Toronto's Future Could Depend on How It Closes Out Series vs. Cleveland

If the Raptors show fight and avoid a sweep, perhaps the core will remain intact. If not, well, it could be time to go in another direction.

by Blake Murphy
May 4 2017, 4:54pm

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

It's not over yet.

OK, well it's probably over. The bubble has been burst, with the Cleveland Cavaliers very swiftly destroying the notion that the Toronto Raptors are the biggest threat to their standing as the class of the Eastern Conference. It appears, once again, that LeBron James will be headed to the NBA Finals, an inevitability seven years long. The Cavaliers own a 2-0 series lead over the Raptors, and James is 19-0 in those situations in his career. Teams can barely beat James four times in seven games, let alone do so in five.

Sure, the Celtics or Wizards loom, each presenting their own unique challenges. But Toronto was supposed to be the toughest challenge the Cavaliers would face, a team that pushed them to six games a year ago and was demonstrably better and more well-suited to the matchup this time around. Those things are true, and they have not mattered. Toronto may not end up posing the same challenge as Washington or Boston will, or Indiana did, but its struggles in the second round here are emblematic of the gap between the Cavaliers and the rest of the East as a whole. Cleveland hasn't even fully "flipped the switch" on defense, and is steamrolling what's supposed to be its stiffest pre-Golden State Warriors competition.

READ MORE: The Cavs Are Affording the Raptors Absolutely No Respect and It's Kind of Stressing Me Out

To wit: James is slamming off-window alley-oops, fake drinking beers, shooting wide-eyed smiles in transition, and spinning the ball in Serge Ibaka's face before hoisting—and making—contested threes. James never publicly talks up his feuds or perceived slights against him, but it certainly seems like he still remembers Ibaka calling out his defense in 2012, like he remembered DeMarre Carroll being touted as a LeBron-stopper, and like he surely rolled his eyes at the idea that P.J. Tucker could slow him down. Petty isn't the right word, but James has always seemed keenly aware of everything said about and around him, and you get the feeling that he didn't take kindly of the talk that the Raptors might push him here.

From the Raptors' side, there's not much to be done about that. James is James until he's not, and at age 32, he's turning in one of his best years ever and looks to have lost exactly zero off his fastball. Like the teams in the Western Conference who exist in the Warriors era and have to approach their decisions accordingly, so too do teams in the East, at least for as long as James is king (let's not even talk about the specter of Giannis Antetokounmpo taking that mantle over when James is done).

Is Casey the right coach for the Raptors? That will be one of many things that must be answered in the offseason. Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, the Raptors were swept at the hands of the Wizards and faced some difficult decisions. There was mounting evidence that the somewhat accidental success they had stumbled into was fool's gold, or that Dwane Casey wasn't the right head coach for that core. They rolled it back, because turning your back on success is risky and because the path to at least being the top challenger to Cleveland was mostly unimpeded.

"Everybody thought we would go the other way after the Washington series," team president Masai Ujiri said before the postseason this year. "You have to dig deep after you go through a playoff battle. And you have to evaluate and see exactly what went wrong with your team, or what went right with your team, so it's a tough place, it's a tough question to answer."

A year ago, they were given stark evidence that even after they reached that level, the gap they needed to make up remained vast. This time, their commitment to staying in the hand took on a bigger toll financially and in terms of flexibility, but it was justified all the same. Ujiri and his staff fortified, laying down the gauntlet. When this season ends, they'll have difficult questions to answer once again.

"There's no yes or no, there's no: OK, if you lose now it's done, you break up the team, or if you win you break up the team," Ujiri said. "I think you look at everything that goes on and you talk to your players, you talk to your coaches and you really evaluate where your team is before making those decisions. So I don't want to sit here and give you an answer: Hey, if we lose the first round then it's done, or if we get to the Eastern... whatever. We're going to try this again, and keep it going and see where it takes us."

And that's why, despite an enormous flashing sign pointing to the ultimate outcome of this series, there's still value in the next few games for Toronto. James isn't going anywhere, at least not yet, and so the Raptors have to continue measuring themselves by the scale he offers. The Raptors have to be realistic about not only the era in which they exist, but about the aging curves of their two stars, the flexibility they'd sacrifice keeping everyone together, and the perceived benefit of making consistent playoff runs—both to the players and the organizational equity in the NBA and in the city (where competition for winter attention is about to ratchet up once again following the resurgence of the Maple Leafs).

The Raptors can also use their response in the next few games as a litmus as to the value of the intangible. Ibaka and Tucker were added for what they bring on the court, but the team also talked up the toughness and physicality they bring. The Raptors have the look and feel of a playoff team this time around, but if those factors don't matter, if the team wilts down 0-2 rather than fighting back like they did last year, if it has shown that those traits can't, in fact, make up for simply having better and more complementary pieces, then it reframes some of the decisions the Raptors have to make.

Beyond Casey, the Raptors will have decisions to make on both Lowry and Ibaka. Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

One of the larger questions to ask, fairly or otherwise, will be whether this team with a different voice at the helm could perform differently. The pieces that were added were very Casey-style players, and while Casey's proven far more flexible and experimental over the last two postseasons, the Raptors are running out of pieces to change in search of a different result. Casey is a good coach, it's just that if the Raptors opt to run things back, it's a tough sell with the exact same group if the next two or three or however many games go the same way as the first two. And if the team bounces back admirably again, maybe that says something different.

The Raptors' proximity to challenging the Cavs could also inform the free agent decisions of Kyle Lowry and Ibaka, among others, and if those dominos fall a certain way, everything about the offseason could change. This isn't meant as a postmortem or a doomsday column, but there's a lot on the line here, perceptually, and the Raptors are in a position where they have no choice but to be deeply introspective and self-critical. There's no better opponent to do that against, at least.

Losing to the Cavaliers was always the most likely outcome for this Raptors team this season. Measuring the gap and the team's ability to close it was the overarching goal. Ujiri took a legitimate shot, and the Raptors have at least two more games to figure out whether they were fooling themselves in trying to draw closer, anyway. Not that there was a lot of choice in the matter, since 28 teams can't really be tanking waiting for the Cavaliers-Warriors era to play out, but Ujiri's been clear his goal is a title in Toronto. That road has and will continue to go through James, and there's value in every last minute the Raptors can spend measuring themselves against him and figuring out where they may need to go from here.

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