Playoffs 2017: East Semifinals -- Cavs (2) vs. Raptors (3)

Cleveland Cavaliers take care of business in Toronto, on verge of third straight trip to conference finals

Defending champions playing the part in wearing down Raptors, one game away from second straight sweep

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

TORONTO – For the first time since Christmas, we can say that the Cleveland Cavaliers are taking care of business.

The defending NBA champions went 28-25 after their Christmas Day win over the Golden State Warriors. There were a couple of games – wins at Washington and Boston – that they clearly got up for, but quality wins were followed by confounding losses and consistency fell victim to bad defense.

There was no clear flipping of the switch in the first round of the playoffs. The Cavs swept the Indiana Pacers, but won the four games by a total of just 16 points, unable to put together more than 28 or 30 minutes of good basketball on any given night. They ranked 13th defensively in the first round, having played a team that ranked 15th offensively in the regular season.

Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals were the champs’ best two games of the playoffs and established that they will be going to the conference finals for a third straight season. They would not be losing four out of five to this opponent.

But Game 3 was still a test of the Cavs ability to keep their foot on the gas pedal. And though they trailed at halftime and led by only two at the end of the third quarter, they passed the test, beating the Toronto Raptors 115-94 on Friday to take a 3-0 series lead.

“They’re a hell of a team. They’re in sync on both ends. It’s tough. We competed for, you know, 36 minutes tonight. And them 12 minutes, they took advantage of it, and they ran away with it. You gotta give ’em credit. They are the champs for a reason.”

DeMar DeRozan, on the Cavaliers taking over in the fourth quarter

The Cavs didn’t get the Raptors’ best shot. Kyle Lowry was out with a sprained ankle and Toronto shot a brutal 2-for-18 from 3-point range, with 17 of the 18 attempts being uncontested. The term “make-or-miss league” was used often after the game and the bottom line is that the Cavs shot much better than their opponent. When they got sloppy, Toronto was unable to take advantage, scoring just one point off three straight Cleveland live-ball turnovers in the middle of the second quarter.

One All-Star was, at times, enough for the Raptors. The Cavs threw two defenders at DeMar DeRozan on almost every possession and he often found ways to score around them or through them, scoring 36 points through the first 36 minutes. But DeRozan eventually ran out of gas, scored just one point in the fourth quarter, and didn’t get enough help.

“They’re a hell of a team,” DeRozan said. “They’re in sync on both ends. It’s tough. We competed for, you know, 36 minutes tonight. And them 12 minutes, they took advantage of it, and they ran away with it. You gotta give ’em credit. They are the champs for a reason.”

They were always the champs. But now, the Cavs are playing like the champs.

Before Game 3, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue dismissed the idea that his team’s effort or focus would determine the outcome, going with the “make-or-miss league” stuff. But the Cavs were the second-best shooting team in the regular season, and that wasn’t enough for a top-five point differential.

After Game 3, Lue didn’t want to think too hard about why his team was now doing more than just shooting well.

“I don’t know,” Lue said when asked what the difference was. “Just happy to be here.”

And probably happy that his team is playing better defense. Through Friday, the Cavs have the No. 1 defense in the conference semifinals, having allowed the Raptors to score less than a point per possession. Toronto has missed a lot of open shots, but the Cavs have been good enough defensively to keep Toronto from finding a collective rhythm on that end of the floor. DeRozan rebounded from a brutal Game 2, but did so by hitting some tough shots.

Other tests will come. With Lowry out and with the Raptors unable to buy a bucket from the outside, maybe this was just a practice exam. The Cavs are now 31-4 in playoff games within the Eastern Conference since LeBron James returned to Cleveland.

There’s better basketball being played out West. But the Cavs have seven more steps to take before that challenge presents itself. And maybe they need all those steps before they’re ready for it.

“We just want to try to get better every game,” James said after scoring 35 points on just 16 shots in Game 3. “I think tonight we did that once again. We knew were coming into a hostile environment. We knew they were going to give us everything they had, no matter who was in the lineup. And we just had to weather the storm. We didn’t know if it was going to take 36 minutes or 40 minutes, but we knew if we just played our game, paid attention to our details, then we would have an opportunity to win the game. I think we stuck to our game plan for close to 48 minutes once again and we took another step forward.”

If it was a practice exam, the Cavs took it seriously enough to put themselves in position to get another week off before the conference finals.

“I think it just shows you that we’re pros and we’ve definitely been playing inspired basketball,” Kevin Love said. “We’re very locked in. Our energy and efficiency has been there. So, we hope that continues to carry over into Sunday and hopefully from there on. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We know we have a lot of work to do in this series as well, but we feel like we’ve definitely taken a step in the right direction.”

It’s not a coincidence that the Cavs have looked their best after their longest break since All-Star weekend. One more win brings more rest and Game 4 on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) is an opportunity to once again take care of business.

Game 3 was a sign that they know how to do just that.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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