Let me make a bold admission first: I have not watched one single second of the ongoing Eastern Conference Final series involving the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. My reasons for this are numerous — who has that kind of time? who cares about either of these teams? have you seen the weather recently? etc. — but the primary cause is simply a matter of self-care.
Just thinking about that series now, today, with the Celtics up 2-0 on the Cavaliers, is a source of great pain, producing within me a surge of anguish that crystallizes into single, cogent point: hoo boy, the Raptors really blew it, didn’t they?
Before you all start jumping in with your comments, complaints, explanations, and what-have-yous, let me backpedal and acknowledge the frame of reference we’re working with here.
Let it not be said the Raptors’ 2017-18 season was a failure. It was not. For 82 regular season games, Toronto was easily one of the best five teams in the league, and one of its most consistent. We knew they probably weren’t going to win the title, but grabbing 59 wins and the number one seed in the East, all while ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, is an accomplishment. And this is before we even unpack all of the fun and good changes the Raptors made — more ball movement! more three-pointers! more exciting young players getting a chance to spread their wings! And also, this is before we compliment Kyle Lowry on his All-Star calibre season and style adjustments, and DeMar DeRozan’s (likely) All-NBA-level play. And furthermore, we also should note that, hey, the Raptors won a Game 1 at home (a dumb, but weirdly significant hurdle), and got past the first round (in relative) ease, which was nice to see. So yes, there is no doubt that when the amber sets on the 2017-18 NBA season, we’ll look back and remember this Raptors team as being a success.
Unfortunately, we have not reached that point in the future yet. We are instead trapped in the here-and-now. And right now, because of how their final four games went, I must repeat: hoo boy, the Raptors really blew it, didn’t they?
We don’t need to re-litigate Toronto’s series against the Cavaliers — the calls that went right or wrong, the shots that did or didn’t go in, the decisions that were or were not made. We saw it all happen, read about it, talked about it, and, by now, have internalized it — the outcome was bad. In fact, Cleveland’s sweep of the Raptors was so bad it’s already cost coach Dwane Casey his job, even after he tried gamely to suggest it was closer than his team’s other sweep by the Cavs, from the year before.
The whole affair has pushed the Raptors to the brink of some serious existential despair. They geared the whole year towards an eventual confrontation with Cleveland, got it, and then crumpled. How could this happen? How could Toronto have had such an excellent regular season and been demolished by LeBron James so easily regardless? (And, hanging in the air, unanswered, but looming larger and larger on the horizon: what do the Raptors do now?)
And now, despite being eliminated from the 2018 NBA playoffs, things are getting worse for the Raptors anyway.
the raptors being embarrassed in the eastern conference finals while not even playing in the eastern conference finals is the most raptors shit ever— alex (@steven_lebron) May 16, 2018
Which brings us back to the present day, and this Cavaliers-Celtics series.
There are some obvious differences to account for here when considering the Cavaliers’ new opponent as compared to their previous one. The Celtics, despite careening into a serious injury-plagued ditch (they’ve now lost Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Daniel Theis for the rest of the season; plus Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris missed stretches), are a different team than the Raptors. They’ve got some veteran talent (Al Horford stands out here), and their younger talent comes with a considerably higher pedigree than most anyone on the Raptors (we often forget that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are both top five picks). It’s also fair to note here that Brad Stevens is a very good coach. All of this matters when battling LeBron James for conference supremacy. Now up 2-0 against Cleveland, it’s clear that Boston’s roster, reduced as it may be, has enough firepower and defensive acumen to deal with the Cavaliers, and is responding as such.
Taking all of that into account, it still feels like the Raptors should have had a better chance. In Game 1 against the Celtics, much like he did against Toronto, LeBron James put up a paltry line of 15 points, nine assists, and seven assists — except Boston capitalized big, and won. For Game 2, again, much like in Toronto, LeBron went off for an astounding 42-12-10 triple-double — and yet the Cavaliers lost again. The general feeling around this is two-fold. First, the Celtics do not appear to be shook by the presence of LeBron. (Noted agitator Marcus Morris even said before the series started that he could check James, which to me seems like a dangerous idea to put into the air; nevertheless, the Celtics backed up his loose talk.) And second, much like in their series against Indiana, the Cavaliers’ role players are getting hassled back into oblivion.
I won’t even bother to unpack that first issue — it’s too painful to consider a world in which the Bench Broskis are turned to dust, DeMar DeRozan continues to struggle on despite not having the juice, and Serge Ibaka goes through the motions as if trapped in quick sand. If nothing else, it’s been confirmed that the Raptors were shook by LeBron. And I can’t will myself to write anymore about that particular subject.
So instead, that second point. Remember: this Cavaliers team was thought to be the weakest LeBron had ever had. They had a legitimately bad defense; they didn’t have enough offense outside of what LeBron could create for them; they were relying on guys like Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson and Jeff (gotdamn) Green. The Raptors’ were supposed to make mincemeat out of those guys. Instead, after a lacklustre opening round, Kevin Love rediscovered his groove, averaging 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds; JR Smith posted a truly absurd 63/76/100 for his shooting splits; and, yep, there was Green putting in 12 points per game while shooting 43 percent from three. The Cavaliers were able to crush the Raptors while going only seven players deep (thankfully, Clarkson stayed bad throughout the series). All that depth for Toronto, all those egalitarian offensive principles, all that hope — wiped away.
Meanwhile, the Celtics (without their actual, true All-Star players) are doing the damn thing in real time. They’ve turned George Hill back into a pumpkin, rendered Jeff Green invisible, and even quashed the effectiveness of that Kyle Korver-Love two-man game that killed Toronto for a solid week. Again, maybe the Celtics are just a better team than the Raptors, more equipped than Toronto was to deal with the presumed Cavaliers onslaught. I’m sure there are many who will now tell me that this is, and has always been, the case.
But right now, hoo boy, it just feels like the Raptors really blew it.