Is It Time to Start Taking Toronto Raptors Seriously?

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2016

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  Kyle Lowry #7 and DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors look on in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Just like that, with a gutsy 105-99 Game 4 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors have given us a real Eastern Conference Finals.

And a reason to believe.

It has been a tumultuous few weeks for the Raptors' playoff stock. They entered the postseason as the East's clear second-best team and, to many, were the biggest obstacle standing between the Cavaliers and another NBA Finals berth.

But by the end of Round 2, having endured seven-game sets against the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, Toronto didn't stand a chance of rattling Cleveland, let alone upsetting them.

At the conclusion of Game 2, the Eastern Conference Finals were seemingly over. The Raptors lost both contests by a combined 50 points, their true colors on full display, revealing a silhouette of a pretender rather than a true contender.

Optimism didn't even shine through after their Game 3 win. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were terrible, combining to shoot 4-of-28 from the field. Bismack Biyombo (26 rebounds), DeMar DeRozan (32 points) and Kyle Lowry (20 points) were in beast mode at the same time. It was the Cavaliers' first loss of the playoffs.

The Raptors got lucky.

But then Game 4 happened. 

Toronto came out prepared again, stretching its lead to as many as 18 points. Every Cleveland run, and there were many, was met with a swift response. Toronto even withstood a blistering fourth-quarter start that helped the Cavaliers seize the lead and should have portended doom for the home team, according ESPN Stats & Info:

Rather than fold, as they did by the end of the first half in Games 1 and 2, the Raptors pushed back. DeRozan pumped in 12 of his 32 points during that final frame. He was yet again spectacular (14-of-23 shooting), probing the Cavaliers' shoddy paint protection with his drives and drilling ridiculously difficult shots when the situation called for it:

Lowry was, somehow, better than his All-Star running mate. Nine of his 35 points came in the fourth quarter—the perfect ending to a night that saw him score 15 points in the second period and shoot a scintillating 14-of-20 overall on a steady dose of drives and long-range missiles (4-of-7 on threes) from another area code:

Biyombo, meanwhile, did Biyombo. Again. He was a beast on the glass (14 rebounds), a nuisance at the rim (three blocks) and, while he tallied just five points, made his presence felt on the offensive end, per Danny Leroux of RealGM:

It says a lot about Biyombo's fast-rising value that Raptors coach Dwane Casey kept Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto's most consistent postseason scorer prior to spraining his right ankle, chained to the bench even though he was active.

And the Raptors' new Big Three wasn't alone. 

Cory Joseph went for an understated eight points and two assists, providing quality backcourt defense while giving Toronto an off-ball decoy that limited the number of traps Cleveland threw at DeRozan and Lowry.

Patrick Patterson had himself a game as well—especially on the offensive end (nine points, two assists), where he confounded the Cavaliers defense with his passing and, as ESPN's Zach Lowe and Jeff Van Gundy observed, unpredictable screens:

Everything has changed. A Raptors team with no hope has plenty. They journey back to Cleveland for Game 5 on Wednesday, two wins away from where no one realistically expected them to be: the NBA Finals.

But are they for real? Have they put the demons from Games 1 and 2, and the previous two rounds, behind them for good? Or will these two efforts end up being just a brief respite from their foreordained fate?

After all, DeRozan and Lowry syncing up for dominant performances is, for now, the exception, not the rule. They collectively shot 21-of-30 (70 percent) on contested looks in Game 4. Can Toronto count on that happening again, when the first half of this series, and most of these playoffs, have told a different story? 

Lowry and DeRozan vs. Jekyll and Hyde
DeMar and LowryPTSFG%3P%Contested FG%Plus/Minus Together
ECF Games 1 and 25839.76.310.5-16
ECF Games 3 and 411958.8%47.161.2+9
Source: NBA.com

The Raptors' surge has also coincided with the fall of Kevin Love and the Cavaliers' offensive flow. Love is 5-of-23 from the floor over his last two outings, compared to 9-of-16 in Games 1 and 2. And after starting the series with impeccable ball movement, Cleveland has devolved into a clunky mess of one-on-ones pieced together with sporadic stretches of otherworldly efficiency. 

There won't always be nights, like Game 4, when LeBron James doesn't score during the final five-plus minutes of action. The Cavaliers, who were shooting 46.2 percent from deep through their first two series, won't always crumble beneath a 13-of-41 clip from downtown. And the Raptors won't always be playing at home, where they are 8-2 in the playoffs.

Cleveland will be better. Toronto has yet to withstand its best shot and prevail, being 2-6 during postseason road games. These two unanticipated wins could become an irrelevant footnote in the Cavaliers' path back to the NBA Finals.

You'll just have to forgive Dwane Casey if he doesn't agree.

"We’re not in this just to win one game, to not just get swept," he said after Game 3, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "We’re in this to win."

That should scare Cleveland.

Yes, the Cavaliers have routinely lit nets on fire from deep during the playoffs, but they're shooting a human 33.3 percent against Toronto. And sure, the DeRozan-Lowry connection has gone mostly cold, but they are All-Stars. It's more likely their struggles were temporary.

As James put it, per CBS Sports' James Herbert:

Indeed, to continue challenging the Cavaliers, the Raptors must be exactly what they were in Games 3 and 4—nearly perfect. And that remains a harrowing reality, even now, given the recent past.

Except for the first time all postseason, with Toronto making the defensive adjustments it has to mitigate Cleveland's offensive cogency, near perfection feels sustainable.

 

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @danfavale.