The Toronto Raptors fought.
Faced with a 3-0 series hole against the Cleveland Cavaliers, looking down the barrel of a deficit nobody has ever overcome, against a team decidedly better than them, and playing without one of their two All-Stars, the Raptors talked up a few potential reasons to give a damn in what could have been a boilerplate sweep conclusion: Pride. To prove something. To give themselves another opportunity to have another opportunity. Whatever the reasons, it was always going to be a more admirable ending if the Raptors went down swinging, and while that’s long been their modus operandi, it would have been understandable if they just didn’t have them in it one more time.
They did. In a pretty serious way, for as much as it mattered. Cleveland may not have taken things all that seriously or felt threatened during the course of the series, but for a day, at least, they got the kind of tune-up they might have been looking for, even if they still ultimately secured their extra week off between rounds. The Raptors pushed them more here than they had before, an appreciated cap on a trying, up-and-down, vaguely successful season.
“I thought we could have played better the first three games. Today, I thought the guys played,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “In that do-or-die situation, guys can easily pack it in. I thought our guys played with grit, toughness, togetherness. I think it’s a testament to their character and the culture that those guys have created.”
To say the Cavaliers came out of the gate a little slowly would be a bit of an understatement. As is customary for all non-Game 1s that tip off on a weekend afternoon in Toronto, the opponent looked a little, uhh, lethargic. Outside of J.R. Smith, nobody on the Cleveland looked particularly interested on the defensive side of the ball, and the legs didn’t appear to be underneath the jumpers just yet. No shootaround kills. The Raptors, though, were geared up, led by P.J. Tucker joining the starting lineup and barking “We’re not done yet” after a made three.
The energy gap and some eventual shot-making after the teams combined to start 0-of-9 allowed the Raptors to start the game hot for what felt like the first time all playoffs. The fifth different starting lineup in the last five games led 14-6 as the Cavaliers called a first timeout, and Channing Frye’s triple immediately upon entering only temporarily slowed things. The lead would grow to 11, Toronto’s largest of the series, and things were going well enough for Drake to dribble a ball in his seat with the look of existential, Take Care-level dread momentarily leaving his face.
There were signs this would be fleeting, though. With the lead trimmed back to three, Serge Ibaka would miss a baseline floater, and when Tucker went to save the offensive rebound, he’d inadvertently start the Cavaliers the other way. If there’s a defining image of the series other than Cavaliers hitting threes in Raptor eyes, it’s probably LeBron James getting an and-one in transition, which is what came next. That tied the game at the end of the quarter, good vibes sufficiently squandered, and Deron Williams would further deliver the “oh yeah, the Cavs” when he lost the ball on a swing pass, recovered it, and let fly for a three and Cleveland’s first lead since the game’s opening bucket.
To their credit, the Raptors weren’t going to leave anything to chance. After scoring five points with four assists in the first, DeMar DeRozan didn’t take his customary rest to start the second, sending a pretty clear indication he was planning to play all 48 minutes. Looking to get him off the floor, the Cavaliers responded with an Iman Shumpert kick to the Comptons. Shumpert received a technical but DeRozan was forced to take a breather, and the Cavaliers went on a quick 8-3 run to take their first multi-possession lead.
From there, things kind of gave way to the way they’ve gone all series. The Raptors missed a pair of really good looks from long-range sandwiched around a Tucker offensive rebound, Kyle Korver started spitting napalm, and the Cavs were up double-digits before the Raptors knew their lead was gone. Cleveland’s edge in bench scoring with the Raptors’ lacking Kyle Lowry (and thus Cory Joseph in the second unit and Lowry helping create for the bench) continued to be an issue, and the difference in shot-making, reductive though it’s sounded all series, continued to rear its head.
Even when the Raptors got a break like a Tucker strip on Kyrie Irving, it swung right back with something like Irving stripping the ball back on the break and feeding James behind the play. Trying to stay aggressive and assertive, the Raptors wound up mostly just making careless turnovers. Korver hit more beautiful jumpers, even blocked a DeRozan attempt in the paint, and finished the half with 16 points as the Cavaliers took a 61-49 lead into the break.
Same as it ever was in this series.
The Raptors still came out fighting in the third quarter, and even had momentum in their favor a little bit. With the Air Canada Centre crowd responding to each bucket, Tyronn Lue was forced into using a pair of timeouts barely two minutes apart to try to settle things, the Raptors having cut the lead to seven despite the unfair development of James raining threes. As Cleveland tried to pull back away, the Raptors wore the exhaustion of the uphill battle of the series, the entire game an exercise in gallantry. Threes were fired without the requisite legs beneath them. Heads hung, hands on knees, after drawing fouls. Tucker was helped off the deck by James, one of the lone shows of respect after the former spent the entire game guarding the latter nearly possession after possession, at the very least making him work for all of his 35 points, nine rebounds, and six assists.
“He did a great job,” DeRozan said. “P.J. is definitely one of the best defenders in our league. He went up against one of the best in our league as well. He did a great job, but when a guy like LeBron locks in, it’s tough to stop him one on one.”
Somehow, the Raptors trailed by just five entering the fourth, a Tucker corner three ending the third. They couldn’t afford to take anything but their best shot starting the frame, and that meant players fighting through the physical fatigue of another short-rotation game and the psychological fatigue of a two-year chase, one that felt asymptotic at even the best of times, that this game was perfectly emblematic of.
As the Raptors kept fighting – a Tucker three, a Patrick Patterson strip, a Fred VanVleet triple (likely in the game over Delon Wright in this one because he might be the team’s best spot-up shooter with Lowry out) – James and the Cavaliers kept responding just enough to keep them at arm’s length, because that’s what James does. Down 92-90, Norman Powell made a crucial foul in a good way, picking one up off the ball before Korver sank a three on a beautiful elevator-doors play, negating the triple. Moments later, Ibaka would hit a mid-range jumper with the foul, giving the Raptors their first lead since midway through the second. The Raptors even trapped Irving well and nearly stole an inbound right after, only for the Cavs to keep possession and Irving with a three.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) May 7, 2017
“He made some tough shots,” Joseph said. “That’s what great players do. He made one three between his legs, step-back, and I was right there, and he went to the basket next time and I think he shot an off-glass left-handed one. It’s tough.”
That, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be Toronto’s last gas. They’d continue fighting, of course, with all five starters finishing off good-to-great efforts, hitting the deck, battling, and in the cases of Tucker and DeRozan, playing almost every last damn minute. But that three wound up a part of an 11-2 run for Irving alone, and with shot quality at the offensive end becoming as extinct as their namesake, the Raptors could no longer keep up. Yet another James three, his 13th on just 26 attempts in the series, wrapped things up.
“At times, we’d make a run, they’ll hit timely threes and push the game back open, and it was tough for us to catch back up,” Joseph said.
There is execution down the stretch to quibble with, of course, and some may have preferred a different closing five, or the five that closed to get a look earlier. DeRozan looked spent by the end, too, not that you can really blame him. At the micro level, a few things could have broken differently to see them extend the series to five. That was true until the early part of the fourth on Friday, too. At the macro level, though, it wouldn’t have mattered a ton. The Raptors weren’t coming back in this series, and a Game 5 in Cleveland that could have been a blowout like the final two games of last year may have even ended the season on a more dour note. A win at some point would have been a nice affirmation of the gradual uptick in effort and desperation over the course of the series, and despite the end result, this was truly a valiant effort.
All series, the story has been just how good the Cavaliers are. How well they execute, the ridiculous rate they’ve hit even well-contested shots, and how far away Toronto is at a sheer talent level. The Raptors became the near-consensus biggest threat to the Cavaliers because they are closer than most on that same talent scale, sure, but it was also because of their history of turning in gritty efforts like this, occasionally playing above their talent, and always making themselves a tough out. They’d lost that a bit over the last few months. Whatever happens from here now that they’re eliminated, it’s better that they went out this way, grinding and battling and fighting against inevitability until the final buzzer.
“It feels bad and it was ugly but it shouldn’t diminish the excellent regular season we had,” Casey said.”
There’s something to be said for dying by the means that have defined you, and there’s a dignity in at least refusing to go quietly, even in defeat.