No one outside of Toronto gave the Raptors a chance to derail the Cavaliers in the NBA Eastern Conference finals, and certainly not after losing the first two games in Cleveland. The Raptors weren’t supposed to give the Cavaliers a series. Yet it’s a series now.
The Cavaliers hadn’t lost in this postseason when the series started, and rolled to wins in Games 1 and 2 by a combined 50 points. People already were anointing the Cavaliers Eastern Conference champs again and even NBA champions.
The Raptors looked overmatched. They were a team that was just happy to have gotten this far for the first time in franchise history and didn’t have the experience, talent or depth to stick with LeBron James and the defending conference champs.
The narrative changes quickly in the playoffs.
Toronto went home and did what it was supposed to do, and what few thought could be done. The Raptors won both, tying the series 2-2 with Monday’s 105-99 win.
“Someone mentioned we were in it just to win one game and I disagreed with them,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “We’re in it to compete for a championship. We’re here. Nobody thought we were going to be here. Nobody gives us a snowball’s chance in you know where to beat Cleveland. We just got to keep on churning, keep on working, keep on grinding to try and continue to win.”
It’s still hard to see people jumping off the Cavaliers’ bandwagon now, even with this series going at least six games. The Cavaliers have the homecourt edge with Game 5, and if necessary, Game 7 in Cleveland.
The Cavs also have the James advantage. His teams haven’t lost an Eastern Conference series since 2010. James knows when he has to lift his game in the playoffs. Now is that time.
The narrative continues to change out West.
The seemingly unbeatable Warriors are down 2-1 to the Thunder heading into Game 4 on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. The Thunder has a chance to put the 73-win Warriors, the reigning NBA champs, on the brink of elimination. Now the Thunder is gaining steam as favorites to win it all.
Let the games play out. Things can change any time, and do many times.
In 2013, the Spurs were a defensive rebound away from beating James and the Heat in the NBA Finals. But Ray Allen delivered one of the biggest shots in NBA playoff history, and Miami won the championship in seven games.
We’ll see what happens Tuesday in Oklahoma City. But the NBA not suspending Draymond Green for kicking Steven Adams in the groin - a decision panned by many, including ABC analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson – could have a major impact on this series.
(For the record, I agree with Van Gundy and Jackson: it was a non-basketball play and warranted a one-game suspension. The fact that the referees only called it a Flagrant Foul 1 is another indictment on the officiating in these playoffs, which has been subpar, particularly down the stretch of games).
Now if Oklahoma City loses Game 4, and ultimately the series, there will be many who point to that decision as a critical if not a determining factor.
There were some calls in the Toronto-Cleveland game that were bad – especially late – but too much attention is being paid to that. The Raptors won, and deserved to win.
They built a big lead early and were up as many as 18. For most of the night, Kyle Lowry was the best player on the court, and DeMar DeRozan continued to hit big shots. They scored 35 and 32 points, respectively. But Bismack Biyombo was the most impactful with his defense and rebounding.
The previously unheralded Biyombo is setting himself up for a big contract this offseason. He’s had 40 rebounds in the two games in Toronto and has clogged the paint. His presence contributed to the Cavaliers attempting 41 three-pointers in Game 4. That’s way too much. They made 13.
Some of it was because the Cavs needed to come back. But many were forced. The Cavaliers shot the ball well from deep in prior series, but they can’t expect to turn into Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and the Warriors overnight. Cleveland’s shooters are more streaky.
Cleveland missed 20 of its first 23 three-pointers. The Cavs got hot in the third and fourth quarter, and ultimately took the lead. But too much Lowry, DeRozan and Biyombo in crunch time has James two losses from being ousted by an East team for the first time in six years, and the Raptors two wins from reaching their first NBA Finals.
Few outside of Toronto believe that the Raptors will get there, that James will let it happen. Those same people probably expected this series to be over Tuesday or at the latest in Game 5 in Cleveland. But there will be a Game 6, and maybe a Game 7 – and no one saw that coming.