The best season in Toronto Raptors history ended with a whimper, in a brutal 35-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s not the end we wanted, or anticipated. But it’s what our team gave us.
I’ll try and save the “season ending, what’s next” thoughts for now—we’ll have plenty of that at RaptorsHQ in the coming days and weeks—and keep it focused on what we saw last night.
This Feels Way, Way Worse Than Last Year
Getting swept last year didn’t hurt nearly as much. Maybe because Kyle Lowry was hurt, or maybe because the team never quite jelled after the trade deadline, or maybe because the Cavs were a higher seed and didn’t look like garbage all season... whatever the case, last year was bad, but also, not entirely surprising.
This year? Losing to LeBron James is one thing, but getting swept again? As the top seed, with homecourt advantage? And more importantly, barely showing up in two of the four games?
And this game was the worst. Just a complete and total collapse in the final minutes of the first half, and absolutely no fight or willpower in the second.
This lack of composure and effort is inexplicable. This team is better than that! (Isn’t it?) Where’s the team we saw all season? (Was it just a mirage?) Where’s the team that finally looked complete in games 5 and 6 of the Washington series? (Was Markieff Morris right?)
I watched Vince Carter miss that shot, I watched Chris Childs forget the score, I watched Jose Calderon underthrow a pass to Chris Bosh, I watched Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett swallow Kyle Lowry. None of those moments broke my heart like last night. I loved this team, and they let me down.
The Cavs are in the Raptors’ Heads
So, I said “inexplicable” above, but maybe it is as simple as a mental block. How else to explain it? And don’t just say “LeBron James”; as I said the other day, the Pacers took three games from him. And there’s no way the Pacers are as good as the Raptors. And the Raptors came in last night, executed their offense, played average-to-poor defense, and then as soon as the Cavs turned up the heat, the Raptors shrunk from the moment, the offense got ugly, the defense disappeared entirely, and the whole team just withered and died. Just like in game 2.
And all series long, the Raptors made mental mistakes we just didn’t see in the regular season. Where did the turnovers come from? Why were the Raptors so discombobulated on defense? How did DeMar DeRozan collapse so completely? Even Kyle Lowry played poorly last night. I’m certain the Raptors came in to the series with a subconscious belief that James and the Cavs were impossible to beat, and they played tight and didn’t execute because of it, and any time they faced adversity they collapsed. And it’s true for Dwane Casey as well, which I think is the only explanation for some of the lineups we saw.
Of course, the opposite is also true: The Cavaliers came in to the series with supreme confidence, an absolute belief—not even a subconscious one—that they could beat the Raptors. There was no fear, no doubt in their minds—and I think the fact that the “new Cavs” barely played proves it. LeBron, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson—these guys didn’t give the Raptors beating them a second thought.
To paraphrase Pedro Martinez, the Cavs are the Raptors’ daddy, and at this point I don’t think it’ll change unless LeBron leaves Cleveland.
DeRozan’s Ejection was Fitting, but Sad
It wasn’t deserved, by any means—especially in the same series in which Kevin Love can almost break the guy’s jaw and not even get a video review—but, given how awful DeRozan had been in the series, and the last two games specifically, that he should bow out of the series with such indignity was entirely apropos.
DeRozan finished the series averaging 16.8 ppg. He scored 67 points on 66 shots. He turned the ball over 8 times and had only 11 assists. And his defensive awareness was just terrible.
DeMar DeRozan's worst plus/minus performances of the 2017-18 season— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 8, 2018
1. Game 4 vs. Cavs: minus-29
2. Game 3 vs. Cavs: minus-23
3. Game 2 vs. Cavs: minus-22
I am a DeRozan fan. I know he has his limitations, but you can’t argue with what he’s done for the franchise. And fitting though that ending might have been, I also found it kind of heartbreaking. I never want to see someone go out like that.
Of course, I didn’t want the team to go down without a fight, but that’s exactly what they did. DeRozan’s backcourt mate, after talking a good game about “rumbling,” had his worst game of the postseason, scoring only five points on 2-of-7 shooting.
When Casey said these guys were playing for pride, I didn’t expect to learn just how little they had.
Just What the Heck Happened to the D?
I’ve been talking about it all series, but last night it just got completely out of hand. The Raptors weren’t just overhelping or getting lost on screens—they were consistently wandering away from shooters, turning their backs on their man, ball-watching, and getting trapped in no man’s land. And the close-outs: just flailing, jumping in every which direction on shooters. It was horrible to watch.
I know the defense slipped in the last month-and-a-half of the season. And this Cleveland team is a difficult matchup. But again: The Cavs struggled throughout the Pacers series to score, averaging 94.9 points per game.
Against the Raptors, that number jumped to 118.4. (At virtually the same pace: 92.85 against Indiana, 93.78 against Toronto.) Did they suddenly get 25% better in between the two series?
And what about the first-half closeouts? The Raptors were just brutal in the final minutes of the second quarter all series. Last night, after the Raptors took a 38-36 lead, the Cavs closed the first half on a 27-9 run, and that was the ballgame right there. It was a trend:
- In game 1, the Cavs outscored Toronto 15-9 in the final 3:50 of the half to cut what was once a 14-point lead to 3.
- In game 2, the Cavs outscored Toronto 8-2 in the final 2:30 of the half to cut a 9-point lead to 2.
- In game 3, the Cavs outscored Toronto 16-2 in the final 4:52 of the half to push a 1-point lead to 15.
Those are your TSN turning points right there.
Dwane Casey Didn’t Do Himself any Favours Last Night
Sure was a lot of talk before game 4 about “expectations Casey will be fired after the series,” and while I’m not going to speculate on any of that right now, last night’s game sure isn’t going on his coaching highlight reel.
His latest adjustment was inserting C.J. Miles into the starting lineup for Jonas Valanciunas, and while I understand the offensive boost Miles gives, offense hasn’t been Toronto’s problem in this series. Any defensive “benefit” of moving Serge Ibaka to the five is negligible when Ibaka is playing at the worst basketball of his career, and LeBron James is simply too good at picking up the mismatches and putting them in screen-and-roll situations to create an advantage. And Valanciunas, for as hard a time as he has guarding Kevin Love, has at least been consistent all series.
In the Washington series, Casey spoke of the lineups and substitution patterns being mostly an instinct, gut reaction thing. Well, his instincts were consistently off-base in this series. I guess playing LeBron can do that to you, but in that case, man, just go with what got you there. The five-man starting unit and the five-man bench unit both ended the series with positive net ratings. Four games is an incredibly small sample size of course, but that shit worked for 59 freaking wins, you know?
(Of course, if Casey had done that, we’d all be screaming about his lack of adjustments. Coaching is a damn thankless job.)
So what do we do now? As I said above, there’ll be plenty of time in the coming days to talk about what’s next, about the roster, about the coaches, about the style of play, and so on. We’ve got all summer for that. What you can do right now, what I’m gonna do, is just appreciate the regular season we had, the way the team played, the development of the young players, the evolution of the veteran players, the 59 wins, the incredible home atmosphere: everything. John Gaudes summed it up right here, and I’m with him. You can’t just focus on the destination, you have to enjoy the journey too. This year was an exceptional one.
That’s what I’m choosing to focus on right now. On beating Houston. On obliterating the Cavs in January. On winning 18 of 19. On DeMar detonating on Detroit. On winning another game 6 clincher on the road (and Delon Wright blocking Kelly Oubre Jr. on the last play).
It’s like grieving, or going through a break-up. Don’t lament what could have been, because it’ll never be; just remember what was, and how good it was at its best.