individual defenders, but Biyombo gives them a little more leeway to run Cleveland’s shooters off the line. LeBron’s average shot distance in Game 2 was 1.6 inches (per the ESPN broadcast), so when Biyombo wins the battle at the rim, that stunts Cleveland’s most reliable offense. I present to you now, this righteous blocked alley-oop as evidence of stunting.
For their part, Cleveland managed to make it a competitive game in the fourth quarter. It took them until 4:12 left in the frame to miss a shot, and they scored on their first 14 possessions. At one point, they got an open dunk, which somehow lowered their offensive efficiency on the quarter. The Cavs rolled out a strange LeBron-Kyrie-Dellavedova-Frye-Jefferson lineup for much of the quarter (Kevin Love didn’t play in the fourth), and it gave them enough spacing to rip the Raptors for most of the period. But they never managed to slow down Lowry and DeRozan (who put up a strong 32), and Ty Lue doesn’t appear to trust any of the team’s bigs.
LeBron put in 46 minutes of work tonight, and he’ll need to come up big on Wednesday. If Lowry and DeRozan get to their spots and actually hit jumpers like they did tonight, the Raps can do so much more on offense (let us never speak of the aesthetic stain almost every other Raptors game has been). They’ll get at least one more game in Toronto, where they’ve been a tough out all year. The Finals are possible.
This is not what anyone expected. Dwane Casey has been playing the “Nobody believes in us!” card all playoffs, but he actually had a point for the first time heading into the Conference Finals. Not many outside Canada expected the Raptors to win the series, let alone a game in Toronto, but they’re somehow right there. The Raptors have gotten stronger as series have gone in all three rounds, and if Jonas Valanciunas can give them something and Kyle Lowry is truly back, I dunno, they might up and Do It. They still won’t be favored and they still have to take one in Cleveland, but the Cavaliers have a delicate chemistry and they have to deal with bouncing back from a loss for the first time this playoffs. The Raptors are feeling themselves, and they aren’t rolling over.