TORONTO — Masai Ujiri has done a whole lot of good work in his time leading the front office of the Toronto Raptors. For his next trick, maybe he can talk LeBron James into moving to Los Angeles.
Two days after his team looked great for 47 minutes before collapsing late to lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ujiri’s Raptors could only make it through 24 minutes on Thursday before the roof caved in. James and the Cavaliers blew the Raptors off the Air Canada Centre court in the third quarter, scoring at will, sucking the life out of the building and just generally reminding everyone that the chasm between whatever team James is on and the rest of the Eastern Conference is wide and deep. Cleveland won 128-110, with James scoring 43 and adding 14 assists and eight rebounds. In the third, when the Cavs turned a two-point deficit into an 11-point lead, LeBron scored 15 points on just 10 shots. He could not be stopped in the post, hitting several fadeaway jumpers as time expired. A camera caught him clipping his nails on the bench at one point, and if he had been sipping a cocktail it would not have been all that surprising. King of the North, indeed.
It was the second straight season in which the Raptors suffered what felt like a franchise-defining loss at the hands of Cleveland. Last year’s playoff sweep led to a roster makeover and an offensive overhaul, with Ujiri all but spitting fire at the end of the season and insisting that he was tired of his team being not quite good enough.
It was a noble move, putting value on continuity and looking at the big picture and recognizing that drastic moves that altered the core of the team are fun to imagine but hard to pull off. But now, after two losses, the first time the Raptors have dropped two straight at home since last year’s playoffs (also to the Cavs), the noble move looks noble in the way a serf refuses to inform on a friend right before the executioner lops off his head.
For all of the well-deserved praise that came to the Raptors this year, for the way they pulled off the rare retool-on-the-fly and won a franchise-record 59 games, here they were, still getting murdered by Cleveland when it mattered.
“The only thing you have is pride,” coach Dwane Casey said of trying to claw back into the series when it moves to Cleveland on Saturday for Game 3. He said while they had no answer for LeBron, he also thought their offence stalled in the third, which let things get out of hand on the other end. “All we have is pride, and we have show we are a better team than we showed tonight.”
We are probably at the point where we should just acknowledge that every Raptors playoff run is going to have two plotlines. The main story arc is whatever happens in the games, the evolution of the series.
The secondary arc, the B story, is the broader and deeper question of whether this franchise as constituted will ever be able to rise beyond a good team, or even a very good team, to a great one. (The C story is whomever Drake is feuding with from his courtside seats.)
The Raptors were having a time trying to put that B story to bed. It started before the playoffs even did, thanks to the remarkable 10-game losing streak in playoff Game 1s that Toronto finally broke against Washington. Everything was well and good in greater Raptorland for a few days, but then two straight losses to the Wizards, including a blown lead in an ugly fourth quarter in Game 4, had all the same questions being asked again: was Toronto’s much-ballyhooed offensive revolution all for naught if they still struggled to put away inferior teams in the post-season? Was the Lowry-DeRozan-Casey combination bumping up against its ceiling again?
Two straight wins against the Wizards pushed those questions off to the side for a bit, but the B story became the A story again late on Tuesday, when the Raptors failed to put away against the Cavaliers and ended their Game 1 win streak at, um, one.
Before Game 2, Casey didn’t quite say, Aaron Rodgers-style, that everyone needed to R-E-L-A-X, but there was a hint of that. “I think we’re jaded here in Toronto, because of our past Game 1s,” he said, the clear implication being that the fan base ought not to be holding its head in its collective hands after a one-point loss, even if the Raptors had barfed up a game that they absolutely should have won. “It’s just one game,” he said. “You can’t think about what happened last year or two years ago.”
But one no longer has to look back in the past to find evidence of a Toronto Raptors team in crisis, a team that can’t really complain when people around the NBA don’t give them the respect of a great team. The Cavaliers came into this series having sweat and struggled to put the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers away in seven games, including one win that came on a last-second miracle from James. The Raptors had the top seed, home-court advantage, and all kinds of depth, and their new-look offence. The Cavaliers had LeBron, the biggest advantage of all, but he had almost no help against Indiana, continuing a season-long trend. It all shaped up for an ideal situation for the Raptors, or as ideal as it gets when facing LeBron.
And, instead: Zero for two.
So, what now? The Raptors lost a close game in which LeBron wasn’t up to his usual standard, and when he played like Peak LeBron in Game 2 he crushed them just like he always crushes them in the spring. That is now eight straight playoff losses to Cleveland.
It’s not that these are the Same Old Raptors; they truly are a changed team. Same Old Results, though. That much is not in dispute.
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