Problems for anybody trying to figure out how to defend this team.
“They’re very difficult to beat when [LeBron James] is shooting the ball like that because the floor is so spread,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after his team, a top-10 defense in the regular season, allowed the Cavs to score 118 points per 100 possessions in the series. “It really takes you away [from the basket]. And then they bring in [Channing] Frye and Korver, they’ve got the floor spread so much. And now here goes Kyrie [Irving]. They present so many problems offensively. You’ve got to score 117, 118 points a night to beat them, because they have so many weapons.”
The Raptors played their best game of the series on Sunday. P.J. Tucker started his first game of the postseason and was in James’ shirt all afternoon. The Raptors moved the ball well on offense and made some of the open jumpers they had been missing in the first three games.
But it wasn’t enough. Despite Tuckers’ defense – he was, essentially, on the floor and in front of James for 46 minutes – James scored 35 points on 11-for-22 shooting, hitting five of his 12 threes. And every time the Raptors made a run, the Cavs had an answer, often from beyond the arc.
When the Raptors got off to a strong start, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue called on Frye a little earlier than usual, and a couple of Frye jumpers helped Cleveland turn an 11-point, first-quarter deficit into a tie game heading into the second.
Then it was Korver’s turn. He was the key ingredient – with a couple of jumpers and an assist to James when two defenders went toward the shooter – in a 15-4 Cleveland run in the middle of the second quarter.
When the Raptors fought back to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter, Irving went on a personal, 11-2 run that gave the Cavs the lead for good. It started with his patented, step-back three from the right wing.
The dagger was another step-back from James, his fifth three of the game. Stay at home on the shooters and the ball-handlers will just create their own space.
Toronto, meanwhile, just didn’t have enough shooting to compete. In the series, 84 percent of the Raptors’ 3-point attempts were uncontested. But they shot just 32 percent on those uncontested threes. Only 69 percent of the Cavs’ threes were uncontested, but they shot 46 percent on those uncontested threes and even better (48 percent) on contested looks from beyond the arc.
When Casey was asked before Game 4 what his team was missing with the absence of point guard Kyle Lowry, the first thing he mentioned was Lowry’s 3-point shooting. The All-Star was one of the best 3-point shooters off the dribble this season and though Cory Joseph is one of the league’s back-up point guards, he isn’t the long-distance shooter that Lowry is. The Raptors don’t have many weapons from deep, and when you take away the most dangerous one, it’s problems.
It’s all about shooting. If you have it, you can make up for inconsistent defense or erratic play from quarter to quarter. Exhibit A is your Cleveland Cavaliers. The focus comes and goes. The defense can be beat. But the Cavs are now 8-0 in this postseason and 32-4 in the Eastern Conference playoffs over the last three years.
You may have thought that the Cavs, who shot 41 percent from 3-point range in the postseason last year, had enough shooting. But GM David Griffin wasn’t satisfied, so he traded for one of the best shooters in NBA history in January, and it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship.
“Nothing helps you get open more than more shooting,” said Korver, who shot 8-for-12 from beyond the arc in Games 3 and 4. “When you’re the only shooter, they can lock in on that. But when you got multiple shooters, it makes it really hard to guard. We have that here and we were designed like that for a reason.”
You’re seeing it now. History tells us that defense is more important than offense if you want to win a championship. But this is a new NBA, where you can’t win if you can’t keep up offensively. Just ask the Raptors, who also had a top-10 offense in the regular season, but couldn’t hang with the combination of James and a group that complements him perfectly.
“We have a lot of guys who were brought to this team,” Korver said, “to help make our main guys even better, hopefully, to give them the space they need to operate, to be special.”
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