Congratulations, we played ourselves.
The Toronto Raptors convinced a lot of people that this was the year they could finally get past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were better by most objective measures, handled their business mostly to form in the first round of the playoffs for a change, and were better built for playoff basketball this time around. In the end, it was no different. Everything that mattered turned out the same, and the 2017-18 Raptors season ended exactly like the one that came before it, with a sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers.
This wasn't just the Raptors fan base believing, to be clear. That would be a lot easier to wave a hand at with a smirk. Untethered optimism comes with the territory there. The Raptors had more than just a large section of their fan base fooled this time around. Every analytic model publicly available favored them. ESPN, notorious in Canada for its alleged distaste for the franchise, had more than half of its staffers pick the Raptors to win, many in six games and some in fewer. Even Vegas, often a solid arbiter of the objectivity of narrative, took the bait, and has now surely taken a hit here for having listed James as a two-to-one series underdog against a team he's now won 10 consecutive postseason games against with a personal plus-minus of +178.
The second it happens, you feel like you should have known better all along.
There were good reasons for everyone to take the bait. It feels painfully reductive to believe everything boils down to simply the state of James or not-James for any team in the Eastern Conference, and this was, objectively, the biggest opportunity anyone had on paper. The Raptors weren't a paper tiger, really. They were incredibly good. Like, an unquestioned top-three team in the league good. The Cavaliers were downright mediocre. It seems silly after it happens—"Oh yeah, of course James was going to beat the Raptors, it's James and the Raptors"—but ignoring a wealth of evidence would run dangerously close to calling the entire spectacle of the regular season meaningless.
Yes, the playoffs change things, especially when opponents can game plan to exploit weaknesses or how they want to leverage their strengths. The Raptors still finished with an even better postseason offensive rating than their top-five regular season mark. Their depth struggled to make an impact, though. And Dwane Casey, who may very well win Coach of the Year while his job status is in question, had a tough series.
Really, though, it was their top-five defense that abandoned them, proving wholly incapable of even presenting a speed bump to James and the Cavaliers. This has to be frustrating, if a little predictable in retrospect. The Raptors re-designed their offense because they didn't have the ball movement or the shooting to keep up in the playoffs, and once they could, Cleveland simply moved the goalposts for keeping up. You can have a strong defensive system and still be susceptible to James and four shooters. The Raptors don't have the defensive horses—and the ones they do are still young, going through their first real playoff test—nor did they have the discipline.
It almost looked different. Game 1 saw the Raptors fumble away a number of great opportunities, andmaybe the writing should have been on the wall already. You don't get the benefit of room for error against James, and his Game 2 performance channelled Vin Diesel's Oscar-snubbed "You almost had me? You never had me. You never had your culture reset," with the alarming dismissiveness with which he declared, again, that the Raptors were no threat.
That element of psychological warfare almost surely played a part. How much of one is impossible to know. Getting inside the heads of other people is not something I'm particularly well-equipped to do. It did seem, once James had control of the series and the Raptors lost home-court advantage and the veil of a fatigue advantage, that their demeanor changed. Snake-bitten in Game 1, maybe. They teetered on broken from there, with Casey calling them "emotionally drunk" after near-wins in Games 1 and 3, DeMar DeRozan turning in two of his worst games of a tremendous season on his way out the door, and not a single player having the requisite fight in them in Game 4 after that same fight came up short twice earlier in the series. Again, it's impossible to know what the specter of James does to the psyche of a team; it would be unfair to assign all of the blame to the mental side for Toronto, and it would border on ignorant to dismiss the idea altogether.
There will be fair comparisons to how the Indiana Pacers forced Cleveland to go to seven games, a rarity during this James run. There's important nuance there about the health of Kevin Love and George Hill and of the general performance of Love and Kyle Korver. Even those around the Cavaliers remarked all series at how different the team looked, and a healthy Hill-James-Love trio was something few teams are equipped to deal with, however physical.
This is not to discredit Indiana. They had an excellent season and series, and certainly played the role of foil with more aplomb, the aplomb the Raptors eventually lacked. James had his way with Indiana teams of old, and maybe franchises need the benefit of time to regroup before running into the thresher again. We'll see how a better Boston handles it after a brutal gentleman's sweep a year ago, albeit with some important new pieces.
For the Raptors, there's no getting around how disappointing this is. They changed everything about themselves to do better in this exact spot. Really, they've been building to this since drafting DeRozan ninth overall in 2009. The moves that followed—Casey, then Lowry, then Masai Ujiri, the would-be tear-down, the on-the-fly development, the culture reset—everything has been aimed to maximize this window, because these windows are so rare. You don't get two All-Stars in their primes, and even if those aren't All-NBA talents (both have been close in different seasons), it's hard to turn your back on 50 wins, upward momentum, the promise of youth in support, and the uncertainty of blowing things up to never get back to this point.
And so they trudged forward, admirably so, trying to be the best possible version of themselves during this opportunity. Maybe the window is still open, because DeRozan and Lowry haven't quite hit their respective downswings yet and this was the third-youngest roster in the playoffs, and because they can still be an even better version of themselves. From a general basketball perspective, the NBA should have been rooting for the Raptors. It's important that teams can take steps forward without always resorting to tanking, that there are more examples than just the 2011 Dallas Mavericks for teams to put value in being just very good and keeping themselves in a position to strike when the winds change or the stars align.
Sports don't exactly mirror life, but there's a significant philosophical value here, too, with the Raptors inching closer to their idealized selves and continuing to try against the grain of logic or odds or circumstance. What can we do but to try to be a little better with each successive opportunity? DeRozan has become fond of embracing the pains of defeats and using them to make himself even better, and were the Raptors to all take that approach, they'd find solace in this being the deepest of sorrows, as it would only serve to increase the amount of you they can contain.
Sports don't work on an endless continuum, though, and the Raptors may not get another opportunity. Where they go from here is a complicated question we'll take a deeper look at in the coming days and weeks. Whatever direction they go, it's very hard to envision a scenario in which the Raptors reach April and can sell the public on their chances once more. They won 59 games and their conference, James and the Cavaliers looked their weakest and most vulnerable, and it didn't matter a lick. Even with a tweaked roster, a shift in voice on the bench, or James in a new setting in the same conference—not to mention the continued ascension of Boston and Philadelphia—the Raptors will probably have to prove they can do it before anyone believes once more.