"Yeah if they make it there, they'll probably lose to the Cavs in five, they might get swept ... maybe they can take two games off of them."
In the dead of winter, if you were hypothesizing the absolute limit of the Raptors' success this season, that's probably the conversation you had with your buddies at one point or another. Simply reaching the Eastern Conference Finals would have been enough to satiate the appetites of Toronto's legions of success-starved fans -- it would have been almost greedy to ask for a toss-up series against Playoff LeBron and the Cavs with a Finals spot on the line.
On Monday night, the Raptors reached their ceiling with a 105-99 win over Cleveland that pushed the series to 2-2. But somehow, instead of being contained by the roof above their heads, this Raptors team looks determined to burst through the skylight.
If the Raptors were ever going to reach this pinnacle, it was going to be on the backs of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. No team plays this deep into May without star power, and while Toronto's two star guards were uneven and unpredictable through two nail-biting rounds to start the playoffs, they officially atoned for their early struggles with their play over the course of Toronto's series-evening weekend.
Game 4 might have been the best tandem showing Lowry and DeRozan have ever mustered, and it just so happened to come in one of the two or three biggest games they've ever played in together.
Lowry got the Raptors rolling like a steam train in the first half.
After the first two games saw the Cavs dabble in trapping, hedging hard and switching against Lowry in the pick-and-roll to snuff out his trademark pull-up threes, Cleveland got away from that early on Monday night, instead playing him like a guy who didn't shoot 40 percent from long distance in the regular season.
With Cleveland helping him by going under screens or just straight up forgetting about him in transition, Lowry rained an early barrage of threes (4-of-6 in the half) that, coupled with a buttery Cavs defense both inside and out, helped the Raptors sprint to a 57-41 lead after 24 minutes.
Lowry's long range game was mitigated in the second half as the Cavs began respecting his shot once again - they hedged hard, trapped and went over screens in a way they rarely did in the first half. In response, Lowry turned his attention towards eviscerating Cleveland with blow-bys instead.
Lowry would face a tougher, more engaged Cavs defense as the game progressed, but it only slowed him for brief moments. By the end of the night, Lowry was the all-time Raptors leader in 35-point playoff games, finishing with a final line of 35, five rebounds, five assists and three steals on 14-of-20 shooting and 4-of-7 from behind the arc.
DeRozan was his own brand of great in Game 4. Hardly any part of DeRozan's 32-point, three-rebound, three-assist game came easy. Of his 23 shot attempts, 19 of them were contested per NBA.com, with all but one of his 14 makes coming with a defender in his face. That's the essence of DeRozan, though. The degree of difficulty on his baskets amps up the degree of dejection felt by the other team when they drop. Raptors coach Dwane Casey referred to the Cavs' three-point marksmen Channing Frye, J.R. Smith and Irving as "tough shot makers" more than once in his post-game press conference. That moniker befits DeRozan just as much or more.
DeRozan's offense provided the counter-punch the Raptors needed desperately against the Cavs as they surged in the second half. In the third quarter, after a lightning quick, Irving-led 11-0 run that brought the Cavs within seven, DeRozan canned a tough baseline fade over Tristan Thompson. He then provided more gauze for the Raptors' open sores when he broke loose of LeBron James off the ball for an open jumper a minute and a half later. Those baskets kept the Cavs at arm's length until the clock flipped to fourth quarter.
In that final frame, it looked as though the Cavaliers might smother any chance there might have been of a long series taking place. For a time, the code was cracked. On defense, Matthew Dellavedova helped Cleveland furiously trap Lowry, Joseph and to a lesser extent, DeRozan, leading to frantic moments and rare turnovers (Toronto had just eight on the night). At the other end, Tyronn Lue unleashed a highly problematic lineup featuring James at the four and Frye as the centre that tallied points on 14 consecutive possessions to open the quarter. This option play, with Dellavedova receiving the ball in a hand-off with James and either finding an open Frye or rolling James based on the help defense's decision-making, accounted for a healthy chunk of those points.
James rolled with fury. Frye couldn't miss a three if he tried. And Irving left Joseph incredulous with his impossible shot-making.
"Those were great shots," said Joseph chuckling when asked about Irving's en fuego second half. "There was one I think I even tipped the ball a little bit and it still went in ... I did my job, you know, good defense. That was one of those things - better offense, you know? He was taking tough, mid, fade-away turnaround jumpers - he was making them."
With the Cavaliers oncoming flood, it was Toronto's unconventional shooting guard who was the sandbag that kept the Raptors from being washed away. DeRozan's secondary work as a ball-handler and his cold-blooded stroke (5-of-6, 12 points in the quarter) helped prop up the Raptors while they weathered the storm formed out of the heat radiating off of James as the power forward.
The give and take between Toronto's All-Stars ultimately swung back Lowry's way to finish the game. With the Raptors up four and just 44 seconds left on the clock, Lowry caught an in-bounds pass and set up for what looked like a a typical Raptors late-game play, 20,000 people expecting the latest in a long line of Lowry fourth quarter, step-back jump shots, this time over Iman Shumpert.
Instead, a subtle screen set by DeMarre Carroll pulled J.R. Smith into duty on Lowry. For what felt like the thousandth time on Monday night, Lowry victimized Smith's suddenly paltry one-on-one defense, and scooped in a game-sealing layup.
"It's exactly what we wanted," said Casey. "We were fortunate enough to get the switch we wanted and Kyle executed."
"You tip your hat to DeMar and Kyle," said James after the game. "They did a great job, they're All-Stars for a reason and that's why they're here today. They've carried this team all season. But even at the end of the day, as well as they played, we still had a chance, we still had a chance to win the ball game."
That the Raptors didn't relinquish control even when the Cavs gave themselves the opportunity to steal it is indicative of how far this team has come -- how far it has left its long-time nagging shortcomings in the rear view. Lowry and DeRozan didn't appear to have the mental strength to achieve in the playoffs; the team's defense was too shaky to hold up; the roster lacked the kinds of players that translate into playoff wins. If any of those lingering nuisances were still believed to be part of the gospel of these Raptors, Game 4 erased them permanently from the hard drive.
Like a high-jumper having a career-best day, the Raptors have persistently raised the bar to new heights and cleared it each time this season. Winning a pair of games against the Cleveland team that coasted through the regular season would have been considered the peak of reasonable expectation. Stealing two in a row, after being torn apart and mocked for 96 minutes by an in-form Cleveland team, brought the Raptors to the highest possible limit of their ceiling's intrados.
Now, with Lowry and DeRozan coming off two games of looking like souped-up versions of their usual selves, maybe it's not ludicrous to think that the Raptors - now just two freaking wins away from the NBA Finals -- might be able to completely do away with all this talk of ceilings and limitations.
The odds are still stacked in Cleveland's favour, of course. Two of the next three games are at Quicken Loans Arena; eventually the Cavs' shooters have to connect on some of the open looks they're creating (they were just 12-of-38 on wide open shots in Games 3 and 4); and there were some ominous signs in that near-comeback that will have Casey and his staff frenzied in search of a solution on the off day Tuesday. If Lue opts to run that James-Frye front court duo out for, say, 20 or 25 minutes instead of 10 or 15, Cleveland could very well outscore the defensive issues it's dealing with right now.
At the same time, Kevin Love had a worse weekend than anyone in Toronto, and now might be dealing with a freak ankle injury. There were signs that the Raptors might have figured out how to at least manage the option play of death being run by Cleveland by the end of the fourth, and three games isn't a ton of time for Cleveland's poor shooting spell to stabilize. Maybe the Raptors chances are still slim, but they're a hell of a lot more portly after Games 3 and 4.
"Someone mentioned that we were in it just to win one games and I disagree," said Casey. "We're in it to compete for a championship, we're here."
They're here. And in January, late April or even as little as four days ago, that prospect would have seemed completely outrageous. But the thing about this Raptors' team is that it has kept its theoretical ceiling a moving target all-season. With the Eastern Conference Finals now down to an unlikely best-of-three, who's to say they can't raise it one more time?