The Cleveland Cavaliers took a commanding 3-0 lead in their second-round series against the Toronto Raptors with a 115-94 victory in Game 3 on Friday. This was an evenly matched contest for three quarters, and then Cleveland went on a 20-3 run to start the final frame.
LeBron James continued his brilliant playoffs with 35 points on 9-for-16 shooting, plus eight rebounds, seven assists and a steal. DeMar DeRozan rebounded after a rough Game 2, scoring 37 points on 12-for-23 shooting, but he only had one point in the fourth quarter. Toronto guard Kyle Lowry did not play because of a sprained left ankle.
LeBron's dominance continues
After the first game of this series, Raptors coach Dwane Casey took exception to a question about his team being "dominated" by James and the Cavaliers. Now that they have lost decisively in seven out of their nine playoff meetings over the last two seasons, it's not worth debating the use of that word anymore. Cleveland has definitely dominated, destroyed and demoralized Toronto, with James clowning around a bit, too.
This time, there were no off-the-glass alley-oops, there was no mock beer drinking. James didn't bring back the spin-the-ball-before-taking-a-3 move, either. James just efficiently got what he wanted on offense over and over again, and that included spinning into a lefty turnaround:
With the left though? Do you, LeBron.#DefendTheLand pic.twitter.com/xXiLCWPqLX— NBA (@NBA) May 6, 2017
James liked that one so much that he pulled that out of his bag of tricks again in the fourth quarter:
Witness. #DefendTheLand pic.twitter.com/STh1BcaFXX— NBA (@NBA) May 6, 2017
The most encouraging sign for the Cavs was their fourth-quarter defense. When they needed to get stops, they absolutely shut the Raptors down. Toronto missed 12 of its first 13 shots to start the final frame, and that effectively ended its season.
The Raptors might not have had a realistic shot without Lowry, but they made it look like they did for 36 minutes. Few people will feel bad for them, though, as they looked like they weren't even in Cleveland's league in the first two games of the series. Toronto took two games from the eventual champions last year and then made two significant additions before the trade deadline in order to challenge them, so this is extremely disappointing. It's not just that they're down 3-0; it's that they haven't made the Cavs sweat.
One last note on James: Through seven postseason games, James is now averaging 34.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.6 blocks with a 66.1 percent true shooting percentage. He has made 48.6 percent of his his 3-pointers. It is his 14th year in the NBA, and you could make the case that he has never been better.
The importance of Korver
Some have questioned how much Kyle Korver really means to this Cleveland team because he can be exploited defensively. This game, though, showed how valuable he can be in changing the momentum of a game. The sharpshooter scored 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting, including 4-for-6 from deep, and he made those shots when they mattered. Late in the third quarter, he made two consecutive 3-pointers to preserve the Cavs' lead, the first in the corner and the second off a screen on the left side.
Ultra-green light? Ultra-green light. #DefendTheLand@ESPNNBA pic.twitter.com/SxU95TFgJN— NBA (@NBA) May 6, 2017
Korver then opened the fourth quarter with another 3, and when Cleveland ran the same play on the next possession, the Raptors trapped him, which resulted in Tristan Thompson getting an easy and-1 on the inside. This was how the Cavs started to separate themselves.
"That's why he's here," Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. "He's a specialist. No matter the time and score, he's always willing to make and take those big shots. That's why we love him."
The Cavs started the fourth quarter with James, Korver, Thompson, Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert on the court. That is not a lineup that they used in the regular season, but it's likely not the last you'll see of it. This group works because Thompson's presence allows them to switch more easily than they could with Channing Frye out there. In fact, having Korver's shooting means that they don't need to play Frye as many minutes as they did before.
DeMar comes alive
Until Cleveland went on its run, DeRozan's bounce-back game was the big story. The Cavs held him to five points on 2-for-11 shooting in Game 2, and Toronto desperately needed him to be better than that, especially without Lowry. DeRozan was, and much of that was due to him attacking in the middle of the floor. Here he is drawing a foul against J.R. Smith in the first quarter:
DeRozan was much more aggressive than he was in Cleveland, continually splitting traps and drawing fouls. He went 13-for-13 from the free throw line, demonstrating why the Cavs were so concerned with taking him out of rhythm in the first place.
"I told you even through the first two games, that's what he's capable of doing," Lue said. "Casey did a good job of just running some different stuff for him and trying to isolate him. We just tried to keep doing different coverages to try to wear him down. Him having to play 40 minutes and playing one-on-one and trying to score the basketball, I thought he got tired."
Once he got some easier baskets and free throws, DeRozan got going from midrange. He sat down at the beginning of the fourth quarter, though, and when he came back in with his team down by eight points, he wasn't able to find his groove again. He missed a couple of contested jumpers, and that was it.
"Holding him to one point in the fourth quarter is unheard of after he had 36 through three," Lue said. "But he's a tough scorer, and we just threw a bunch of different looks at him. We guarded him straight up, we blitzed him, we hit him, we fired, we did everything."
The math problem
Yet again, the Cavs had an enormous advantage from 3-point range. They went 13-for-23 from deep, while Toronto went 2-for-18. The Raptors improved a bit in terms of running Cleveland off the line, but it wasn't nearly enough on a night when they could not make anything themselves.
"The 3-ball hurt us," Casey said. "Knocking down open 3s. I thought we did an excellent job of moving the basketball, finding the right person. It's something we've done. We've knocked down 3s all year, but for whatever reason it's escaping us right now."
Toronto is 17-for-61 in the series from long range. The Cavs are 45-for-90. Surrounding James with shooters is a formidable formula, and any opponent facing them will have to keep it close in that category in order to have a chance.
"When you see them knocking down 3s left and right, getting to their spots, it's kind of deflating," DeRozan said. "It's tough to win a game when you only make two 3-pointers."