After two sub-par efforts in Toronto in Games 3 and 4, the Cleveland Cavaliers returned home to Quicken Loans Arena and eviscerated the Raptors, 116-78, to take a commanding 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
From the onset, the Cavaliers looked like an entirely different team. Who knew a floor made that much of a difference.
When Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love find their offensive rhythm early, the Cavs’ offense becomes an impossible game of whack-a-mole. Most teams — the Raptors included — don’t have the requisite defensive personnel to force a clicking Cavs unit into uncomfortable decisions offensively.
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Collapse on a LeBron drive and give up a Tristan Thompson dunk. Trap Kyrie Irving on a high pick-and-roll and Kevin Love pops out for an open 3-pointer on the left wing. Drop back on an Irving pick-and-roll and he’ll embarrass you:
In the blink of an eye, the Cavs were up 37-19 at the end of the first quarter. The lead then ballooned to 31 points at halftime — the largest halftime lead in conference finals history — and eventually stretched to 40 points (and more) heading into the fourth quarter.
This was how most expected the conference finals to play out (and how they did in Games 1 and 2). The Cavs are, at least on paper, clearly the better team. Even if Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are cookin’, the Cavs have enough weaponry to win that fight eight or nine times out of 10. It’s not a fair fight.
But that just hasn’t been the case thus far. Cleveland has a frustrating tendency to make things harder on themselves than they need to be — especially if Love or Irving (or both) is having an off-night. Against most teams in the East, they have enough talent and firepower to skate by, like they did in the first couple rounds (shooting at historic levels doesn’t hurt either). But not against the 56-win Raptors, and definitely not at Jurassic Park.
James had an average effort by his standards — 23 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists in just 32 minutes — on Wednesday night, which disappointed those who wished for a memorable Game 5 performance.
But Irving (23 points on 9-of-17 shooting) and Love (25 points on 8-of-10 shooting) were engaged early and often, and that more than made up for James’ "off" night.
Love, in particular, faced the most scrutiny after forgettable performances in Games 3 and 4. On the biggest stage, in the biggest game of his career, he delivered. This time around, Love sat out the fourth quarter for entirely different reasons.
Love went 6-for-6 from the floor in first half, posting 19 points (he scored 13 points total in Games 3 and 4 combined) and looking like the skilled floor-spacer the Cavs so desperately need to reach their respective offensive peak.
I mean, who else in the NBA can make plays like this?
Irving led the charge in the first quarter, scoring 11 points and helping create separation from the jump, but his performance — while necessary — isn’t as big of a deal as Love’s breakout game.
Perhaps the best news of all, though, was that the Cavs’ shaky defense looked a lot better in Game 5, limiting Lowry (13 points on 5-of-12 shooting) and Derozan (14 points on 2-of-8 shooting) to horrible shooting nights with suffocating perimeter defense and incessant blitzes and traps on pick-and-rolls.
The Cavs won the rebounding battle (48-27) and won the war in the paint (a 46-32 scoring advantage). Cleveland held Toronto to 39.1 percent shooting and forced 19 turnovers — heck, the Raptors didn’t even crack 80 points.
This was an all-around beatdown, and one that should hopefully propel the Cavs into the next round with some momentum. When James, Irving and Love each score 20-plus points in the same game, the Cavs are now 7-0 this season, and it seems like that arbitrary mark will be a necessity moving forward.
Game 6 is in Toronto on Friday. Whether the Cavs can close out this series in a hostile road environment will reveal a lot about them, and how they might fare in their second consecutive trip (and LeBron’s sixth straight trip) to the NBA Finals against whichever momentous beast makes it out of the Western Conference.
31-point halftime lead for Cavaliers is the largest halftime lead in a conference finals game in NBA history