For most of the season, Kyle Lowry going to the bench has meant instantaneous doom for the Raptors. Whether it's due to foul trouble or the basic human requirement for rest, the void left by Lowry typically haunts the Raptors like an apparition in the shadows. When his shot is wayward - as has been the case of most of these playoffs - his defense, headiness and playmaking are still usually enough to keep the Raptors afloat. If he's getting shots to fall? He elevates the Raptors to a new stratosphere.
So when Lowry left with two fouls at the 5:40 mark of the first quarter - in the midst of connecting on three pointers and doing usual awesome Lowry things, no less - it looked as though the Raptors' early solid start would quickly turn to mush.
Not so, as it turned out. For the remainder of the quarter, Cory Joseph picked up where Lowry left off, carving into the Cavs suddenly soft perimeter defense and keeping the Raptors' offense flowing. Toronto critically kept itself from collapsing, playing the Cavs even until Lowry came back to start the second quarter.
Just under four minutes later, though, with the Raptors having pushed their lead to 38-32, Lowry picked up his third. Surely, the Raptors couldn't sustain for eight-plus minutes without him to close the half, right?
With Joseph back in and regaining his first-round form, DeMar DeRozan turning what was probably his best half of the playoffs, and Bismack Biyombo grabbing more than a third of every available rebound, the Raptors' didn't just survive - they exploded. Somehow, the Raptors led 60-47 at half time with Lowry taking part in just 10 minutes.
For much of the third quarter, you could feel the Raptors teetering. Toronto adopted a new strategy for trying to slow down the Cavaliers after two games of being demolished on the interior. Rather than playing LeBron James one-on-one and staying home on shooters, the Raptors opted to send extra help LeBron's way and dare him to rifle passes to open shooters on the perimeter. Because he's LeBron James, he did just that - hurling dart after dart to his waiting teammates. Throughout most of the playoffs, the Cavs' gunners have turned such opportunities into all-time three-point shooting records. On Saturday, they turned them into bricks.
On the other end, the Raptors took part in the fun, missing their own share of open looks created by gorgeous ball movement. DeRozan kept the offense breathing with a collection of drives that brought you back to the good old days of the regular season, but still, Cleveland was creeping ... until:
Review (Kennedy): if Joseph's made 3FG was released before time exp. Q3 #CAVSvRAPTORS. Ruling: Upheld, 3FG is good. https://t.co/8UeoSfqyrj— NBA Official (@NBAOfficial) May 22, 2016
The Raptors never let the euphoria of that Joseph quarter-closing buzzer beater peter out. A quick Patrick Patterson three followed by a Lowry driving layup put the Raptors up 15 to start the fourth, allowing 20,000 people to exhale. No one knew it at the time, but that Lowry basket to make it 85-70 would serve as the game-winner. Toronto's locked-in defense (and a clank-a-thon on the part of the Cavs) held Cleveland to just 14 points in the final frame. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving posted a collective shooting performance worse than anything Lowry and DeRozan have teamed up for in the playoffs -- 4-of-28 from the field and 2-of-11 from three. Their struggles crippled Cleveland's otherwise flowing offense. Love didn't even touch the floor in the final 12 minutes.
Biyombo scored almost half that amount in the fourth. After putting up a hilariously crooked 1-point, 21-rebound, 4-block stat line in the first three quarters, Biyombo chipped in two thunderous dunks that riled up the crowd to levels only before heard in Game 7 against Miami (actually, it was probably louder).
"He was huge. I thought he played a big time game in the paint." said Casey. "He's just kind of the spirit of our team."
He was the spirit of the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, too. His exuberance, his finger-wagging and infectious smile radiated outwards and took life within the deliriously joyful fans in attendance.
That's the feeling Raptors fans needs to bottle from Game 3. A win on Saturday doesn't suddenly bring the Raptors on par with the Cavs from a talent standpoint, and with a 2-1 deficit still to overcome, it's still a stretch to suggest the Raptors can steal the Eastern Conference title from the Cavs. Toronto could very well drop the next two games and bow out of the playoffs in a way most people anticipated coming into the series.
But even if that happens, this incredibly fun Raptors team gave its rabid fans one more touchstone moment from these playoffs to store in their memory banks on Saturday night. What's better is that this time, is that it was wonderfully unexpected.