Game 3 is over.
It was fun. It was cathartic, to be sure. It will forever be 'the Bismack Game'. It's also spurred yet another 'Toronto vs Everybody' moment in time -- be it with the Cavaliers as a whole, LeBron James specifically or the NBA referees -- Raptors fans have a bee in their bonnet and are looking for balm. They feel their team is consistently disrespected, unappreciated, unloved. They feel that the disparate foul calls (73-46 for Cleveland, in case you hadn't heard), the overacting of a certain superstar ('I don't even know how to flop!') and the general attitude of the US sports media are unassailable proof of this. The truth of those assertions notwithstanding, it means that tonight's game is a true fork in the road.
Can this Raptors team defy expectations and head back to Cleveland tied at 2? Or will we remember Game 3 as a blip on the radar of Cleveland's journey to the Finals?
I can't help but be reminded of the 2008 playoffs, when the Raptors took on the Orlando Magic. After losing the first two games on the road, the 6-seeded Raptors came home to face Dwight Howard and company. I was in attendance at the game, and to this day, I've never heard the Air Canada Centre louder. The crowd was positively rabid, slow chanting 'Howard, Howard, Howard' every time the man attempted a free throw. He was visibly rattled, and after starting the series with twin 20-20 games, he faltered. The Raptors cruised to a 108-94 victory and anything seemed possible.
What happened next? Well, the Magic team quickly recovered and won Games 4 and 5 by double digits. It makes sense in retrospect. It was a Magic team that was on the rise, versus a Raptors team that had reached their ceiling. The next season the Raptors missed the playoffs, while the Magic made the Finals.
Is a single win in the Eastern Conference Finals the ceiling of this team? We'll find out tonight.
Here are your keys to Game 4.
Caught in a Landslide
Momentum in sports has become something of a dirty word. I can certainly see why an analytical approach would tell you that it doesn't exist in-game in sports like football and baseball, and why when you're considering a group of professional athletes in any sport, it's hard to believe that there's any kind of erosion of confidence on a game to game basis. So maybe 'momentum' is the wrong word altogether. Maybe it's more about self-belief. Toronto did a lot of interesting things in Game 3, but chief among them was that they actually beat a previously 10-0 Cleveland team. They've humanized them. The 'momentum' as it were, isn't against Cleveland. It's for a Toronto team that had previously been playing well below their ceiling. Their previously fragile self-belief has been buttressed by tangible success, with a clear road map to repeating that success.
No Escape From Reality
About that road map: Toronto played extremely well defensively in Game 3. However, it's a long-shot that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are going to shoot 4-28 from the field in a game again. Bismack Biyombo's 26 rebound performance is also unlikely to be repeated. So if both of those spectacularly wild events normalize in Game 4, what can Toronto do to maintain an edge?
They can continue to move the ball on offense, using a slash and kick game to probe the paint and set up open three point looks. They can continue to take care of the ball (9 TO's in Game 3) limiting transition baskets for the Cavs.
Most importantly, they can continue to make LeBron James a passer and jump shooter. Sending Biyombo to help DeMarre Carroll when James is on the block led to some good looks from three for Cleveland, but was ultimately more effective than the dunkfests of Games 1 and 2. Toronto did a much better job closing out on shooters in Game 3, and while Cleveland managed to attempt 41 three pointers, they made just 14. That's a percentage Toronto can live with.
I'm Just a Poor Boy, I Need No Sympathy
The officiating in this series has heavily favoured Cleveland. There's no way to get around the truth of that. Whether the calls are accurate or not, at this point, is irrelevant. The Raptors can't get caught up complaining about the officiating and they can't allow poor calls to derail them. They have to go into the game assuming that every close call will go against them, that LeBron will keep vying for an Academy Award and use that as fuel. If you put the game in the hands of the referees, you're playing with fire at the best of times. So do everything you can to ensure they have as little effect on the outcome of the game as possible. Easier said than done, I know, but it's a mentality the Raptors have to have. Here's Eric Koreen with the final word on the subject:
In conclusion, it would be better if all players didn't accentuate contact and all refs were perfect. Yet here we are, in reality.— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) May 23, 2016
Game 3 is over.
It's time for Game 4.
Where to Watch: 8:30pm on TSN