LeBron James and co. were supposed to waltz to the 2016 NBA Finals, but the Toronto Raptors had other ideas. The No. 2 seed in the East won Game 4 of the conference finals, and the series is headed back to Cleveland for Game 5 on Wednesday tied at 2-2.
The Cleveland Cavaliers made it look easy in Game 1 and Game 2, defeating Toronto by a combined 50 points and forcing much of the basketball world to write off the Raptors as a serious title contender. But Toronto protected their home court with consecutive wins of their own, guaranteeing that the series will last at least six games.
“I think we have a shot," Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said Tuesday. "We’ve always believed in our team, and I just think now we have a chance to go out and do it.”
What has changed over the past two games? Can Cleveland return to the way they played at the start of the series?
The Cavaliers had little trouble getting to the rim as they dominated the first two games, moving away from the barrage of three-pointers that helped them sweep the Atlanta Hawks in the second round. The Cavs attempted a total of 41 three-pointers in Cleveland, taking advantage of the absence of center Jonas Valanciunas and averaging 53 points in the paint per game.
The shot selection for Cleveland changed in Toronto as the Cavs attempted 82 threes, making less than 33 percent of their shots from behind the arc and averaging 28 points in the paint per contest. Backup point guard Cory Joseph hounded Kyrie Irving in Game 3, limiting him to 3-19 shooting. Bismack Biyombo, starting for the injured Valanciunas, had seven blocks in Toronto, and his presence in the middle forced the Cavs to take more outside shots.
Cavs average shot distance in series:
Game 1 -- 11.1 (feet)
Game 2 -- 11.7
Game 3 -- 16.2
Game 4 -- 18.7
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) May 24, 2016
James has continued to be the best player on the floor, filling up the stat sheet and shooting 64.4 percent from the floor in the series. But Toronto’s two stars have outperformed Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 4, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan became the first two teammates since 1993 to score at least 30 points each and shoot at least 60 percent in a conference finals game.
Combining for a big offensive night is nothing new for Lowry and DeRozan. They formed arguably the NBA’s second-best backcourt in the regular season, both making the All-Star team and leading the Raptors to 56 wins. They made difficult, contested shots in Toronto, especially down the stretch of Game 4, and they might have a tougher time getting those shots to fall in Cleveland.
Toronto never showed any life in Cleveland, but the Cavs came close to stealing a game on the road. James led a comeback Monday night, and the Cavs took a fourth-quarter lead. But the team ran out of gas, having made their first 11 shots of the quarter as James played all but two minutes in the game.
The Cavs went to a smaller lineup in the fourth quarter of Game 4, playing James and Channing Frye in the frontcourt along with three guards. Drawing Biyombo to the perimeter to guard Frye, who’s made 61 percent of his threes in the playoffs, Cleveland was getting open looks at the rim with ease. If Cleveland can utilize a similar lineup for extended periods of time Wednesday, they’ll have the edge in Game 5.
“I am a confident guy,” James said. “I’m always confident in my ability and what I can bring to my team, whatever the case may be, whatever the circumstances are. Going back home, we have to play a lot better, and I think we will.”
Love didn’t play in the final quarter of Game 4, tweaking his knee after stepping on a referee’s foot. But he expects to play Wednesday, and the Cavs need him to regain his shooting touch. Love totaled 33 points on just 16 shot attempts in the first two games, but he made just 21.7 percent of his shots in Toronto.
The Raptors could be getting their starting center back in the lineup, though it’s unknown how much playing time he will get. Valanciunas didn’t play in Game 4, despite being on the active roster for the first time this series. With two more days of rest, he could see time on the floor in Cleveland.
Despite their play in Game 3 and Game 4, Toronto is more than a double-digit underdog in Game 5, getting 10.5 points, according to VegasInsider.com, with an over/under of 199. The Cavs are still undefeated at home this postseason, winning six games by an average of 18 points, and they remain the clear favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals.
But the last two games have shown that the Raptors won’t be an easy out, and Cleveland could be in for another battle on Wednesday night.
Prediction: Cleveland over Toronto, 104-98