This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
With his Cleveland Cavaliers ahead in a series, LeBron James played 46 minutes in a game on Monday evening. The Toronto Raptors forced James' coach into that decision. No matter how the rest of the Eastern Conference final goes, the Raptors can hold tightly to that fact.
The Cavaliers are Hillary Clinton here, the Eastern Conference's presumptive nominee in the NBA Finals. They have gone deep into the luxury tax to build around LeBron James, the man who has been at the centre of the last five conference champions. Chances are—still—that he will make it six by the end of this week.
The Raptors are pushing, pushing, pushing, though. They are making the King work for it, more than justifying their 56-win regular season, and their two uneven series to start the postseason.
"I think I played to the game plan that I wanted to play, both offensively and defensively," James said after Toronto's 105-99 win in Game 4 that evened the series at 2-2. "For me, I gave everything that I had in the 46 minutes I played, both offensively and defensively."
For those who insisted that the Raptors were more than their performance in the first two rounds, the last two games have served as a testimonial. In the process, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have destroyed the prevalent notion that they are merely two shot-happy guards and regular-season darlings who disappear in April and May.
Both players were spectacular Monday, just as was the case on Saturday. Both shot 50 percent from the field or better in both games, combining to shoot 47-for-80 in Toronto's two home victories. DeRozan had hit half or more of his field-goal attempts in just two of the first 16 games of the playoffs. And for the sheer volume of shots, both players have been as smart as you'd like.
Lowry was a marvel in the first half, stepping back into Steph Curry territory for a few of his 3-pointers. To close things out, the Raptors successfully got a switch, and Lowry simply drove past J.R. Smith for a simple layup. (RIP: concept of J.R. Smith as a lockdown defender. It was a good run.)
"That's exactly what we wanted," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "We were fortunate to get the switch we wanted, and Kyle executed.
"I mean, you question (Lowry), that's when he rises to the occasion. I've seen it so many times. Throughout the playoffs, everybody second-guessed him, and he's always bounced back. He's done that his whole life, through college, through high school, through the first few years of the NBA, and that's what made him the all-star he is."
That is a tiny bit hyperbolic—sports has a way of making myths of men. Lowry has encouraged such lofty proclamations dating back to Game 3 of the Miami series. He hit a speedbump in Cleveland, as you would expect from a player going full speed every other night for more than a month. He was the best player on the floor on Monday, though, and the game involved James leading the Cavaliers to baskets on 14 straight possessions at one point.
Finally, we have had the question answered of what would happen if and when both star guards got going at the same time? Even during the regular season, it seemed as if Lowry and DeRozan would take turns carrying the offensive burden. On Monday, especially during that Cleveland run that gave the Cavaliers a lead in the fourth quarter, the Raptors needed both of them at the same time. And they got them.
James spoke of altering his game plan on Monday morning, and that appeared to involve serving as the primary defender on DeRozan, who torched James on Saturday. DeRozan has already had a nightmare series against a physically gifted wing defender, having so often wilted against Paul George in the first round. In that series, he seemed to just shoot long twos in bulk over George, and hope. Here, both he and Lowry have identified the Cavaliers' stunning lack of rim protection, and made a point to mix up their shot selection.
"Seems like a while ago we went against Indiana," DeRozan said. "It was different. You've just got to pick and choose your spots with him, try to run him off as many screens as possible. Kyle does a good job when we run the (point guard-shooting guard) screen, getting me open. So it's just a different dynamic."
In short, the cliches are coming true. Lowry has found resolve in his struggles, doubling down on the shots and decisions that helped guide him to a career season. DeRozan endured a nightmare series against George and the Pacers, and is figuring out, game by game, where his shots come from.
There is a lot of work to do—the Cavaliers have clocked them all three times they have met in Cleveland this season—but now James and company are questioning things, if not quite shook.
"We've just got to look at the film and do better," Channing Frye said of his team's defence, which allowed the Raptors to shoot nearly 54 percent from the floor. "That's some bullshit."
"One thing about us, we can take the bad with the good any day," DeRozan said, reflecting on how this postseason has gone for his team and its stars. "It's life, man. You can't get too down when things are not going your way. But you (have) got to understand the work that you put in all summer, all throughout the season, (it is) for moments like this. ... I always told (Lowry) when we were struggling, it's not about now. As long as we've got an opportunity to keep playing, we've got an opportunity to make up for (how the playoffs started). And I think that's where we're at."