TORONTO: Adversity has returned.
But the question for the Cavaliers is whether it has crawled into their psyches.
In the final two weeks of the regular season and the first 10 games of the playoffs, everything seemed to have come together. They were undefeated, they were happy and they were confident. It all looked so easy.
Then they set foot in Toronto.
The Cavs crossed the border and lost their touch from 3-point range in their first six quarters against the Toronto Raptors, but that was only a matter of time.
The first half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday night ( Tuesday in Manila ) at Air Canada Center exposed a multitude of the Cavs’ problems. They couldn’t shoot, they couldn’t defend, they couldn’t rebound. Unlike their Game 3 loss, it couldn’t be written off as a bad night for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
But led by Channing Frye, the Cavs regained their 3-point touch in the second half and made a game of it. The Raptors still escaped with a frenzied 105-99 victory to tie the series 2-2.
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Quicken Loans Arena, and the Cavs head home with plenty of issues to address.
Foremost is the defense. After holding the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry to 18 points in the first two games in Cleveland, Lowry torched the Cavs for 55 in the next two. DeMar DeRozan, who totaled 40 in Games 1 and 2, scored 64 at home.
The Cavs lost their domination on the boards, with the Raptors outrebounding them by 14 in Game 3 before the Cavs had a plus-3 edge in Game 4. That edge was plus-30 in two games in Cleveland.
For 6 1/2 quarters, they were outhustled and outworked by a Raptors team making the franchise’s first trip to the conference finals.
They were also not very smart at times, and not just because they continued to fire up 3s despite finishing the first half 3-for-22 from beyond the arc. Late in the third quarter when the Cavs were trying to start their comeback, J.R. Smith fouled DeMarre Carroll on a 3-point try and Carroll made all three free-throw attempts to put the Raptors up by 11. Their shot selection was baffling at times.
When the series crossed the border, the Cavs lost their rhythm on offense and didn’t get it back until the fourth quarter Monday. They struggled to control the pace. Their ball movement lagged, which might not be alarming if LeBron James or Irving were putting on a one-man show. But Love crawled back into his passive shell, Tristan Thompson couldn’t handle the pressure of playing before a hometown crowd and several Cavs looked gun-shy at times in Game 4.
There were also troublesome signs for rookie coach Tyronn Lue. On Monday, the Cavs’ rotations were out of sync. When Lue elected to play Frye for Thompson in the first quarter, it disrupted the deadly second unit of LeBron James, Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and Frye. That group had been starting the second quarter since Game 2 of the first-round series against the Detroit Pistons.
Lue opened the second quarter of Game 4 with James, Dellavedova, Frye, Shumpert and Thompson, but quickly subbed in Jefferson for Frye. The Raptors outscored the Cavs by 13 in the period to open a 16-point halftime lead.
Lue wisely went back to a form of that lineup to start the fourth quarter, with James, Irving, Jefferson, Frye and Dellavedova on the floor. Suddenly the Cavs had their mojo back.
Until the fourth quarter, it looked like a baffling mess. The Cavs arrived in Toronto on Friday looking like they had a real chance to capture a championship. They nearly headed home a shell of that team, besieged by questions and searching for confidence. Perhaps the final 12 minutes helped in that regard.
The home team has won all seven meetings between the two this season. The Cavaliers still have home-court advantage. But when they grabbed a 2-0 series lead to improve to 10-0 in the playoffs, another sweep seemed imminent.
Even though Lue and the Cavs found themselves in the final 12 minutes, their rally could not hide one glaring fact. Now they have given the young Raptors hope.