It’s going to be hard, balancing this kind of series loss.
This season for the Toronto Raptors was undeniably great. Not only in the traditional sense, either — the team won 59 games, finished a top ten team in offence and defence, and broke countless franchise marks — but in the less measurable sense too. I can’t really quantify how awesome it felt to beat Houston in March, how those early season win streaks made me believe that the team had found lightning in a bottle. They had changed systems overnight, brought along seven young players impossibly fast, and made it all work like it was meant to be. I loved this season, and still do.
But then, there was the Toronto Raptors I saw in this second round series.
Yes, there is LeBron James, who may have been an unbreakable force regardless of how well the Raptors played. He was great again tonight too, leading all scorers with 29 points, adding 11 assists and eight rebounds.
In every conceivable way, though, the Raptors gave LeBron and the Cavaliers an open door. They were sloppy for a lot of the series, losing the turnover battle. Their defensive strategy wasn’t sound, as James easily picked apart off-ball (and on-ball) switches from the top of the key time and time again. Toronto changed their starters, then changed them again, without impact. Cleveland’s supporting cast, so much a laughing stock that Saturday Night Live took shots, were allowed to come alive and thrive like they haven’t all season.
Toronto might be doomed to lose to LeBron, maybe for the entirety of his career. At the same time, it’d be foolhardy to suggest the Raptors played their best basketball over the past week. In Game 4, they were stunted from the start. Cleveland took the reigns in the second quarter and never looked back, finishing off a series sweep with a 123-98 blowout win.
In the first, the Raptors offence got off to a decent start. Serge Ibaka, moved down to the centre in another starting lineup change for Dwane Casey, made his first three-point attempt — good vibes! The defence was rough, though. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan lost George Hill in transition on three separate plays, allowing two dunks and an easy layup for the point guard. C.J. Miles picked up two early fouls, once again picked on by off-ball switches that put him on Kevin Love down low. By the middle of the quarter, Cleveland led 21-15 thanks to a 10-for-12 start. It was ever so easy, and difficult to watch.
The Raptors stemmed the tide a bit thanks to Jonas Valanciunas. He was dominant coming off the bench, looking every bit a broski in a pairing with Fred VanVleet. Valanciunas had eight of his team-high 18 points in the second quarter, shooting 7-for-14 overall and playing nicely in minutes opposite Tristan Thompson. Finally, the Raptors were exploiting a matchup they could win. It looked good, if only for a moment.
Again, the issue came down to defence. For four games, Toronto had no answers for Cleveland’s supporting cast. Any struggles left for LeBron’s role players had long since dissipated by Game 4, where J.R. Smith started 5-for-5, Kyle Korver started 4-for-4, and George Hill started 3-for-3.
Disaster arrived when Casey tried to close the half with Lucas Nogueira in at centre. His first action of the series, Bebe was instantly picked on by Kevin Love and off-ball movement from the Cavaliers. Cleveland would stretch their lead to 14 by halftime, with Nogueira marking a -10 in just two minutes.
From there, it was more or less over. Cleveland quickly pushed their lead past 20 coming out of the break, as the Raptors new-look starters (Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Anunoby-Ibaka) just couldn’t find new answers for old problems. The intensity had waned and LeBron took over, finishing off a series for much-needed rest as his team prepares for another Eastern Conference Final.
All of this obviously hurts. Watching Game 4, even if you had a shred of hope that the Raptors would come back in the series, was like getting the final reality check that there were no answers to be had.
Toronto now has to turn to self-inspection. Dwane Casey’s seat is heating up, according to sources on the NBA periphery, and a series sweep is a tough finish to swallow, even for a potential Coach of the Year winner. DeMar DeRozan, who had worked his way into the MVP conversation before the All-Star Break, had an unceremonious end to his season — 13 points on 11 shots, a -29, and an ejection on a flagrant two foul near the end of the third quarter. Is his place with the Raptors going to be in question?
There will be time to answer these questions and others. For now, it’s just an odd feeling. I’m proud of what the Raptors accomplished this season, but broken by how disappointing it ended. While other teams in uphill battles get a moment to pride themselves on — New Orleans stealing a game from Golden State with some defensive virtuosos, the young Jazz finding a way with their rookie as a number one option — the Raptors were merely cast aside. It was a great season, but it ended like many of the others. It’s not the fact that it ended, it’s how it ended that hurts.