Based on the treadmarks across the back of their heads House has determined they were roadkill for the Fast and Furious 8, but whether that’s Dom, Roman, Letty and Co. or KLove, Ky, Bron and crew is anybody’s guess. It’s as though the two games in Toronto were little more than a test of the emergency broadcast system, and only a test. Back in the Q, we were returned to our regularly scheduled ass-kickings.
Some of it was the Cavaliers finding another level of intensity on defense. It became a trigger for the offense which hummed like the chaingun from Doom, spitting off rounds of picked-clean Raptor bones.
The 65-34 halftime deficit was the largest ever in a Conference Finals game en route to a 116-78 rout. While you’ll undoubtedly read a lot about Kevin Love who got the team off to a good start with his aggressive play (more on that in a moment), we believe the real key was Kyrie Irving.
Back in this familiar role, the Cavs opened the second on a 10-3 run, featuring consecutive alley oops and layups by James and Jefferson to take a 47-22 lead with 7:41 left in the second. At that point, it was all over but for the crying Jordans. Sure, the Raptors closed the lead to 21, but the Cavs ended the half with a 14-4 run giving the lead endless padding like a government Defense contract.
None of the Big Three played the final quarter, yet they combined for 71 points on 27-44 shooting. They shot over 60% for three quarters, while holding the Raptors to 41% and forcing 17 turnovers against 9 by the Cavaliers (again, over three quarters). After losing points in the paint the last two games, Cleveland reestablished their dominance, 46-32, similar to the 53-32 average margin of the series’ first two games.
More Than an Attitude Adjustment
The turning point in last night’s game came toward the end of Game 4 in Toronto.
You may remember that late in the third quarter the team started blitzing and trapping Lowry and DeRozan. The defensive aggression was like Narcan to the nodding-off Cavaliers, reviving their fortunes and jumpstarting the offense.
The Cavaliers have a dangerous tendency to let their offensive struggles bleed over to defense, but the corollary is also true: When their defense locks in, the offense goes to another level. That played a big role in the team’s success last night.
We wrote in Monday’s postgame about Lue’s belief that it’s important to be the team to hit first, rather than the one that responds. Referees tend to only see the response, not to mention the fact that it has the responder on their heels.
Lue also noted how going under a pick tends to invite a certain passivity, which had allowed DeRozan to get comfortable the last couple games. The reason you go under is to tempt DeRozan into longer jump shots and threes, but he wasn’t biting and the Cavs didn’t do a good enough job of closing.
With DeRozan averaging ten points in the first quarter alone all series, it was important not to let him find his groove so readily. That meant bumping him and getting into his body, and letting him feel the Cavs and J.R. Smith in particular.
“When you tempt teams by going under screens your aggressiveness lacks and I think we were getting off the body a little too much at times,” Lue said in the pregame. “We said we were going to go under the picks on DeRozan… but JR’s more of a physical kind of guy fighting through screens staying on the body We changed that up a little bit so hopefully he can be more effective.”
They certainly were more effective, though J.R. shared time on DeRozan with LeBron James. Whoever was on him, another help defender came to double on his drives. It proved a pretty effective strategy. DeRozan only had 4 points on 1-3 shooting.
Before the game Lue affirmed that not only had they decided no longer go under the DeRozan screens but also to blitz the Lowry pick-and-roll. What “blitzing the PnR” entails is having the defender of the players setting the screen (usually a “big”) come out and cut off the ballhandler, either forcing him to go around or completely trapping him.
The goal is to force Lowry to give up the ball, with the belief that whoever receives it won’t be able to make a play. As DeRozan was also blanketed, the Cavaliers hoped to force other Raptors to beat them. So far none are good enough creators off the bounce, one-on-one or with the pass to beat the Cavs' rotations. The streaky Lowry reverted to pumpkin form, failing to score for the first 18 minutes, by which time the Cavs were up by 23
“We came out early. We had it in our minds to be aggressive to be physical and jump on those guys early and we were able to do it,” said Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue. “In Toronto they attacked us. They were the aggressors and we were the reactors. They attacked us early and it was hard to get back in it.”
“They were coming off the pick-and-roll attacking our bigs going downhill [in Toronto]. So we made a change on that and [Coach Lue] made our jobs a little easier because there was backside help,” Irving said. “We had two sets of eyes on them, just like they were doing to me and Bron on the other end. We just wanted to counteract that and just play more physical and make other guys make decision other than those two.”
This aggression helped the Cavs get off to a faster start. For much of the series the Cavaliers have come out slow. In three of the four prior games they’ve trailed at the midway point in the first quarter. But not last night, as they went from The Little Engine That Thought It Could to whirlwind Japanese Shinkansen bound for Oklahoma City. (Too soon, Golden State fans?)
“We knew they were going to come out like a freight train and we didn’t meet that level of physicality on either end of the floor,” said Toronto Raptors Coach Dwayne Casey. “We turned the ball over 19 times and were outrebounded – which had been one of our strong points – by 21. We got outworked.”
Aggressive, Forceful Love
Like most relationships, it’s usually not that Love’s absent as much as suffering from a crisis of faith. Cleveland's Love falls into bouts of passivity where he suggests a wallflower hanging around the outskirts of the court waiting to be asked to dance.
Part of this is the nature of the offense’s design. As the third option, he’s hardly needed during most of the season. It’s only in the playoffs that having an effective third option becomes so important. (See, Toronto.)
Teams often try to play man on Love, to make him a scorer rather than a passer, and generally try to discourage him with physicality. Given his troubles finishing all post-season (he’s 11-36 within 5’), it’s hardly surprising he’s drifted toward the three-point line where he’s been far more effective (44%).
This tentativeness amplifies Love’s (literally) hit-or-miss nature. Last night he was as “hit” as Steve Adams balls. With the very first possession he took Scola into the post and made him rub the lotion on it, beating him with his baby hook while Raptors defenders stayed home to defend the 3-shooters.
Love got some quick pts taking Scola into post for short hook after Tristan Thompson offensive board #Cavs up early pic.twitter.com/L0b9ZUNQ7o— Chris Parker (@CRS_1ne) May 26, 2016
With the Cavs leading 8-7, Love scored seven of the game’s next nine points and assisted on the other, starting with a transition three, and followed by a feed to LeBron for a bucket. Love his all four of his first quarter shots for 12 of his game-high 25 points (on 8-10 shooting).
Getting out in transition big key to opening up #Cavs 3pters; Cavs push & hit trailing Love who gets feet set for 3 pic.twitter.com/WBETktcWDn— Chris Parker (@CRS_1ne) May 26, 2016
Immediately forcing the opponents to respect you and start making adjustments is a good way to win games. The other nice thing about it was that it started with inside touches and the three ball was something that was more of a transition/trailer thing. When the close-out came he mostly attacked it aggressively.
“I give a lot of credit to Channing,” Love said afterwards. “I talked to Channing last night and he told me nobody’s immune to the NBA playoffs. These types of things happen, and you have to keep fighting through it. He said that in order for us to win, I needed to be aggressive. I give him a lot of credit for staying on me and staying vocal”
Frye was typically humble about the credit.
“We just tell him we believe in him and constantly reinforce it,” Frye said. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be exactly what he wants to be and we want him to just be regular old Kevin. ‘I Love Nuggets’ Kevin. He just needs to have fun out there, stay in the moment, and know that we believe in him.”
Being 7-Foot Is Less & Less of a Qualification
The Raptors responded by to the Love run bringing Jonas Valanciunas into the game, presumably to shore up the inside. It’s been 18 days since the Lithuanian big man went down with an ankle injury during the Miami series. Casey had him available for Game 4, but stuck with what had been so successful in Game 3, saving the big man for the road game.
He got two quick buckets on a pick-and-roll with Lowry, and then in transition as a trailer to Lowry for a free throw line jumper. He’d score only five more points the rest of the way. The Cavs rotations were pretty sharp and kept Valanciunas from overpowering them. He did not grab a single rebound despite playing nearly 20 minutes.
While some credit goes to Love, the lion’s share goes Tristan Thompson who redeemed his two off-nights in Toronto with nine points and ten boards, including five offensive. He added a steal and a blocked shot, but even more importantly was one of the key bigs in corralling DeRozan and Lowry.
“He was big defensively because we blitzed a lot with Tristan. He’s one of the best blitz guys in the league. Just having him on the defensive end helped us out,” Lue said. “But I also thought moving it around – we posted LeBron, we posted Kevin. I thought moving him around keeping him high, keeping him low, [his positioning off the ball, which effects who Raptors send to help] and just continuing to move him around gave those guys problems.”
It will be interesting to see how Tristan does in Toronto. Their energy big, Bismack Biyombo, has proven to be something of an evil twin. Lue’s commented on how he echoes the energy of the Air Canada crowd and has been even better at home during the playoffs. Indeed he has almost three more rebounds and half-a-block more a game this year in the playoffs, though during the regular season his road/home numbers were nearly exactly the same.
Cavs Really Like Threes But Aren’t Exclusive
Well-timed timeouts. Strong out-of-bounds plays. Doesn’t look rattled. Controls the huddle with well-timed STFUs. Adaptability. These are among the things we’ve enjoyed most about Lue’s coaching. Add to that his willingness to backtrack.
He didn’t come out and offer any mea culpas. However after two games where he held his own party line of “taking the shots that they give us,” there was a changeup in approach. After 82 threes in Toronto, the Wine and Gold hoisted just 21 (making ten). Instead they challenged the Raptors, taking it right to them, a mirror image of their greater aggression on defense.
“We talked about attacking the basket and being aggressive even if Biyombo is in the paint. Let’s be aggressive trying to go through him. If we miss the shot or he blocks the shot, Tristan will be there to clean it up,” Lue said. “We talked about pushing the pace and getting out early in transition and attacking the basket in the way we did tonight.”
The Cavs forced the action and finished with 24 free throw attempts. That's a few more than the number of three-pointers and a sign of good offensive balance. Biyombo only had one block and the Raptors finished with three, while the Cavs had six, two by Love, and one each for James, Thompson, Irving and Frye. The Cavs also thoroughly demolished the Raptors on the boards 48-27.
“We played great defensively, our pace was unbelievable. Everyone stepped up and made big shots. Kev was unbelievable and Bron, as usual, and guys came in and made plays,” said Irving.
The Cavaliers stepped up and started playing the way they had the first two games, almost as if the trip to Toronto were nothing but A Wrinkle in Time. The two most disappointing guys up North (Thompson & Love) stepped it up big at home, though Irving and James were also their usual essential sharp selves.
They must continue to focus on their defense as their engine. When they rely on the offense too heavily their effort on the other end tends to follow the ups and downs of their shooting. When their offense follows the defense, the team gets more steals and deflections, the pace picks up, they get out in transition and early offense, and suddenly the threes are coming off trailers or attacking a scrambling help rotation.
Outside his Game 3 showing, Irving’s been very consistent and has avoided the turnovers and over-dribbling that sometimes marred regular season outings. James commented in the pregame that he was doing what was necessary and if the time came when he needed to dominate, he would do that, but that time hasn’t arrived.
The thinking is that so long as Love and Irving are rolling, James is that much more dangerous because he’s such an extraordinary facilitator. When his teammates can’t make shots, it takes away half of James’ game.
Aside from defense, the other key to Game 6 in Toronto will be meeting the Raptors intensity.
“We need to be pissed off,” said Richard Jefferson. “We need to play with a hunger. We need to play with a fire because without that they’re going to feed off their crowd. It’s going to be a dogfight. To close out a team on their home court is one of the hardest things you can ever do.”
We’ll be at the Air Canada Center in Toronto on Friday for Game 6. We’ll be posting live video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis Saturday morning here in the Scene and Heard section.