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New culture Raptors, same old result: Cleveland wins big to take 2-0 series lead

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This was not the same ol’ Raptors.

Toronto’s vaunted “cultural reset” this season had two parts. One was the offense being more egalitarian and less isolation — and we saw that in Game 2 Thursday. The ball moved, they had 26 assists and put up 110 points, their shot selection was good, and overall they had an efficient night with a net rating of 119 (points per 100 possessions).

But does it matter if it’s old or new if the result is the same?

The second part of the “reset” was the defense — Toronto had the fifth-best defense in the NBA this season, allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions. They have steadily climbed the NBA rankings on that side of the ball in recent years. This season the Raps were fifth in the league in halfcourt defense and didn’t allow a lot of transition opportunities (ninth fewest in the league). However, that had slipped after the All-Star break (11th best defense after that February date) and that slide continued into the playoffs.

Toronto’s defense took Thursday night off and it all but ended the series.

The Cleveland Cavaliers put up 128 points with an insane 138.9 offensive rating (points per 100), led by LeBron James’ 43 points and 14 assists, and Kevin Love’s 31 points. The result was a comfortable 128-110 Cleveland win where the game was never in doubt in the fourth.

“They got hot offensively and that drained us a little bit,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the game.

Cleveland is now up 2-0 in the series and is heading home with Game 3 Saturday. The Raptors’ demons are all back and as a team they looked demoralized. Beaten. We may not have another game in the Air Canada Centre this season.

All-game long the Cavaliers seemed to get whatever shot they wanted — and what they wanted early was to get Kevin Love going.

“Kevin Love was phenomenal, gave us a double-double,” LeBron said. “The All-Star that we know and have grown to love, he was wonderful man.”

In the first game, Cleveland did a poor job of exploiting the Love’s quickness advantage when Jonas Valanciunas on him (which led to calls to start Tristan Thompson at the five, something Tyronn Lue ignored). In Game 2 the Cavaliers started attacking, running corner picks for love that got him across the lane for dunks. Then the Cavs started going at the Raptors’ weakest links in pick-and-rolls and forcing Valancinuas to cover a lot more ground (the Love/LeBron pick-and-rolls were particularly effective). All of this led to Love getting open — and this time he knocked the shots down.

“We were able to get some shots, we’re making some shots, playing with more pace, and I think our offense has just picked up,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

In the third quarter, LeBron took over and looked every bit the best player on the planet, leading an 18-5 surge to start the quarter. He had 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting plus six assists in the third alone, hitting tough shots all the while. Even when the Raptors defended them well it didn’t matter.

“That drains you mentally and physically,” Casey said of LeBron hitting tough fadeaway after tough fadeaway in the second half.

While that happened, the Cavaliers tightened their defense in the paint, taking away some of the easy buckets Toronto was getting in the first 24 minutes. While the Raptors still scored well, it wasn’t enough to keep up.

The Cavaliers won the third quarter 37-24, were up by 11 at the end and in control. You could feel the energy of the fans and the confidence of the Raptors players drain away. The fourth quarter felt like a lot of decided NBA regular season games where it might not formally be garbage time but the game was decided.

Toronto should look back at their first half as a blown opportunity.

It was a fairly close first half where the Raptors were the better team but the Cavaliers hung around. Cleveland was running Love off picks and attacking the rim on offense — the Cavaliers were 9-of-11 at the rim in the first quarter and didn’t have a bucket outside the paint. Toronto had a small lead most of the quarter, but could not extend it when LeBron sat at the end of the first.

That continued into the second — the Raptors were moving the ball, playing with pace, taking better shots and being efficient on offense. But they couldn’t get stops (Love had 18 in the first half, LeBron was attacking off the pick-and-roll) and it was a two-point game at the half, 63-61.

Then the third happened. And that might have been the series.

Al Horford had to tell Aron Baynes to take the ball to the basket (VIDEO)

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Boston’s Aron Baynes has seen his minutes increase the past couple of games of the Eastern Conference Finals as Brad Stevens tries to match up better with Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson.

Baynes is a solid big man who can step out and hit a three, but he’s not exactly blessed with the offensive gene — he’s no natural scorer. Sometimes it’s not even clear he knows where the basket is.

Such as on this fourth quarter play from Monday night, where Al Horford has to point Baynes to the rim and tell him to go there.

It worked. This time.

Baynes, Horford and the Celtics made things interesting in the second half, but could not overcome their early deficits and lost Game 4 to the Cavaliers 111-102, tying the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2.

Fast start, LeBron James enough for Cavaliers to hold on to win, even series

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For the first time in 11 days, we had an NBA playoff game that finished with a single-digit margin. Barely.

It didn’t look like it would be early — Boston missed lay-ups and dunks all through the first quarter, LeBron James was being LeBron James, and the Cavaliers had a 16 point first quarter lead. It was 15 at the half.

But these Celtics would not go quietly.

Boston started to find it’s offensive groove — hunting Kevin Love incessantly — but in the end couldn’t get enough stops because, well, LeBron James. He finished with 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting, his sixth 40-point game of these playoffs. He got wherever he wanted on the floor all night, carving up the top-ranked regular season defense of the Celtics like a surgeon. No other Cavalier had more than 14 points (Kyle Korver), but the supporting cast played enough defensive and made hustle plays to hang on.

@realtristan13 with the swat and @kingjames with the finish!

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Cleveland got the win, 111-102, and evened the series at 2-2. Game 5 is Wednesday night back in Boston.

What Celtics fans can feel good about is their team’s resilience and grit. Down big for the second-straight game on the road in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics fought back from as much as 19 down earlier in the game to get it to single digits and make the fans in Quicken Loan Arena nervous in the fourth quarter. That is something the team can carry over to Game 5, as they can some defensive tweaks that shut down opportunities for Korver and the rest of the supporing cast.

What should bother Celtics fans was another night where they struggled to generate offense in the face of more intense defensive pressure.

That came from the opening tip, with the Celtics missing a few layups and a couple of Jaylen Brown dunk attempts — all of which allowed the Cavs to get early offenses and mismatches going the other way. Those missed shots fueled a 10-0 Cavaliers run that had Cleveland up 19-10 early. The Celtics shot 3-of-10 at the rim in the first quarter, shot 26 percent overall, and trailed 34-18 after one.

The second quarter saw the Celtics start to find their offense — they scored 35 points on 50 percent shooting — but they only gained one point on the Cavaliers lead because Boston couldn’t get stops. LeBron had 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first half to pace a Cleveland team that shot 61.5 percent overall and hit 6-of-11 threes. That’s why the Cavs were up 68-53 at the half.

The Celtics energy was better than Game 2, but in the first half they looked like a young team, one that made a lot of mistakes.

In the second half, the Celtics started to figure things out — they started making the extra pass, they got stops for stretches, they looked more like a young team finding their footing on a big stage on the road. They finished the night with 25 from Jaylen Brown, 17 from Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier had 16 points and 11 assists.

They just couldn’t completely close the gap because they couldn’t get consistent stops — the Cavaliers shot 60 percent as a team for the game, and a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 59.6. Cleveland mercilessly hunted Rozier on switches — forcing him on to LeBron or Kevin Love then attacking — and the Cavs got enough from their role players. Tristan Thompson did what he needed to bringing energy in the paint and some defense, plus he had 13 points. Korver was diving on the floor for loose balls. Larry Nance Jr. had his second good game in a row. George Hill had 13 points.

And whenever the Cavaliers needed a play, they had LeBron to turn to. He set another NBA record on Monday night, most playoff field goals made for a career.

LeBron is what needs to worry Boston most of all. The Celtics will be better at home in Game 5 — they have not lost in TD Garden all postseason — but if this thing goes seven, it’s a dangerous thing when the other team has the best player on the planet.

LeBron James passes Kareem to become all-time leader in playoff made field goals

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LeBron James is already the NBA’s all-time leading playoff scorer, having passed Michael Jordan last postseason.

However, LeBron racked up his buckets in the era of the three-point shot (as did Jordan, to a lesser extent), so Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the all-time leader in field goals made in the postseason. A lot of them beautiful skyhooks that still give Celtics fans nightmares.

Monday night, LeBron made history passing Abdul-Jabar for the top spot in NBA playoff made field goals.

Just add that to the already insane resume.

Kevin Love with insane touchdown outlet to LeBron James for bucket

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Not sure what part of this was better.

Was it Kevin Love‘s length-of-the-court outlet touchdown pass that was right on the money, where only the receiver could get it?

Or was it LeBron James, with a catch in a crowd that would make Julio Jones’ draw drop?

Either way, this first quarter bucket from the Cavaliers may well be the play of the game.