The ideal piece of trade bait may be Jonas Valanciunas, despite the fact that he’s 26 and coming off arguably his best season as a pro. Valanciunas is a relic, the kind of slow 7-foot center that many GMs instinctively feel they need, even as it’s become clear that the game has passed by such players. Valanciunas has a reasonable two years and $34 million left on his contract, but there’s virtually no market for big men these days, and shopping him likely is a waste of time.
But as the buzzer sounded on Toronto’s season Monday night — the Cavaliers putting an exclamation point on a four-game sweep with a 128-93 throttling that counted as the biggest margin of defeat by a No. 1 seed at the hands of a lower seed in an elimination game in NBA history — you could only consider its strategic choices to be abysmal failures. They tried to take away James’s teammates; they took away nothing. No fewer than five of James’s teammates averaged double figures in points for the series.
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.
For the second game in a row, Toronto coach Dwane Casey changed his starting lineup. Serge Ibaka, who gave way to Fred VanVleet in Game 3, returned to start at centre in place of Valanciunas. Miles also slotted into the starting five with VanVleet back on the bench.
While Ibaka had five early points, Cleveland had success going straight through the heart of the Toronto defence – often unimpeded. Two early fouls forced Miles to the bench before the quarter was halfway over.
Cleveland was good on 12 of its first 15 shots, mixing in some good defence to pull ahead as the first quarter wore on.
The series was close, no one will argue that, but it was still four in a row and by anyone’s standards that’s just not good enough.
The Cavs targeted DeMar DeRozan and took him out of the series. The team’s leading scorer averaged just 18 points a night in the series and had an offensive rating lower than every other Raptor who appeared in the series. Through three games with DeRozan on the floor his offensive rating was a disturbing 95 points per 100 possessions. It only got worse in Game 4.
Over the past three seasons, the ebbing of LeBron’s tide has consistently revealed the Raptors as we know them: self-fulfilling prophets trapped by both LeBron-induced existential dread and their own sense of fatalism. It’s as though their identity as a team was never truly theirs and was instead piloted by the public’s (and LeBron’s) complete and utter lack of conviction in them.
Casey started guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan on Monday night along with forwards C.J. Miles, rookie OG Anunoby and centre Serge Ibaka as the Raptors look to force a Game 5 at home.
Miles is making his first start of the Eastern Conference semifinal while Ibaka is back after not starting Game 3. Guard Fred VanVleet is coming off the bench as is centre Jonas Valanciunas, who started the first three games.
And at ground level, the Raptors were unable to prove anyone wrong. It was 51-47 with three minutes left in the first half of Game 4; coach Dwane Casey inserted Bebe into the game, even after Jonas Valanciunas had a dominant little run earlier in the game. Casey wanted their best big man passer in there, despite the fact he had barely played since early April. Bebe doesn’t try to score, and can’t guard Kevin Love. At halftime Cleveland was up 16.
They melted away. The top-seeded, 59-win Raptors lost 128-93, and the season ends the same way last season did, swept and humiliated. Last year, team president Masai Ujiri declared a culture reset and the team reinvented itself. And at the end it blew a series that should have been much less punchline-friendly than this.
LeBron James ripped the Toronto Raptors’ hearts out in Game 3. On Monday night, he and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers finished the job, putting the East’s No. 1 seed out of its misery and reminding anyone who’d ever dared to doubt — and in this rag-tag Cavs season, that was an awful lot of us — just who continues to control this conference.
Cleveland scored at will on Monday, shooting 65 percent from the field in the first quarter and never letting up in an offensive onslaught that left the reeling Raptors staring at the ceiling, wondering what just hit them. The Cavs hit the gas late in the second quarter and Toronto just buckled, failing to offer even token resistance after halftime as Cleveland cruised to a 128-93 win to finish a four-game sweep of the Raptors for the second consecutive season, and to do so in the most dominant fashion any James team ever has:
More so than any other summer, the Raptors will have a difficult few months ahead. They overhauled their entire system and philosophy, earned the No. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history, finished the regular season with a top-five offense and defense and it just didn’t matter. That’s tough to deal with.
Now, they’ll have some difficult questions to ask themselves. Do they just try running things back and hoping either LeBron leaves and goes to the Western Conference, or things break their way in the playoffs? Or do they try to make some sort of drastic change, whether that’s to the roster or the coaching staff? Given how little flexibility they have with the roster and cap space, and how strong the team was up until this series, it seems the wise move would be to just try again next season. But these are the type of failures that seem to bring about some sort of radical change in NBA organizations. Everyone will have a close eye on the Raptors this summer.