Our friends up north have clamored for more respect all season long. The Toronto Raptors lobbied for credit, forced us to pay attention by dropping a 59-win season, and convinced the NBA at large to consider them a true contender. For 82 games, they intrigued even the reluctant.
Then LeBron showed up to the Air Canada Centre and destroyed the Raptors’ dreams in the series’ first two games. On Thursday, he did it with 43 points, 14 assists, and eight rebounds, dotting the court with ridiculous fadeaways just for fun. This is a 33-year-old who played all 82 games this season and went seven games against the Pacers. Only LeBron decides when his prime is over.
The two best players for Cleveland were the two best players on the floor (Kevin Love back!), and the Cavs silenced an entire city with a dominating 128-110 performance. Toronto heads to the Land down 2-0 in the most embarrassing fashion.
The Raptors have officially entered their darkest timeline. It does not get much bleaker than facing a two-game deficit as the 1-seed. But the worst may not be over yet. What happens if they lose the series?
Worst-Case Scenario: A Sweep
It may have seemed laughable in the regular season, but after a crushing, close loss in Game 1 and an even more demoralizing defeat in Game 2, a sweep is in play. There is still a chance Toronto can come back, but neither DeMar DeRozan nor Kyle Lowry has had a particularly good series so far. It’s still possible for them to mount a few 70-combined-point performances. They’re going to need the Bench Mob, which has not been as effective against the Cavs, and Serge Ibaka, who has been a ghost on the court. (Of note: He’s being paid more than $20 million each of the next two seasons.) The Cavs have been maddeningly inconsistent this season, but Toronto has lost home court. For any turnaround to be possible, the Raptors need to prevent another LeBron 40-point game—and should he do so, they can’t allow a second guy to step up at the same time. Meanwhile, Lowry or DeRozan needs to show up on the same night that the role players do. The Raptors’ defense is key, too. They need to stifle the Cavs because their offense is already lacking.
Fire Dwane Casey
This was supposed to be the year of the Raptors in part because Casey had adjusted to the modern NBA. He remade the roster to take 3s and eschew isolations. So much for that. Casey is being outcoached by Tyronn Lue, and while there’s never an answer for LeBron (except for broken air conditioning), the rest of the Cavs are solvable. In Game 1, the Raptors gave Tristan Thompson new life. In Game 2, Kevin Love looked unstoppable alongside LeBron—in part because of Casey’s inability to make the needed adjustments. He played C.J. Miles at the 5. And no, Center C.J. Miles didn’t work.
Just a month ago, he was a strong contender for Coach of the Year, and he could win the award given that voting is long over. Toronto has stood by him through all of the depressing playoff exits, but being outmaneuvered by Ty freaking Lue, whose team was remade a few months ago, may end his tenure. If they can’t come back, it’ll be time for Casey to go.
Get a Third Star
The problem for the Raptors is that they’re locked into Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, each on max contracts. (The former’s contract expires in 2020, the latter’s in 2021.) The good news: This season showcased their young players and the organization’s ability to develop raw talent. OG Anunoby had a great rookie year and is only 20. Jakob Poeltl is 22. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are 24 and Delon Wright is 26. All of them could be assets to package in a trade for a third star to pair alongside DeRozan and Lowry.
The Raptors could both use a stretch 4 and another 3-and-D wing that can compete now. The Bench Mob has been one of the best story lines this season, but as LeBron and the Cavs have shown, a scrappy bench doesn’t necessarily win you a championship. If the Raptors want to win meaningful games, they might need to part with their beloved young guys to make their top line better. No team will be eager to trade for Jonas Valanciunas.
LeBron Stays in the Eastern Conference
If LeBron were to set out for Los Angeles, many of Toronto’s problems would vanish. He has been the Raptors’ kryptonite, and it doesn’t matter how weak the rosters around him have been; he owns them and has beaten them in the playoffs the previous two seasons. Lowry sees only him in his nightmares.
And yet, the East is not safe. The conference is rising. The Sixers and Celtics are both built for the future, waiting to keep the Raptors out of the Finals should LeBron leave for a warmer climate. And if LeBron remains with the Cavs, he’s not slowing down anytime soon. Toronto had the perfect chance to end the narrative this season, and it has thrown that away in the span of two games.