The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Finals series with the Toronto Raptors with plenty of questions.
Could the Cavs bounce back and regain control of the series after losing for the first time all playoffs?
Could Kyrie Irving play better defense and shut down the resurgent Kyle Lowry?
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Could the Cavs get J.R. Smith or Kevin Love to provide anything after back-to-back no-show performances?
And ultimately: Was coach Tyronn Lue capable of making the adjustments necessary to turn around the series?
The Cavs answered all those questions in emphatic, affirmative fashion Wednesday.
Now, only one question remains: Can they do it again – this time, on the road?
Lue’s performance was particularly under the spotlight heading into Game 5, and he came through in a major way. The Cavs coach had an impressive and aggressive defensive gameplan for Wednesday’s game, and his players showed the energy and eagerness necessary to execute it.
Irving, who had been torched by Lowry in Toronto’s Game 3 and 4 wins, posted his most impressive defensive performance of the postseason Wednesday, holding the Raptors’ point guard to 3-of-8 shooting as the primary defender, with all the makes coming after the outcome the game was determined.
(Lowry was held to 13 points in Game 5. The Raptors are now 1-8 when he’s held under 14 points this postseason and remain 9-1 when he scores 14 or more.)
The Cavs were aggressive on closeouts and deftly used the shot clock as a sixth defender. And it says a lot about the Cavs’ collective defensive intensity that Smith was arguably the Cavs’ most active player on that end of the court Wednesday.
On the other end of the court, Love played the game with an equal fire. He started the contest 6-for-6, not missing until the Cavs were up 32 points. He did sit another fourth quarter – his third straight – but this time under different circumstances.
It’s performances like that from the Cavs that make it seem like they’re the favorites to win the NBA title – especially with Golden State on the ropes in the Western Conference.
But to truly make that claim, they’ll have to carry their impressive play from the three games in Cleveland to Toronto for Game 6 on Friday.
That contest isn’t a must-win for the Cavs, but it should be treated with significant urgency. There’s a lot to prove.
For this series to go to a Game 7, considering how the Cavs have rocked the Raptors not once, but three times, would be viewed as a failure. And while Cleveland would probably win that winner-take-all contest, the Cavs would enter the NBA Finals not knowing if they can win on the road against anything close to elite competition.
Considering how well the Oklahoma City Thunder are playing (or the Warriors, should they do the improbable and turn around the Western Conference Finals in dramatic fashion), that’s a bad thing to not know.
The Cavaliers showed Wednesday that they have what it takes to punch back after taking one to the jaw. Friday, they have a chance to show that they have what it takes to be a champion.