Early in the fourth quarter of Monday’s game, Delon Wright game up with a nice steal from Jordan Clarkson, and a makeshift version of the Bench Mob got out on the move. Pascal Siakam tore down the court and, with no regard for the presence of LeBron James, rose up to catch a perfect lob pass. If the Toronto Raptors were going to finally overcome the Cleveland Cavaliers, plays like this would have to be fairly commonplace, the Raptors using their youth, speed, depth, and ability to force turnovers to win tough minutes when the team’s stars sat, all areas the Raptors struggled in the last two postseason meetings.
Siakam missed the finish.
The bench got valuable experience all postseason and showed some positive signs for the future, but they weren’t the same bench as in the regular season, as a group or as individuals with a few single-game exceptions. The stars were off the floor for the wrong reasons, DeMar DeRozan because he’d been tossed and Kyle Lowry because the Raptors were in a gargantuan hole and it simply made sense to get the young players extra reps. It’s not clear why James was still on the floor, other than to make sure every last drop of hope had been drained from this remaining husk of the Raptors. Just to be sure, James hit the last of his ridiculous shots in the series, a fadeaway against Siakam that saw him land well out of bounds behind the baseline, sending Jeff Green and Jose Calderon into a laughing fit.
“We’re all disappointed. That’s not the way you want to go out. You don’t want to get your butts kicked the way we did tonight. It happened,” Fred VanVleet said. And boy did it, to the tune of a thorough 128-93 beat-down the Raptors were only really involved in as a prop.
It was emblematic of the way the game went, the way the series now feels at its conclusion, and the way the entire Sisyphean quest to try to topple James and the Cavaliers has played out. The Raptors reshaped themselves entirely to do better this time around, to at least fail differently, and while they did so – at least their offense held up in the postseason this time! – new concerns surfaced and the ending was the exact same. You can absolutely separate the regular season and the postseason as separate entities and separate silos of enjoyment; there is no fathomable way to see a “closer sweep in the same spot” as anything but a failure in the second.
“I thought our guys would come in and compete harder,” Dwane Casey said after the game. “I told them they would come out and try and throw a haymaker and how we respond would be important. For whatever reason, we didn’t. That was disappointing.”
Set on not failing the exact same way in each of the four games, the Raptors once again tweaked their starting lineup. Back in was Serge Ibaka, and he was back to being ineffective. C.J. Miles joined in place of Fred VanVleet, and the long-troubles Miles-DeRozan defensive pairing did about what was to be expected. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto’s most consistent player all postseason, was sent to the bench, which was actually fine if handled properly, but instead he played just 16 minutes. The starters’ defense did not exactly set a great tone, though they scored enough to make it a non-disaster. The Cavaliers got almost literally whatever they wanted, with James sitting atop the floor and waiting for an off-ball action to produce a free 3-point shooter or a free cutter. J.R. Smith hit a pair of tough pull-up jumpers. George Hill went unchecked three freaking times in a row sprinting coast-to-coast for buckets, including a rare dunk. Cleveland started 10-of-12 from the floor and got ahead by nine before a nice two-way Valanciunas sequence and a Fred VanVleet three allowed for a momentary exhale. DeRozan closed the quarter with an emphatic dunk on an inbound play, and a four-point deficit felt miraculous given Cleveland’s shooting in the quarter.
James took only the briefest of rests, and when he returned, it was to a game dominated by Valanciunas. It was likely the best quarter of Valanciunas’ season, as he fed Pascal Siakam for a dunk, made a great pass to a cutting DeRozan that DeRozan couldn’t finish, posted Tristan Thompson, then hit him with a spin move, and stuck a mid-range jumper for good measure. James got switched onto him and offered him another jumper, but after surveying for a cutter like a Lithuanian LeBron, Valanciunas instead drove against James for a bucket. There was an 8-0 Raptors run during that stretch and they made sure to actually hold a lead once in this game, and then Cleveland decided to end it. Kyle Korver kept getting free from a top-locking Lowry who didn’t want to surrender a three, and later, Lowry would adjust and Korver would keep getting open for threes. An 11-2 Cleveland run put them back ahead for good, and Casey calling on Lucas Nogueira for two disastrous minutes more or less ended it. Toronto entered the half down 16, and James hadn’t even done much scoring yet.
“That’s been our problem this whole series. We played hard enough. In some of the games, we played well enough. I’m not sure we played smart enough all the time,” VanVleet said. “We just didn’t play well enough to win. We didn’t play well enough to win the series. We didn’t play championship basketball. But we fought. Unfortunately, at this time of year, that’s not enough.”
That came in the third. A messy start for both teams precluded a comeback push, and the porous defense proved too much. James had a ridiculous quarter, scoring 15 long after he needed to be in the game just because he could and because, I think, he wanted to top Lowry and DeRozan for combined scoring in the series (he came up two short). Casey continued trying to mix lineups, and they were able to get into the bonus to at least flirt with a Game 3 style comeback. It unraveled quickly.
DeRozan was ejected for a Flagrant 2 foul on Jordan Clarkson, who spent the entire review laughing while DeRozan wore his frustration. DeRozan exited with a minus-29 mark, meaning his three worst plus-minus marks of the entire season have come in the last three games, as disappointing an end as there is. For the series, James nearly topped the combination of DeRozan and Lowry in points, rebounds, and assists. There is no end to the list of random factoids you could come up with to make what was a close series through three games seem far more demoralizing. Which would be fair, because it was. The Cavaliers’ gameops crewed played them off to God’s Plan during a fourth-quarter timeout. Jose Calderon got to enter the game and be the one to put the Raptors down, as it should be.
“Well it’s disappointing. You want to go out fighting and clawing with your best effort with your best approach and not give in,” Casey said. “Believe me, that team is going to beat a lot of teams, but you don’t want to go down that way and let go of the rope. That is what is disappointing as much as anything else. We have done too many good things through the season, in the playoffs against Washington in the first game, in Game 3 to let go of the rope.”
Casey wanted the Raptors to at least going out saying they were able to fight, but DeRozan’s contact to the head of Clarkson was the most they mustered in the second half. And Norman Powell talked some trash to Calderon, I guess. It’s the worst possible way the season could have ended, even if it had to end with a sweep. It makes it hard, in the moment, to recognize all of the positive change and growth, because the Raptors couldn’t muster it with their season on the line.
“Last three years have been rough for us, competing against this team,” DeRozan. said. “Maybe they’ve 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, last three years they have been the reason why we haven’t advanced.”
Same as it ever was, apparently. Now the question becomes whether it’s the same group trying to get to the same point and try to overcome it differently, or if the players and the goalposts shift to where the franchise won’t be defined by the same defeat for a fourth season in a row.