8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cleveland -12, Over/Under: 198
One of the age old questions in the NBA Playoffs is an oft debated one; when faced with a long layoff between series, is it better to take it as an opportunity to rest, or does that time off lead to rust? Tomato or tomato? Potato or potato? Yes, rest versus rust had been the dominant argument for this series as the Cleveland Cavaliers finally returned to the court against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. While the world continued the debate, the Raptors (56-26, 1st in Atlantic Division) rendered the discussion moot, by getting absolutely hammered in Tuesday Night’s disappointing 115-84 defeat. To say that things simply didn’t go their way would be a severe understatement, as they were basically ran out of Quicken Loans Arena by Halftime. Despite a reasonably competitive First Quarter, in which they trailed 33-28, the visiting side was outscored 33-16 in the second stanza, effectively pushing the game out of reach. As has become a running theme for Dwayne Casey and his charges, Toronto suffered yet another poor shooting performance, netting just 42.1% of their attempts from the field, including a dismal 5-of-24 from beyond the arc (20.8%), while getting outscored at the Charity Stripe by eleven points. Furthermore, they were never able to get out and push the tempo, as they only managed a mere seven Fast Break Points. However, the biggest takeaway from the cataclysm was the fact that they weren’t beaten on the perimeter, but in the paint instead. Throughout the postseason, the Cavaliers had torched their opponents from three, but it was a very different story altogether against the Raptors, who were once again without the services of Jonas Valanciunas, who continues to nurse a nagging ankle sprain. And did his teammates miss him… The Atlantic Division Champions were obliterated in the painted area 56-36, as Cleveland got literally whatever they wanted at the rim, whenever they wished. This advantage also spilled out to the boards, where the visitors were manhandled on the glass by nineteen rebounds, a whopping thirty-five which were of the defensive variety, which is a direct indication that they were one-and-done when they possessed the ball. Personifying their collective struggles on the offensive end are DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who despite their team’s overall success this season, highlighted by their first trip to their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history, have not met their usual standard. Tuesday Night, the duo combined for a disappointing twenty-six points on a combined 41.9% shooting from the field, including 0-for-8 from beyond the arc (0.0%), and attempted nary a free-throw despite playing over thirty-one minutes apiece. Granted, both players have been playing with an assortment of minor ailments, but the feeling that these guys have been playing on borrowed time for the last few weeks has only grown stronger now. After all, narrowly defeating the likes of Indiana and Miami with your two best players shooting well below 40.0% from the floor is one thing, but attempting to topple Cleveland in the same manner is a very different proposition altogether. We’ve said it many times before in this very column; if the Raptors have any chance in hell of extending this postseason run, then their stars are going to have to shine a helluva lot brighter than they have to this point. And that goes double for Lowry, who received a number of Fourth and Fifth Place votes for MVP on the strength of a career-best campaign. The hard-nosed Point Guard averaged a career-high 21.2 points per game during the Regular Season, including a red-hot 31.0 points on 66.7% shooting in three previous meetings with the Cavs this season. However, in Game One the tenth-year veteran was a could muster only eight points on a dreadful 4-of-14 shooting form the field (28.6%), including 0-of-7 from downtown (0.0%), with four rebounds, five assists, and four turnovers.
Meanwhile, after their history-making performance in Game One, the discussion of the Cavaliers (57-25, 1st in central Division) incurring any rust by their lengthy layoff, has been thrown out the proverbial window. Tuesday’s 31-point annihilation of Toronto, represented the franchise’s largest postseason victory, and ultimately brought their consecutive winning streak to begin these Playoffs to nine, also a franchise record. In fact, dating back to last year’s postseason, Cleveland has win sixteen straight games against Eastern Conference opponents, which also matches a league record. Make no bones about it, folks, this is a very different team than the one that advanced to the NBA Finals last June without a healthy Kevin Love, and later Kyrie Irving. Tyronn Lue’s charges continued their offensive onslaught, tormenting the helpless Raptors throughout the contest, shooting a stellar 55.4% from the field, while calmly draining 26-of-33 from the Free-Throw Line (78.8%), and dishing out twenty-two assists. However, it was how they did this that was so surprising. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Hawks, the Cavs relentlessly bombarded their opponent from downtown, knocking down a ridiculous seventy-seven three-pointers, including a single-game postseason record twenty-five in Game Two alone. But with Toronto much lighter in the paint due to the aforementioned Valanciunas’ absence, Lue wisely employed a very different gameplan. Instead of camping out on the perimeter, the reigning Eastern Conference Champions attacked the rim without regard, outscoring the visiting side by a whopping twenty points in the paint. The Raptors clearly placed an emphasis on limiting their looks from three, but as a result left themselves dangerously susceptible inside. LeBron James in particular was very active in that area, scoring twenty-four points on a blazing 11-of-13 shooting from the field, while also accumulating six rebounds, four assists, a pair of steals, and a block. The four-time MVP started off the night making his first nine field goal attempts, including a biblical dunk that shook virtually the entire arena, putting an exclamation point a torrid 20-2 run by the hosts. Flanking him was Irving, who scored a game-high twenty-seven points on 11-of-17 shooting from the field, including 1-of-3 from beyond the arc (33.3%), along with two rebounds, five assists, and two steals. And at the end of the day, that’s ultimately going to prove to be the difference in this series; while Toronto’s tandem of DeRozan and Lowry can’t seem to throw the ball into the ocean, James and Irving have had no such problems, shooting a combined 22-of-30 in Game One, or in laymen’s terms 73.3%. That there is the kind of math that is sure to make the faithful in Cleveland smile.