The Cleveland Cavaliers were cruising to the NBA Finals, having won 10 straight playoff games, the latter two in emphatic fashion over the seemingly over matched Toronto Raptors.
But then a funny thing happened — the Raptors bounced back, winning two home games in Canada and sending the series back to Ohio as a best-of-three.
The biggest difference in the Raptors’ wins has been the play of Kyle Lowry. The All-Star point guard has been nursing an elbow injury for the better part of three months now, and his shooting has struggled mightily, but he’s been strong the last two games, scoring a combined 55 points on 63 percent shooting.
The Raptors go as Lowry’s offense goes, almost to an eerie level.
When Lowry as been held under 14 points in these playoffs, the Raptors are 1-7. When he scores 14 or more, the Raptors are 9-1.
There’s a lot of other things happening on the court, but stopping Lowry from reaching the arbitrary 14-point mark should be priority No. 1 for the Cavs.
And that’s why Cleveland’s chances of reaching the NBA Finals ride on the feet of Kyrie Irving.
For all of Irving’s offensive brilliance, he’s been a subpar defender at best these playoffs, and Lowry has taken advantage of that over the last two games, resulting in Toronto wins.
The Cavs have tried to rotate bodies onto Lowry — Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert have both matched up with the Toronto point guard, but more often than not it’s Irving on Lowry.
The Raptors love it: Irving has allowed those he’s defending to shoot 12.3 percent better than normal in the last two games, and five percent overall in the playoffs — a big change from the regular season, where he was a league-average defender (minus-0.6 percent difference.)
It’s a tough call for Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. The Cavs need Irving on the court for his offense, especially in late-game situations, where his ability to score in isolation 1-on-1 and even 1-on-2 is critical, but the Raptors have attacked Irving defensively every time he’s on the court, putting him in pick-and-roll with glee and to great success.
The numbers don’t lie — the Raptors go as Lowry goes, and that means Irving’s biggest impact in the next two or three games will be on the defensive end.