Raptors faced with big decisions after taking noted step backwards

LeBron James continues his impressive playoffs with another 30+ point performance as Cleveland completes four game sweep over the Toronto Raptors.

TORONTO – Now the come-uppance, and what a feeling this must be for Toronto Raptors management. Swept in four games by the Cleveland Cavaliers, swept by a team they were specifically designed to beat. Beaten because they are a step out of time with the rest of the NBA despite four consecutive 50-win seasons.

The Raptors put the ball through the hoop one more time than the Cavaliers over four games but, unfortunately, 61 of the Cavaliers shots came from behind the arc, where they out-scored the Raptors by 102 points.

And if that isn’t enough, here comes another Cleveland team Monday night: The Indians, who are at Rogers Centre to play the Blue Jays for the first time since making Toronto look like it, too, was a fundamentally flawed team. This necessitated public pronunciations of a needed overhaul: More lefty hitters. More younger lefty hitters. No, more athletic, younger lefty hitters that, alas, failed to materialize.

The Raptors can’t shoot threes in a league that breeds three-point shooters. The Blue Jays are old and slow in a game that is skewing younger and faster. Plus, did we mention the Indians have Edwin Encarnacion?

Sorry, folks. This three-point crafted, four-game sweep was not all because of LeBron James, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye. It was at least in part because in a make-or-miss league the Raptors weren’t able to make the kind of shots that now matter. They stabbed themselves in the back while LeBron was delivering daggers to the chest.

Disappointing? Frustrating? Nah. More like maddening. As maddening as hearing Patrick Patterson say later that while he wouldn’t call being swept a step backwards after losing to the Cavaliers in six games one stage later in the playoffs the season previous. It was kind of a saw-off, he said. Pressed a second time, he added, “I think we’re closer, not far away. We have the pieces to get closer and contend.”

After a sweep like this, the natural inclination is to fret about whether the Raptors are victims once again of the least competitively-balanced league in sports, at least in terms of championships, and whether two years of banging your head against a wall might not drain away the resolve of fans. If you don’t have Steph or LeBron – Steph and Kevin, so much the better – you aren’t going to win. Heck, having Russell, James and Kawhi might not even be enough.

But at least teams that have Curry, Durant, Westbrook, Harden or Leonard seem designed for it. In Toronto it’s like spending all day finding the right, fashionable stuff to get past the doorman only to have him tell you the club is closed – or gone country. I mean, when the defending champions go out and add a three-point shooter like Korver to their mix, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the game’s going, let alone where it’s gone.

“It’s tough,” said Patterson, one of four Raptors free agents who misplaced his calling card – the three-point shot – at the worst time possible and in fact passed up more three-point shots Sunday than he made.

“You surround LeBron with shooters … he draws so much attention that if you help a little bit too much he finds them and they knock them down on a consistent basis, you get in trouble. But we had some great looks, too. We had great passes from [DeMar DeRozan] and ball movement on the perimeter and for some reason they didn’t fall in.”

Physician, cure thyself. Patterson attempted just nine threes in the series, making two. Serge Ibaka was 5-for-14. DeMarre Carroll, who along with Patterson accounted for almost a quarter of the Raptors’ three-point attempts in the regular season, was 1-for-5 in a little more than 10 minutes per game. DeRozan, the Raptors best player, was 0-for-3 – three! – in the four games and, well, when your best player isn’t put in position to make threes or is incapable of it, it’s tough to see that as a recipe for long-term success.

Who says in-game interviews have no value? ABC’s Lisa Salters asked Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue after the first quarter what changes he needed to make against a Raptors team whose coach, Dwane Casey, publicly promised that threes would rain down.

“None,” Lue said. “They have to make them [three-point shots]. We want to take DeMar out of the game.”

It was a brazen statement and a cold-blooded assessment of what the Cavaliers thought of their opposition. You think the rest of you can beat us if we make DeRozan a pass-first facilitator? Go ahead. Have at it.

The Raptors weren’t good enough on the perimeter. Ibaka had 23 points in Game 4, the first time he’s led the Raptors in scoring in these playoffs, but it was way too little and far too late. The Raptors acquired Ibaka at the trade deadline in a deal with the Orlando Magic in return for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick, the idea being that Ibaka was a better Bismack Biyombo, who was one of the catalysts during the Raptors Eastern final loss to the Cavaliers but was allowed to leave as a free-agent.

Toronto had, in fact, pursued Ibaka in the off-season when the Oklahoma City Thunder were shopping him, believing his perimeter defence and growing three-point proficiency addressed a gaping philosophical and tactical hole. It sort of worked during the regular season, but was a flop in the post-season when another of Ibaka’s traits was revealed: He simply disappeared on the road.

“They’re more dangerous this season,” Ibaka said of the Cavaliers. “They’re tough. First, you know LeBron can play one on, and then with the other players they have … it’s a tough matchup even for a shot-blocker like me. I got to think twice before I go over.”

Ibaka, Patterson and P.J. Tucker are free agents who all said they would welcome returning. Kyle Lowry, who demurred speaking post-game and is scheduled to hold court during Monday’s locker cleanout, is also a free-agent who has eyes for a max contract.

You can make a case for all, some or maybe even none of them returning – if you could somehow take Carroll so much the better. But here’s the thing: Last summer’s big decisions were made after a season in which the team took a measurable step forward, this year the decisions will be made after what can only be seen – sorry, Patrick – as a step back in terms of the ultimate goal: Beating the Cavaliers. Whether this team can move forward with a defence-first head coach whose team didn’t play defence for much of the year and can’t hit threes, or with a point guard who is their best three-point shooter but wears down. Those, too, are part of the tough decisions.

Indeed, you can make the case that far from not measuring up to the Cavaliers, the Raptors are in danger of not measuring up to the rest of the league.

Optimistically, you can say injuries prevented the Raptors from having had a chance to see Lowry, Tucker and Ibaka functioning as a smooth, healthy unit against the Cavaliers and you wouldn’t be mistaken in saying a healthy Lowry would have given the Raptors their best three-point weapon. But the results are all anyone can go on, and the bottom line is stark. So stark that Raptors management must be doing what Ibaka found himself doing a lot on the court: Thinking twice about what seems to be impossible. Thinking twice about Cleveland. Bloody Cleveland. Always Cleveland!

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show on from 9-11 a.m. ET and Baseball Central from 11 a.m.-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

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