TORONTO — The home team has won all six games played between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors this season. If the Raptors can keep that trend going in Game 4 on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Eastern Conference finals will suddenly get very interesting.
Here are things to watch on either end of the floor as the Raptors try to even the series and the Cavs try to get within one win of their second straight trip to The Finals.
Toronto on offense – The value of a good screen
Bismack Biyombo was the big story in Game 3, grabbing 26 rebounds, blocking four shots, and helping limit the Cavs to just 20 points in the paint. He also scored six straight points to put the game away in the fourth quarter.
But Biyombo’s biggest offensive contribution on Saturday were his seven screen assists, five more than any other player recorded. The Raptors struggled offensively through the first two rounds and shot 41 percent in the first two games against the Cavs, who are the worst defensive team they’ve faced in the playoffs.
Toronto broke out offensively in Game 3, scoring 60 points on just 43 possessions in the first half and finishing with 99 on 85. SportVU data tells us that the Raptors set fewer ball screens in Game 3 (68) than they did in Games 1 or 2 (91, 85). But Biyombo’s screens were particularly effective.
According to SportVU, the Raptors scored 36 points (1.29 per possession) on possessions in which Biyombo set a ball screen. That’s more than they scored off Biyombo screens in Games 1 and 2 combined (33, 0.75 per possession).
Here are a couple of screens from Biyombo that allowed DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph attack Tristan Thompson off the dribble…
Good screening allows the offense to pick which defender they want to go at. The Raptors have three ball-handlers — DeRozan, Joseph and Kyle Lowry — who can take advantage of non-rim-protectors off the dribble and the Cavs have three non-rim-protectors — Thompson, Kevin Love and Channing Frye — on their frontline.
On Sunday, Raptors coach Dwane Casey stressed the importance of both a good screen and the ball-handler’s timing and ability to create space as the screen is being set.
“It’s really important,” Casey said. “I think especially when it’s a physical-type game where the opposing team is into the guard or into the pin-down of the guy receiving the screen. I think it’s really important, the timing, where you don’t set illegal screens or the defense doesn’t hurry you up, and it gives [the screener] an opportunity to get his body on the defender.
“It’s a dance. You’ve got to have a dance partner, is what I call it. The guy that’s receiving the screen has got to be able to dance with the guy guarding him. They’re doing a lot of top-blocking, so you’ve still got to be able to dance with him to take him to the screen and/or create the separation, one of the two. If you’re a point guard and you’re trying to come off on the pick-and-roll, your ability to get separation from the defender is just as important as that screen. So now with the defense heightened and them understanding exactly what you’re doing, it’s even more important.”
Cleveland is not a great defensive team if you pick the right spots to attack and execute with effective screens. Toronto will look to do that again in Game 4.
Cleveland on offense – LeBron with the ball
Of course, the Cavs usually don’t have to be a great defensive team, because their offense is so potent. But that offense took a step backward on Saturday, scoring just 84 points on 84 possessions (37 on 41 in the second half).
Kyrie Irving (3-for-19) and Kevin Love (1-for-9) combined to shoot 4-for-28 in Game 3 after shooting 58 percent combined in their two home games. Regression to the mean was certainly in play, but the Toronto defense deserves some credit for defending better than they did in Games 1 and 2.
Casey spoke about the pick-and-roll “dance” on the Raptors’ end of the floor, but there’s also been an interesting dance going on when LeBron James has had the ball in this series.
Early in Game 1, James posted up DeMarre Carroll on the right side of the floor…
Biyombo was stationed on the opposite side of the lane, sticking with Thompson so that the weak-side defenders didn’t have to help off the Cavs’ shooters. And of course, James spun baseline, where there was no help, scoring two of the Cavs’ 50 points in the restricted area in Game 1.
Early in Game 2, James posted up Carroll on the right side of the floor…
This time, Biyombo slid over to the strong side, to help at the rim…
… and both DeRozan and Luis Scola sank down to put a body on Thompson. So James just zipped a pass to Love for an open three, with DeRozan a half second too late on his close-out.
In the second quarter of Game 3, James posted up Carroll on the right side of the floor…
Biyombo was dancing back and forth, but in the paint and ready to help, with Patrick Patterson putting a body on Thompson. There’s might have been a passing lane there, but it wasn’t as wide as it was in Game 2, and the Raptors were more organized on the weak side, where both guys weren’t helping and DeRozan was in position to recover to J.R. Smith.
The result of the play? James spun baseline, Biyombo stopped him there, and he passed to Love, who forced an ugly, leaning, step-in jumper after Patterson closed out in time.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said with his other two stars struggling, the coach should have leaned more on his best player.
“I should have put the ball in LeBron’s hands a little bit more,” Lue said Sunday, “to let him create and let him draw double teams.”
While the Raptors handled that play in Game 3 better than they did in Cleveland, they didn’t see it as often. In fact, Love posted up more than James did on Saturday, when James more often had the ball on the perimeter.
The Raptors didn’t defend James the same way every time. Sometimes, Carroll was in his shirt…
… but mostly, he wasn’t.
And he went under screens, giving James space to shoot or act “like a quarterback” as Carroll says.
The Raptors would obviously love to make James a jump-shooter. This year, he shot just 34.3 percent from outside the paint, his worst mark since his rookie year. And he’s 4-for-16 from outside the restricted area in this series.
James is less likely to take the bait than he has been in previous years. In these playoffs, 53 percent of his shots have come in the restricted area, up from 36 percent in playoffs past. But he will be happy to use that space to see the floor and find his teammates for open shots.
The key is the other Raptors’ ability to stay at home on the Cavs’ shooters and fight through pin-down screens being set for Smith and Irving. They did a better job of that in Game 3 and will have to continue to be sharp defensively in Game 4.
“If you back off of him, he’s going to make a good decision,” Casey said. “So we have to mix up how we want to play him, whether it’s up on him or back or sending help or not sending help. There’s not one way you can play a great player like he is.”