It astounds me how enormous of a variable home court is in all of the four major North American professional sports.
Something about playing in front of a raucous home crowd yanks out the best in teams, and this has been exemplified to perfection during the Eastern Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors.
After two treacherous performances in Cleveland, the Raptors, and more specifically their starting point guard Kyle Lowry, have morphed from a team branded as additional Eastern Conference fodder for LeBron James to a squad that has tied the freaking Conference Finals in what many expected to be a 4-0 series drubbing.
Schematically the Raptors have altered things defensively, abandoning the strategy that allowed the Cavaliers to waltz into the paint at will in Game’s 1 and 2. Bismack Biyombo has emerged as a hero for the Raptors, as he’s safeguarded the paint and rebounded like a madman with starting center Jonas Valanciunas sidelined with an ankle ailment. In addition to the rectification of their defensive woes, the Return to the “Six” helped the aforementioned Lowry lunge out of his lull.
During Toronto’s first two games in Cleveland, Lowry averaged 9 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists per on 28% field goal shooting and .067% (!!!) from downtown. During Games 3 and 4 at the Air Canada Center, Lowry averaged 27.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4 assists per on 63% shooting from the field and 53% from behind the arc, powering his team as the prospect of an insurmountable 3-0 series lead loomed large.
Lowry and his backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan both registered 30+ point performances in Game 4 (35 for the former, 32 for the latter) and they showed a resolve that you typically don’t expect to see from the Raptors.
Toronto nursed a pretty sizable lead for most of Game 5, but when Cleveland started off the fourth quarter shooting a blistery 11-of-11 from the field and secured a 90-89 lead with 6:24 left, many surmised that the Raptors were toast. They’ve typically shriveled up in these scenarios, so it would’ve been no surprise if they did so in the presence of the King and his Cronies in crunch-time of Game 5. Except this time they didn’t.
Lowry and DeRozan both made tough shots down the stretch, punishing Cleveland’s guards for any inattentiveness on the defensive end. Head turned for a sliver of a second? Lowry was bogarting his way to the basket. If Cavs defenders navigated improperly around the lumbering screens set for DeRozan by Patrick Patterson or Biyombo, DeMar was shaking free and hitting the opposition with his midrange magic.
There were even a few possessions with less than four minutes left in which Lowry was trying to fend off James in the post. Toronto did an excellent job of aiding him in his defensive efforts, loading up on James’ side of the floor to deter the four-time MVP from looking to score. James was forced to pass out all four times this occurred, and to my recollection the Cavaliers failed to score on any of these possessions.
It appears as if Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors have decompressed fully, and they’ll march into Cleveland tonight in hopes of doing the unfathomable: winning in “The Land” and securing a 3-2 series lead with the potential to play a closeout Game 6 in front of their home fans.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey acknowledges playing and winning inside of Quicken Loans Arena will be an even more daunting task than before, but he believes two consecutive wins gives the team the collective confidence boost needed to get the job done.
I will say this: It’s going to be a different animal back in Cleveland, as it is in every series. Casey When you go into another team’s home territory, it’s a little bit tougher. But [the two wins] does give us more rhythm and more confidence going against them now that we have a little bit better feel of what we can and cannot do against this team.
If anyone needs to be animalistic, it’s Lowry and DeRozan again. A part of me worries about their chances to duplicate the wealth of success they had in the last two games, mostly because I know we’ll see a hyper-energized Cavaliers team, and the fact that most of their baskets (especially DeRozan) were of the contested variety. Yes, he’s been knocking them down on a pretty consistent basis this series, but consistently contested shots aren’t the best channel to gain access into the winners circle. Teams rarely win playing isolation basketball anymore. Sorry, Kobe.
Most people anticipate a Game 5 romping of the Raptors by an agitated Cavaliers team, but if there’s one thing this series has taught us after four games it’s that we should expect the unexpected. Toronto’s ability to upend Cleveland in the “Q” hinges on Lowry and DeRozan’s ability to power them once again. Let’s see what those boys from the “Six” have for us tonight.