As the Toronto Raptors prepare for game five in Cleveland – the scene of their humiliation in the first two games of these Eastern Conference Finals – Kyle Lowry had a simple rallying cry for his team-mates: go punch for punch.
The Raptors have done a fine job of moving on from two lopsided losses, levelling the series at 2-2 behind a pair of poised, less burdened performances at the Air Canada Centre.
While the Toronto players are not dwelling on games one and two, there were lessons to be learned, and Lowry pointed to a couple of keys to competing on the Cavaliers’ floor.
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KEEPING IT CLOSE
“We can’t let them get on a run,” he explained. “That’s where they make separation and build double-digit leads. We can’t have that.
“We have to continue to make sure that when they punch, we punch back. If they punch three times, we punch four times. They are not going to lie down. They are going to continue to push, push, push. We ain’t laying down either.”
The second half was the Raptors’ Achilles heel in both their losses at Quicken Loans Arena as the Cleveland second unit rained down three-pointers. In game two, the score was tied with 4:05 left in the first half, before the Cavaliers reeled off a 16-2 run to take control.
Despite Cleveland's dominance at the start of the series, Lowry played down the idea that the Cavaliers might have taken the Raptors lightly in games three and four. The Toronto point guard instead put the 2-2 scoreline down to each team taking care of business at home.
“I don’t think they ever looked at us like we were inferior opponents," he said. "They did what they were supposed to do on their home court. They played well those first two games. We came back and protected home.”
PLENTY STILL TO PROVE
The Raptors can take a lot of confidence from handling some vintage LeBron James moments in the fourth quarter of game four. After going 10-0 to start the post-season, Cleveland has now lost back-to-back games.
But the Cavaliers will likely shoot much better back in their own building after 13-for-41 and 14-for-41 efforts from behind the arc in their two losses. And Toronto still has to prove itself away from the Air Canada Centre after coming up short on the road in potential close-out games against the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat. After riding the energy of their home fans, the Raptors will now have to adjust to being back in the villain role again as the road team.
At this point, it is tough to say anything about this series with confidence, but the Cavaliers remain favourites to get the two wins they need to return to the Finals. That said, the Raptors’ crunch-time execution in game four suggested that they are better equipped now to find a basket when they desperately need one to put a stop to Cleveland's runs.
As Lowry noted, counter-punching will be critical for Toronto in game five, with the Cavaliers likely to fly out of the traps. If the Raptors can weather the early storm, this could be another tense, back-and-forth contest.