CLEVELAND – It’s over.
The Toronto Raptors second-round series against the Cleveland Ca – heck against LeBron James, let’s be serious – is over.
Officially it was done at shortly after 11 p.m., the final score 128-93. Four up, four down.
But it was over much before that. Maybe when the Raptors coughed up Game 1 at home?
When James was able to freelance all through Game 2? When he put a dagger in at the end of Game 3 with his impossible-for-anyone-else game winner? In Game 4 it was over at half time as the Cavs jumped out to a 16-point lead and extended it into a rout.
It’s the second Cavs-Raptors sweep in two years, the third-straight series loss at the hands of the King and stretches a playoff losing streak against Cleveland to ten games.
The Raptors perfect, winless, record at Quicken Loans Arena is unblemished at 0-7.
But what else is over? The Casey era might be.
This was the best regular season in franchise history, at 59-23 the Raptors had the best record in their conference and the second-best in the NBA.
But those achievements will be diminished by the way the Raptors faded against a Cavs team that came in looking vulnerable after a tumultuous season and after barely surviving a seven-game first-round series against the Indiana Pacers.
The good stuff will get discounted. It’s the price paid for trying to be great, to compete with greatness in the form or James or any of the NBA’s super heavyweight class.
“The last three years have been rough for us, competing against this team,” said DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 13 points before being ejected late in the third quarter for a flagrant foul on Jordan Clarkson, the game already out of hand. “Maybe they just got our number, things just don’t go right for us, whatever it is, it could be a lot of things. All I know is the last three years they have been the reason why we haven’t advanced.”
But who will pay the price now?
The speculation about the future of head coach Dwane Casey has been heating up since Toronto fell behind 0-2 at home and the drumbeats will only grow louder now that the Raptors became just the second team to be swept in consecutive post-seasons by the same team in a seven-game series.
That Raptors core veterans are all under contracts that would make them difficult to trade for fair value.
If Raptors president Masai Ujiri wants to make a change the most successful coach in franchise history, and a leading coach-of-the-year candidate, could be the one that take the fall.
If it happens it could come quickly if Ujiri is going to be able to find a candidate that would be a clear upgrade on one of the most successful coaches in the NBA now that league’s coaching carousel is already in full swing.
No one thought it would come to this.
“We definitely didn’t see this coming as a series,” said Cavaliers sharp-shooter Kyle Korver, one of several Cleveland support staff who were able to find their game against Toronto. “I would say that we were ready for another long series.”
Casey said he had all the confidence in the world before the series began. The Raptors were betting favourites to stop James’ personal Eastern Conference series winning streak at 22 straight.
The Raptors have been down 3-0 to the Cavaliers before. This felt different.
Although the series wasn’t close, the first three games were and the Raptors believed they could still make a dent if they could just win a game.
It felt different that being down 0-3 a year ago when the ending seemed inevitable.
“All three games have presented different plays that would have to be done at certain points of the game to get over the hump,” said CJ Miles before the game. “We see them, it’s not like there’s no door to get out of the room, you know?
But once the ball went up? The door slammed shut.
It was all too familiar. The Raptors playing on a court that seemed tilted uphill and greased.
They could never gain any traction.
For the second straight game Casey opted to adjust his starting lineup, this time sitting Valanciunas and playing Serge Ibaka at centre alongside Miles, OG Anunoby, Lowry and DeRozan.
The Cavs were easily able to pick it apart, getting out to an early 10-point lead by hitting 12 of their first 15 shots and this was with James going 1-of-3.
The one glimmer of light came when Casey brought in Valanciunas late in the first quarter and the Lithuanian big man caught fire, scoring 10 points and adding two assists and a pair of blocks as he helped Toronto take the lead, 38-36, with a 19-7 run.
But these things always seem temporary in James’ world. The Raptors know it all too well.
The Cavs superstar scored on a pair of lay-ups and chipped in four assists in rapid fashion as part of a 27-9 run that put the Cavs up 63-47 at half and never looked back. Cavs were up by 28 heading into the fourth quarter.
James averaged 34 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds for the series on 55 per cent shooting, playing near perfect basketball at age 33, but tellingly all five Cavs starters were in double figures in Game 4 in a series when the Raptors game plan was designed to minimize the amount of help James could get.
The Raptors shot just 46.5 per cent and didn’t have one signature performance. Instead their signature has become the team that can’t elevate themselves in the playoffs. They’re the team that started #LeBronto trending.
Whether that’s because they over-achieve in the regular season or something else, this off-season will be about finding that out and Casey may be the change that is required to see what other changes are needed.
He’ll have some decisions to answer for including a strange one to go to Lucas Nogueira at centre in place of Ibaka with 2:54 left in the first half. The enigmatic Brazilian hadn’t seen the floor at all since April 20 and looked it as in the space of 54 seconds he fouled Love on a jump shot, missed a lay-up, lost Love in a switch leading to another lay-up and turned the ball over leading to a Kyle Korver three.
He was individually accountable for an 11-to-15-point swing, depending on how you choose to do the math, but Casey is the only person who can be held accountable for putting him in that situation with Valanciunas available and playing well.
“Lucas is one of our better passers,” said Casey. “For whatever reason the coaches were saying ‘we got get Lucas in, he can break the press, he can break the blitz’ and he didn’t. He struggled. That was a lesson for us.”
Who is going to have the luxury of learning from it?
The Raptors playoff struggles make it easy to draw a bead on Casey as coaching decisions and in-game adjustments are in the glare of the spotlight in more than any other time of the year.
“I think the hardest part is — and you’ve seen it for years with Michael Jordan — they happened to run into LeBron James,” said Cavaliers coach Ty Lue who called the idea that Casey might take the fall “Absurd.”
“He couldn’t have done a better job with that team.”
But Casey hasn’t had a great series, by playoff standards.
His decision with Nogueira didn’t cost the Raptors the game but it certainly cost the Raptors momentum at a critical juncture.
There were moments in every game like that.
In Game 1 the Raptors failed to get the ball inbounds after a timeout with 2:27 in a one-point game, resulting in a turnover.
It was also in Game 1 that it became clear that the Raptors were going to have a hard time playing both Ibaka and Valanciunas together against a Cavs lineup featuring Love at centre and four shooters, but Casey didn’t make the move until Game 3, cutting back on Valanciunas’ minutes, benching Jakob Poeltl and moving Ibaka to centre.
What would Game 2 have looked like if that decision had been made sooner? Instead Casey opted to try and go smaller against Cleveland and ended up with Love punishing Miles in the paint as the Cavs made their pivotal push in a game Toronto led at halftime.
Game 3 might have been Casey’s strongest game – he changed his starting lineup and mixed and matched his rotations almost violently until he arrived at a combination that clicked in the fourth quarter.
But still there were some odd looks. With 53 seconds left in a three-point game the best shot Toronto could get out of a timeout was a contested 30-footer from VanVleet.
On James’ game-winner, confusion reigned out of a timeout as Casey – and his team – were caught off guard when the Cavs elected to take the ball under their basket rather than at mid-court.
Firing Casey seems deeply unfair if the measure is the quality of the person – there isn’t a more liked or respected person in the NBA – or based on his body of work.
But Ujiri’s loyalty is ultimately to the players he has under contract and the organization that pays them.
If Casey stays it’s a risk. If he’s fired and the next head coach can’t make a 59-win team better, it could blow up on Ujiri.
But it’s a gamble that might have to be made.
A year ago Ujiri ordered a culture change but trusted Casey to implement those changes. It’s hard to argue he didn’t succeed admirably.
But with the Raptors off-season upon them much sooner then they hoped or expected, the first order of business could very well be deciding if Casey is the person that can change the Raptors fortunes.