If the best funerals sprinkle in equal parts mourning and celebration of the life of the deceased, the Raptors just hosted themselves a banger.
In the hours leading up to the Raptors 109-102 series-clinching loss to the Cavs on Sunday afternoon, there was little to suggest the Raptors might have the ability to keep Game 4 from being an entirely somber occasion. Kyle Lowry was ruled out early, erasing the glimmer of hope that accompanied his “game-time decision” status before Game 3. Dwane Casey seemed morose, the pregame locker room was muted, and the white shirts in the crowd weren’t fooling anyone — this game had all the makings of an unceremonious end to the Raptors Golden Age.
When you recall how this era began, though, it’s not all that shocking that the Raptors turned in their best effort of the series on Sunday. The roster that turned the trajectory of the organization on its head in December 2013 was a lot of things, but it certainly wasn’t loaded with talent. That team was powered by a magical blend of chemistry, cajonés the size of Chuck Hayes’ shoulders, and seed-planting seasons by Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Those Raptors made being a Try-Hard cool before the Celtics came around and ruined it.
Outgunned and missing their best player in Game 4, the Raptors offered an ode to the team that reignited the franchise. A 61-49 deficit at half time set the stage for one last stand before a summer of deep contemplation and potential upheaval.
Toronto breathed life back into a resigned Air Canada Centre with a spirited third quarter. If you recall, the Raptors led the league in comebacks from 10-points or more down this season, and for a time in that frame, it appeared as though they might have enough fight left to complete the most improbable one of all. As the Raptors roped Cleveland in, they played with a verve that hearkened back to the simpler times of 2013.
“I thought our guys played with grit, toughness, togetherness,” said Casey of the plucky group that eventually regained a fleeting 93-92 lead midway through the fourth quarter. In that moment, the ACC radiated “Game 7 against Brooklyn” decibel levels.
One thing that certainly didn’t resemble 2013 was DeMar DeRozan’s play. Toronto’s homegrown star put a stamp on his season of exponential growth in Game 4. Cleveland’s traps — a tricky riddle earlier in the series — became opportunities for DeRozan to flash his vastly improved passing chops. Where past iterations of DeRozan might have hijacked the offense and shot his team out of the game, he finished Sunday’s matinee with 22 points and eight assists on just 18 field-goal attempts in a visibly exhausting 46 minutes. As Raptors fans grapple with an unclear future, DeRozan is something of a security blanket to hold on to. Even if the worst should happen and the complexion of the team is drastically altered for the 2017-18 season, DeRozan, an established, ever-evolving star, will provide the Raptors with something of a competitive floor going forward.
Floors are comforting, but opposite DeRozan in this series were stars that live under unlimited ceilings. As the Raptors expended all their energy on mounting their comeback, it felt like an inevitability that Cleveland’s best players would eventually assert themselves.
Kyrie Irving and LeBron James slowly wore the Raptors down in the fourth, swapping impossible baskets that doubled as gut punches. Grit and other intangibles can only hang close with superior talent for so long. Toronto, while they fought their asses off to give the Air Canada Centre one last meaningful airing of Money City Maniacs, couldn’t match the impeccability of Cleveland’s crunch-time shot-making.
“It was wining time for the both of us and we understood that.” said Irving. That those two can reach a higher plain simply by looking at the clock and score is what sets the Cavs apart.
The closing moments were indicative of the identity crisis the Raptors are sure to face this summer. LeBron and friends are a behemoth of a team, and the Raptors are starved for realistic paths to walk en route to making up the talent disparity that so clearly separates Cleveland from the rest of the East. A free agency cloud will hang over Toronto for the next two months as the front office ponders whether or not it’s worth running back a core that is destined to fall just short.
At this moment, the Raptors are like a 40-year-old contemplating a mid-life career change. Do you accept simply being pretty happy, embracing the status quo and delaying the end result that the slow decay of time will inevitably produce? Or do you press reset, and hope for a rejuvenation while wading into waters wrought with uncertainty?
The last four seasons have provided the Raptors organization with its first taste of run-of-the-mill NBA happiness. There have been speed-bumps — Paul Pierce’s outstretched hand, Lowry’s various nicks, bruises and worse, Playoff Randy Wittman and the goddamned Game 1 curse have all threatened to veer the Raptors back towards its dark ages at different junctures since the Rudy Gay trade inexplicably spawned a respectable team. But four years of sustained relevance have a way of dampening the lows by producing a disproportionate number of highs, and 41 playoff games provide plenty of chances to forge unforgettable touchstones.
Even in in defeat, Sunday’s season-ending loss was proof that there are still moments of joy to glean from these Raptors, even in the face of an inevitable fate. P.J. Tucker’s buzzer-beating three to end the third quarter, Jonas Valanciunas’ post-up bucket over LeBron and Ibaka’s and-1 to give the Raptors the lead were all flashpoints in which Raptors fans couldn’t possibly feign apathy. They were instances that illustrated exactly why there is more glory in getting close to the summit and stumbling than foregoing your ascent altogether.