TORONTO • In their last six playoff games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors were a cool 0-6. They did not lead once at halftime. One of the losses was by 38 points, and on average they were beaten by a smidge under 21 points.
This, then, was better. It probably just feels worse.
In a game in which Toronto had the lead for 47 minutes and 30 seconds until LeBron James tied it with a fadeaway jumper, and in which the Raptors had several attempts at a tip-in around the rim in the dying seconds of regulation, the Cavaliers finally took their first lead in overtime. They would not relinquish it, dealing the Raptors a 113-112 loss that allows the team’s fans to consider which is worse: the blowout or the narrow late collapse?
The loss saw Toronto roar out of the gate, and it was basically the ideal quarter for the home side, the kind that fans of their team have imagined them playing against LeBron James and Cavaliers in the playoffs for about a year now. The Raptors spread the ball around, and everyone was hitting shots, largely because most of the early shots came from inches away from the basket. The Raptors showed off their young legs, and the Cavs huffed and puffed and tried to catch up. James was his usual terror, but the non-LeBron Cavs couldn’t hit the ocean from a boat and Toronto finished the opening frame with a 14-point lead.
Oh, so this is what management meant when they said in the summer that they had to figure out a way to beat these guys?
It couldn’t be that easy, though, and it turns out it was not. Cleveland trimmed the halftime deficit to three, Toronto bumped it back up to five by the end of the third, and then the Raptors and Cavs played a post-season fourth quarter that actually mattered for the first time in forever.
Toronto missed a bunch of opportunities to open up the lead again late, particularly when Jonas Valanciunas couldn’t finish multiple attempts around the rim, but Cleveland matched the misses on their end. With the Air Canada Canada on its feet in the dying minutes, the Raptors could not do what they set out 12 months ago to do. They could not close out the Cavs. It was close, but when they needed a basket at the end of overtime, they couldn’t get it. DeMar DeRozan even made a pass, but Fred VanVleet missed the potential game-winner. Toronto hits just three of 18 field-goal attempts in the last four minutes and overtime. So many chances at a killshot that missed the target.
The Raptors, understandably, were both tired of the LeBron James storylines by the time the series began and aware that it was going to be the only thing anyone talked about. James has ruled the Eastern Conference for a decade, his Cavs had knocked Toronto out of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and he had just finished a series against the Indiana Pacers where he scored more than a third of Cleveland’s points over the combined seven games.
“It’s not just LeBron James,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said before Game 1.
Well, yes, it kind of is. It is true that it hasn’t just been James who has killed the Raptors in the past two post-seasons, true that Toronto was also pummelled by the array of three-point shooters that he has variously had at his disposal. But this version of the Cavs, despite Casey’s protestations — “They’ve got other good players around him,” he said on Tuesday before the game — lacks the firepower of his recent Cleveland teams. Kyrie Irving is gone. Raptor-killer Channing Frye is gone. Kevin Love has not been close to himself. There are other guys, to be sure, but if the Raptors could just keep James from the supernova explosions that he put on the Pacers, then the Cavs could be had.
It was, and remains, a big if.
James scored 26 and added 11 rebounds and 13 assists for one of his seemingly effortless triple-doubles. It seems weird to say that the Raptors would take that from LeBron every day, but one suspects they would.
Given that the Raptors just last week won their first Game 1 at home since Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister, a stretch over which they still managed three playoff series wins, Tuesday night’s game was not desperate times for the home side. They needed more than anything to play a game that showed they could trade punches with James and the Cavs, needed to prove to themselves that all the change that has taken place for the Raptors since last season, the roster remodelling and the reinvention of the offence, would at least give them a fighting chance against the King of the East.
But the win would have also been nice. Toronto went 3-0 at the Air Canada Centre in the first round against Washington, which meant they never faced the unpleasantness of an elimination game in that series. The benefit of this was not lost on them. Casey noted before the game that they had a nice little break after finishing off the Wizards in six, and he said the fact that they opened this series in Toronto, instead of at the nightmare palace of Quicken Loans Arena, was something they has played for all year, when they set out with the goal of finishing first in the East.
“We cherish that, and we worked hard for it,” Casey said. “It’s important for us to take care of home court.”
They didn’t, in the end. The desperate times start now.