Whenever a best-of-seven NBA series begins with two wins by the home team, Game 3 invariably becomes a do-or-die occasion for the trailing team, even though it’s not technically an elimination contest.
Students of sports history are well aware that no NBA team has successfully overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven battle. Three teams have forged a 3-3 tie, but none have won. With this point in mind, the Toronto Raptors knew they had to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night in the Air Canada Centre.
Insiders and outsiders — those directly involved in the series as participants, or those watching from a distance with varying levels of interest — could all ascertain that the Raptors would play their most desperate game of this series on Saturday night. This is no revolutionary statement, no original insight. It simply represented the reality of the situation, as it always does in 2-0 playoff series when they move to the venue of the trailing team in Game 3.
Toronto was playing for its season. Desperate times require desperate measures.
That the Raptors spilled the tank in Game 3 is therefore not a shock in any way, shape or form. What might rate as a surprise: Toronto lent meaning and substance to its desperation.
It’s one thing to be desperate; it’s quite another to be effective and potent in a time of crisis. Toronto became both, and that’s why — for at least 48 hours — the Eastern Conference Finals possess a measure of intrigue.
Biyombo most dominating game without taking a shot as I've seen in a while. https://t.co/vjlL6wmbCu
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 22, 2016
The Raptors have never retained a comfort zone in these playoffs for a particularly long period of time. They played well in Games 2 and 3 of the Indiana series, and that’s the only stack of back-to-back games in which the East’s No. 2 seed has lived up to its potential. Otherwise, the 2016 East playoffs have become a constant rollercoaster for the Raps. “One game up, one game down” has characterized Toronto’s journey through the postseason.
One salient point to make is that Toronto was this erratic in the playoffs even with a healthy Jonas Valanciunas. Even with their best big man on the floor, the Raptors couldn’t play well in back-to-back games with the exception of 2 and 3 versus the Pacers.
Keeping this point at the forefront of awareness, Toronto would have entered the East Finals as a huge underdog to Cleveland even with Valanciunas on the floor. Without him, the margins were that much smaller for a team which needed everything to go right in order to win a game. Desperation — the strongest pillar for an 0-2 team coming home for Game 3 — gave the Raptors hope on Saturday, but they needed Bismack Biyombo to back up “JV” with distinction.
He couldn’t have answered the call any better than he did.
Who needs Valanciunas when you've got Biyombo? https://t.co/mbvKu9Wamq
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 22, 2016
With Biyombo defending the paint as he did, the rest of Toronto’s roster became emboldened in its ability to take care of the perimeter. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving combined to make only four field goal attempts on Saturday. The wheels of the Cavs’ high-flying and flawlessly-functioning offense fell off for the first time in these playoffs. It’s true that DeMar DeRozan (12 of 24) finally became an efficient shooter who did not sabotage the Raptors’ offense, but even then, Toronto failed to reach 100 points. Being able to hold Cleveland to 84 represented the Raptors’ supreme feat in Game 3.
The performance was built on the back of Bismack, whose 26 rebounds made sure the Cavs didn’t get second or third looks at the basket after Love’s and Irving’s tries failed to go through the net.
Physical against LeBron James; superior against glass-cleaning Tristan Thompson; and able to achieve inside-outside integrity, Toronto’s defense turned desperation into results.
Should any grand statement be made about the Raptors’ prospects in this series? Conversely, should anyone begin to reassess his or her opinion of the Cavs based on this game? No. A tendency to revise one’s view of these teams and this series, based on the result of a 2-0 Game 3, would rate as the latest in a series of overreactions which have accompanied the Cavs this season.
However, what can be said about Game 3 is that it:
A) gave the Raptors their first conference finals win in franchise history, something the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies failed to achieve in their sweep loss at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs;
B) offered the possibility that after Game 4, revisions of these teams might be in order.
This is, at the moment, still Cleveland’s series to lose. It’s still a series in which Toronto is pushing uphill, needing to drag its tired bodies through extended combat against the Cavs’ far fresher personnel groups. Yet, for at least 48 hours, the Raptors own the legitimate hope that they can push Cleveland much more severely than anyone originally thought.
That, in itself, represents a triumph for Toronto. It’s a modest achievement on a grander scale, but in the heat of the moment Saturday night, it constituted a formidable feat in the Eastern Conference Finals.