Between Game of Thrones and the NBA Playoffs, there are two different sets “others” lurking in the North that almost nobody is paying enough attention to. Only one, however, just weathered two seemingly decisive wins to even a series against the (prematurely?) anointed Cavaliers. Suddenly, Cleveland has dropped consecutive games to a Raptors squad that lost its starting center to injury and was counted out two games into the Conference Finals. Is it time we start looking northward?
Let’s get the obvious things out of the way: the Raptors shot significantly better in each of their wins this series. Here’s a comparison:
Not only did the Raptors shoot significantly better in their two playoff wins, but they took more 2-point shots. The numbers would suggest that they select their threes more intelligently in the games they win, which falls in line with the assumption that a lot of their hopes this series rest on the shoulders of their starting guards, DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry. In the game 4 Toronto win, they combined for 67 points on 65% shooting, their highest scoring combo night as a pair. In game 3, another Raptors win, they combined for 52 points on 51%. In games 1 and 2, both losses, they shot 41.9% and 37.5% for 26 and 32 points, respectively.
One of the reasons the Raptors have been able to punish Cleveland more on the perimeter, along with “the guards are just making their shots”, is the massive shift in paint scoring. In two wins, Toronto has averaged 40 points per game in the paint, versus 32 in losses.
Toronto’s defense in the most recent two games deserves a nod as well. Bismack Biyombo has become more important to the Raptors than anyone could have guessed a month ago, and he’s capitalizing on his starting role. He’s playing solid paint defense, accumulating 7 blocks in the last two games, more than any other player in the series. He’s also challenging and changing shots well, allowing Toronto’s forwards to stick more closely to Cleveland’s stretch big men. Remember the Raptor’s scoring numbers in the paint? They’re even more stark when compared to the Cavaliers’ numbers. In wins, the Cavs averaged 53 points per game in the paint. In losses, they plummeted to 28. That also shows up in LeBron James’ stats in Cleveland wins and losses. He’s less efficient when they lose, and he’s taken more than twice as many threes in games 3 and 4 combined as he did in games 1 and 2 together, a shot he’s been historically bad at this season.
No one’s surprised that Toronto won games where their star guards played well, but their defense has played a huge role too. If they can continue to restrict the Cavaliers in the paint, not only do they get to play more cohesive perimeter defense, but they neutralize Cleveland’s lethal inside-out game that runs on LeBron drive-and-kick plays. Forcing James to the perimeter goes a long way in restricting the Cavaliers offense due to his efficiency in the paint and passing ability. Make no mistake, he’s the best passer on that team, and it’s not close. He’s the engine that drives that team, but he has noted weaknesses outside the paint this season. If Toronto can cause him the same discomfort they did in their home games, they have a solid shot at the Finals.
Cleveland is not invincible; they never have been, and nobody is. The Raptors have shown the league that they can exploit weaknesses. It’s time people took them seriously as a threat in the East, particularly now that DeRozan and Lowry appear to have found their shots.