Think back to peak prognostication season in mid-October. After the Wizards halted last year's playoff run in such a demoralizing fashion, most fans were simply clinging to the dream of just one measly, first-round series win. A lot of really smart people weren't even sure that was possible.
The forecast was foggy at best. Kyle Lowry was skinny, but would anything really change in regards to his durability?Where was the bench scoring going to come from? What about DeRozan? How good could this team really be?
Through a combination of Lowry playing at an All-NBA level, DeRozan turning in a career season, the bench coalescing into a defense-first, cohesive unit, Jonas Valanciunas's incremental growth taking off, some gritty playoff efforts and so much more, the answer to that final question became resounding and indisputable.
This is the best Raptors team anyone has ever seen.
The final pages of the 2015-'16 yearbook were written in Game 6 against the Cavs. For the second-straight game, Toronto simply looked outclassed by a team with superior talent. It wasn't quite the demolition Game 5 was, but for much of a disjointed, foul-ridden first half, Cleveland's lead hovered around double digits as LeBron James countered every Raptors' jab with a Draymond Green-like kick to the face.
More of a distributing force throughout the series, James took it upon himself to leave the Raptors in the rear view. He hit three of four three-pointers and scored 21 points while at the other end the Raptors clanked crucial open three after crucial open three. At the half, it was 55-41, and so began the eulogizing on Twitter.
Lowry wasn't quite ready for the final pages to be written on this landmark season, though. After the Cavs had pushed the lead to 20 in the third, Lowry kicked it into eff you mode one last time. The way Lowry kicked and screamed and drove and scored in the final six minutes of the third quarter and into the fourth was indicative of how this year's Raptors became the greatest team in franchise history. He poured in 18 points on 5-of-9 from three point range to give the 20,000 absolutely bonkers fans in attendance hope for one last moment to store in this season's overflowing memory bank.
Of course, LeBron is LeBron, and the Cavs are the Cavs, so Lowry's 33 points ultimately and predictably fell just short. And there's absolutely no shame in that. The six-foot-eight insurmountable wall in the East that is James has been the reality for the rest of the conference for more than half a decade now. That the Raptors failed to miraculously leap over it -- hell, they fell off pretty violently a few times as they tried -- isn't some sort of indictment of the team and doesn't suggests that everything accomplished since October is Fool's Gold.
Aside from the final game, everything about this season in Toronto was a win. Simply scratching and clawing to earn the right to be James's final Eastern Conference stepping stone is a hell of an achievement -- especially for an organization that has typically a way lower rung on the NBA ladder.
With the off-season will come plenty of questions for Masai Ujiri to ponder. DeRozan's free agency is one of the more intriguing rock-and-a-hard place conundrums any front office faces this summer. Losing in such convincing fashion to a legitimate title threat like Cleveland (although they took literally infinity more games off the Cavs than any other East team) also exposed where the roster needs to be upgraded. Kyle Lowry's future is murky too -- his contract has a player option after next season when the league's salary cap will be in a state that we can hardly fathom right now. As he heads into his thirties, it's fair to start wondering just how many more team-carrying performances he has left in a Raptor uniform.
For now, let's just reflect on an unprecedented ride, and appreciate the 15 dudes on the Raptors roster -- and, hey, even Anthony Bennett who guarded Dirk Nowitzki at one point this year, remember? -- for all they did to remind the fans why they've remained so damned loyal throughout so many torturous years. Any team that can yield the kind of ovation at the end of a 26-point, season-ending loss that gets the attention of LeBron James clearly did something to deserve it.
The questions will be confronted and answered, but for now, there is only one that really matters. Is it mid-October yet?