For the Raptors to beat the Cavaliers in a seven-game series, everything has to go as planned. Unlike against Milwaukee, Toronto can’t afford games, quarters, or even possessions, off. Given the context, this reads as obvious; the current Cavs may be soft on defense, but they do not make many mistakes with the ball. To relax one’s focus is to watch LeBron James and his teammates hang 120 points on your squad in a hurry. That’s the reality under which the Raptors now labour.
And let me tell you: it’s a real bummer.
If not for the Cavs’ late-season swoon — which included back-to-back stupid losses to the Hawks, and coach Tyronn Lue promising to run LeBron into the ground for the number one seed — the Raptors would be facing a toothless Boston team right now. This would have been a far superior outcome for Toronto, as the Celtics are something of a paper tiger, a team the Raptors can exploit in various ways. That hypothetical series would have been entertaining to watch, and would have ended with the Raptors rolling into the Eastern Conference Finals for their climactic moment against the Cavaliers. Sadly, the reality we labour under is not this one.
If there’s a solace to be found here, it’s this: the emotions surrounding the inevitability of losing to LeBron James in the second round instead of the third are the same. Most would admit the Raptors are still not ready to beat the Cavaliers — and may never be ready. On paper, this is the best team in franchise history, the one most equipped to emerge from the Eastern Conference. But the Bucks series, with its blowouts and maddening inconsistent play, did damage to our collective psyche. It’s hard to predict a title run for the Raptors now.
As such, however, there’s another feeling buried here, one that, ideally, should set the Raptors free.
The one constant for the Raptors’ post-season runs in the past three years has been an intense feeling of expectation. (Only their first appearance, as an inexperienced team, was free of this.) Each post-season presented a new reason to tense up, with this most recent entry proving to be no exception. But now, in the second round, facing down the overwhelming favourite Cavaliers, the Raptors can truly let loose. For if they are going to lose, if it is inevitable that their roster — stacked as it is with players designed to help slow down LeBron and his shooters — is still not enough, then why not play without a care in the world?
The plan for the Raptors should go something like this: Kyle Lowry plays wily and shoots deep; DeMar DeRozan makes every perimeter player work hard, all the time; Serge Ibaka is smooth away from the rim, powerful when near it; Jonas Valanciunas plays with precise force; DeMarre Carroll reclaims some of his old form; Patrick Patterson unburdens his mind and lets fly; P.J. Tucker stands strong in opposition; Cory Joseph remembers his championship lessons; Norman Powell exerts his fierce and fearless will; Delon Wright chips in when and where he can. In theory, this is poetry in motion for the Raptors. It’s presented itself as ugly verse at times, but it also works.
Yes, LeBron is still the only acceptable answer to most every question, as inevitable a force as the league has ever seen. But that, in a strange way tilts the expectations a different way — away from Toronto. The Raptors can’t lose their focus against the Cavaliers, they must stick to the plan at all times, but they also, in truth, have nothing left to lose.
It’s an empowering notion.
Who wins Game 1 of the series?
This poll is closed
Raptors, get ready to shock the world
Cavaliers, the world exists as it is for a reason