Before Game 3 of the Toronto-Cleveland second-round series, every seat in the Air Canada Centre was adorned with a white playoff T-shirt, brazenly displaying an outsize maple leaf. It was a bold statement, one that intimated that playing on the Raptors’ home turf is not just playing in any other NBA city — it’s playing in a different country, a different world. By Sunday morning prior to Game 4, the message on the shirts lining the seats seemed to revert inward, just like the team they were meant to prop up. The shirt went back to a familiar “We the North” refrain, once a smart promotional campaign signaling the newfound identity of a rising contender, now calcified into little more than a cheap joke construction. Thank you for your support, they said. Join us as we collectively wave our white flags.
With the Cavaliers’ 109–102 win over the Raptors on Sunday, LeBron James has taken Toronto’s dead horse to his bustling glue factory. James (and Co.) has now swept 11 teams in the past 10 years, six of them in the past three seasons. The East hasn’t had an answer for LeBron in nearly a decade.
But Game 4 was never going to be that easy. Pride is a combustible element of competition, and it was the only hope the Raptors had left to depend on. “We have another opportunity to have another opportunity,” Raptors stronghold DeMar DeRozan said in an ABC pregame promo. It was both a statement of purpose and an example of the kind of circular logic that has doomed the Raptors over the past several years. DeRozan, to his credit, played one of his smartest games of the playoffs, serving as their offense’s hub, commanding double-teams, and finding his open teammates time after time. As much as he’s made his name in the midrange, he’s worked tirelessly over his career at becoming a better ball handler and distributor; seemingly the only thing keeping him from joining the highest tier of offensive forces in the league is his own outright refusal to shoot from deep (DeRozan attempted three shots from behind the arc all series). But that didn’t mean he couldn’t help his team chip away at Cleveland’s overwhelming advantage from behind the 3-point line. He and his airborne swing passes were the starting point for many of the Raptors’ beautiful offensive suites, as the team routinely swung the ball to the open man in the corner, hitting at a rate far better than in the previous games of the series. P.J. Tucker, too, had a game worthy of salute, hounding LeBron James the entire time he was on the floor, getting his hands on numerous loose balls, and hitting opportune 3s. And the Cavs left openings. Unforced turnovers, miscommunications, and bad fouls helped the Raptors claw their way back on numerous occasions.
But play the Cavaliers in a seven-game series, and before too long, they will suffocate you with math. Cleveland finished the series with a 102-point advantage from 3-pointers (183 points compared to the Raptors’ 81).
Oh, and there’s this:
So, then, what’s next for Toronto? I think you know what’s next:
This offseason will be the most agonizing process of president Masai Ujiri’s NBA career. Kyle Lowry (who has a player option that he will certainly opt out of), Tucker, Serge Ibaka, and Patrick Patterson are all unrestricted free agents — all four have been instrumental in the team’s success at one point or another. But even with the reinforcements they were able to assemble this year, they stood comically — and cosmically — distant from LeBron’s throne. It’ll be the hardest call to make — what with this Raptors core being the best in franchise history, what with the Raptors setting a new franchise record this season with their fourth consecutive postseason berth — but the dust settled in Sunday’s sweep. The Raptors’ place in the East was always going to be determined by how they fared against the Cavaliers. I wrote about that horrible destiny two days into the regular season back in October: “There is a strangeness to the Raptors’ current position in the NBA landscape. They aren’t their own team; they can’t just outperform the historical expectations of their franchise to achieve national recognition. There is an unshakable fatalism attached to being second-best, to knowing you’re second-best.”
LeBron James has left the Raptors in an existential tailspin like so many other teams in the past. And there’s only one way out.