TORONTO — It was a well-attended funeral. The guests mostly wore white.
And if you didn’t think too much about what comes next, it was fun. It was loud. It was a reminder of what things could be like.
They tried to focus on the good times, all the ‘We the North’ chants that have rocked this house. There was even a heartfelt “Let’s Go Raptors” that shook the rafters midway through the fourth quarter for the first time in the series. It was a powerful reminder of how a fan base helped make a team so often ignored into a darling, something cool.
But although they fought the good fight, the Toronto Raptors died tryin’ Sunday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre, sent to an uncertain off-season by LeBron James himself, the Eastern Conference’s Grim Reaper, the one who alone decides which dreams live and which dreams die.
But this iteration of the Raptors has been on life support for a while now, the final blow likely coming when Kyle Lowry sprained an ankle in Game 2 and wasn’t able to play in Toronto on the weekend. He was dressed in all black as he sat on the bench. Was the pending free agent mourning what could possibly be his final moments as a Raptor after the five best seasons of his career?
You couldn’t help but wonder.
Every off-season has its questions but this one seems fundamental – almost existential – for the Raptors.
What do they really want to be, and how do they make it happen?
It’s the curse of the very good in the NBA, a league that venerates only the very, very best. And that guy is named LeBron James and wears No. 23 for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“If we had LeBron on our team, too, we woulda won,” said the Raptors DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 22 points and eight assists, not enough in other words. “We can say that all day, time, everything, we didn’t. It happened. We got swept. It’s gonna be one of them long summers for us.
Officially, the death blow in Cleveland’s 109-102 win came with 2:43 left in the fourth quarter as – and this was fitting – James rocked and rolled with his dribble, putting P.J. Tucker on a string before pulling up for the long three that put Cleveland up 11, capping 14-4 run sparked by running mate Kyrie Irving after Serge Ibaka had put the Raptors up by 1 with 6:32 left on a three-point play.
Fitting because there was always the sense James was toying with the Raptors through the four games – pretending to sip beer, going through his free-throw routine before draining triples, offering to take Drake out for drinks over the weekend in Toronto – and because the few times the Raptors did challenge Cleveland they always had a turbo boost they could hit at will.
There was hope that the re-tooled Raptors could push the Cavaliers, who limped through the regular season finishing 12-15 after the all-star break, compared to the 18-7 mark the Raptors managed, most of it without an injured Lowry.
But James is now headed for his ninth Eastern Conference Finals in 14 years – “I’ll take those numbers,” he says – so it’s safe to say he understands what it takes to play deep into May and June. He finished with 35 points, nine rebounds and six assists and is on pace for the most statistically dominant playoff run ever seen in the NBA as he helped push Cleveland’s playoff winning streak to 11, dating to the NBA Finals last year.
“Anytime you have No. 23 you can flip every switch you want to,” said Casey. “What did he play? 46 minutes? People complain about that. He is the difference. They did flip a switch. They are a totally different team defensively and offensively (since the end of the regular season). Anybody that thinks anything differently doesn’t know anything about basketball."
But the Raptors also proved vulnerable because as the Cavaliers kept lobbing one triple after another as the game continues its evolution from inside-out to outside-in, Toronto was unable to keep up and too often became too predictable in their approach as the loss dropped Toronto's post-season record in the Casey-Lowry-DeRozan era to 17-24.
The disparity of the two teams’ ability to leverage the three has been a running theme in the series, underlined by the fact that the Raptors' most competitive outing came in the game they took and made the most threes (29 and 10, respectively).
The Raptors scored just 81 points from deep during the series while the Cavaliers counted 183. Cleveland was shooting 47 per cent from three, the Raptors just 28 per cent.
Can the Raptors, as populated, thrive in a league where the number of three-point attempts keep rising year-over-year. Can Casey challenge his stars to adapt to a ball-movement based approach that generates those open looks?
But that wasn’t enough against Cleveland. And to be fair, it’s not exactly clear that anyone outside of the Golden State Warriors can match up with LeBron and the role players assembled around him.
“When LeBron is shooting the three-ball he is, at the rate he’s shooting it at the average he’s shooting it, they’re difficult,” said Casey. “I’m not saying it’s impossible. But they’re very difficult to beat when he’s shooting the ball like that because the floor is so spread. It really takes you away (from the basket). And then they bring in [Channing] Frye and [Kyle] Korver, they’ve got the floor spread so much. And now here goes Kyrie. They present so many problems offensively.”
They’re someone else’s problem now. The Raptors have had two cracks at James and the Cavs in the playoffs and came up well short twice. Exactly what that means might be best answered by how Cleveland performs against either Washington or Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.
What’s left is the post-mortem, where Raptors president Masai Ujiri will become the team’s most important player. He’s presided over the best years the franchise has ever had and one of the best runs any team in the NBA has had over the same period. It is the Raptors – not the Cavs – that lead the Eastern Conference in wins since Ujiri took over in the summer of 2013. A team without a 50-win season through its first 21 years has averaged 51 wins over the past four.
But now he’s faced with a philosophical question that the NBA almost uniquely forces you to make. It’s a league that doesn’t do flukes. An eighth seed has never made it the NBA Finals other than the New York Knicks after the lockout-shorted 1998 season. The best teams have the best players and because they’re on the floor for 90 per cent of the games, they tend to win. There is no such thing as a hot goalie or dominant pitching staff that can tilt the balance. Even in soccer, the very best in the world are just one of their team's 11 players on the pitch.
James? On a basketball court he’s everywhere at once.
So executives like Ujiri – and he’s not alone outside the Cavs, Golden State orbit – are faced with deciding how much to invest in building a team whose best title hopes depend on James spraining an ankle.
It’s a pressing issue in Toronto, which has four pending free agents – Ibaka, Tucker and Patrick Patterson along with Lowry -- in its rotation. But it is on Lowry which everything turns. The 31-year-old point guard who ranked 11th in the NBA in WinShares and could have credibly imagined earning a max contract this summer, which would start at about $36 million and be worth nearly $200 million in total for a five-year deal in Toronto.
That argument seems harder to make now, given Lowry’s post-all-star performance slides and injury issues and his failure to match his regular-season production in the playoffs.
But keeping him in Toronto is going to be expensive, and it makes no sense to keep him without committing to building a win-now group around him.
Signing Ibaka won’t be cheap either, but there is no point in being half-in on these ventures. All would be moves that would leverage the $137-million already committed to the prime of DeRozan.
And Casey. The Raptors have improved every year he’s coached them – without injuries this season there’s every chance this group would have done better than last year’s record 56 wins.
But has the relationship gone stale? Is it time for something fresh? There were times during the season it seemed Lowry and DeRozan were pulling away a little bit. At the very least Casey needs to fully embrace a style of play – up-tempo, three-point heavy – that isn’t in his first nature, and then he needs to lean on DeRozan to play a more pass-first style.
But what is the alternative? Who unwinds a 50-win team?
“It’s hard to break down a team that won 50-plus games two years in a row,” said DeRozan. “With the core guys. That’s on upper management. Us as players, we gotta be ready for whatever. The guys that’s free, the guys that’s coming back, we gotta understand, we gotta work on our game, become better, and leave it up to the front office to figure out everything else.”
The wrong choice has its consequences. In recent years, James-led teams have turned away clubs on the cusp of contending and sent them on slow slides to competitive limbo – see the Indiana Pacers and soon the Atlanta Hawks.
But pack it all in and you’re signing up for years of pain with no certainty of a return: hello Philadelphia.
In that context Game 4 was the end of a season, the death of one. But also the beginning of a journey that could be dark and scary with no clear path.
Funerals, no matter how boisterous, force these kind of big questions, every time.