Toronto Raptors

Raptors still can't solve LeBron James, setting tone for potentially uncomfortable offseason

#toronto Raptotrs

CLEVELAND - LeBron James barreled full steam into the lane and circled past Toronto's Pascal Siakam for a layup in the final seconds before halftime.

That capped a 12-0 run and that marked the beginning of the end for the Raptors in the 2018 NBA playoffs. Cleveland had a 16-point lead and 34 points in the paint at that moment, and it appeared to be the final insult that three players had more points than James.

It only got worse from there. The second half was more of a formality as James, who scored 29 points with 11 assists and eight rebounds, facilitated a 128-93 annihilation in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena on Monday. That completes a sweep that sends No. 1 seed Toronto home from the playoffs in stunning fashion.

Overtime loss, blowout, buzzer-beater loss, blowout. The close losses left the team in a state coach Dwane Casey labelled as "emotionally drunk" as the two blowouts teetered out of control. This happened so fast. Too fast.

"I thought they showed a championship pedigree, a great example for us in the difference between a regular season and a playoff run," Casey said. "They're clicking on a lot of different levels, and took us out of what we wanted to do in many different areas."

Now, the Raptors face a series of offseason questions that in no way seemed plausible less than a week ago. Should Casey be on the hot seat? Can the Raptors take the next step with guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan? Did this franchise max out in 2017-18? These are unexpected questions with even tougher hypothetical answers.

The harsh reality is the Raptors became the first No. 1 seed to be swept in the second round since 1969. The Cavs swept No. 1 seed Atlanta in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals, too, but this sticks out more.

It's not an upset that the Cavaliers won the series, but it's difficult to believe anybody picked a sweep with Cleveland coming off a seven-game series against Indiana in the first round. The Raptors were favoured by seven points in Game 1. Lowry and DeRozan took turns trying to explain how it happened.

"It's hard to say if it's one thing," DeRozan said. "The last three years have been rough for us competing against this team. They've had our number. Whatever it is, I can't tell you one specific thing."

"We lost, so it's frustrating either way," Lowry said.

Toronto compiled a 166-80 record in the Eastern Conference the last three seasons, eight games better than Cleveland at 158-88. Few, if any people, will remember that after the Cavaliers eliminated the Raptors from the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

What does that mean for Casey? When asked about the possibility Casey could be fired before Game 4, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue suggested that would be "crazy" given the track record.

"Top three in offence and defence," Lue said. "That's unheard of. The hardest part is, and you've seen it before with Michael Jordan, they ran into LeBron James."

Perhaps no player has a franchise's number more than James with the Raptors right now. It's somewhere in that neighbourhood of what Jordan used to do to the Cavaliers and Knicks in the 1980s and 1990s. After this series - which added "LeBronto" to the lineage - the Raptors might want to wait and see what James does before making any long-term decisions that would disrupt the chemistry of a team that has success in the regular season but is no closer to solving how to beat the James-led Cavs.

"That's a big part of it," Casey said. You're looking at one of the guys that's going to go down as one of the greatest ever. He's a matchup nightmare. At some point, that's going to come down. That's going to change."

Can the Raptors afford to wait that long? Toronto has to find a way to make it work with DeRozan and Lowry, All-Star guards who again fell short in a prove-it series against the Cavaliers. The Raptors have around $100 million invested in DeRozan, Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka for 2018-19. OG Anunoby, CJ Miles and Fred VanVleet are solid role players. That leaves Toronto in an unenviable spot. There aren't many cards left to play with the roster without a few bold shakeups, but its clear status quo isn't enough.

That has to happen at some level because the results have been the same in three straight seasons against the Cavs, and the rest of the contenders are getting better. Boston gets Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back next year. Philadelphia will add on to a core that includes Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and the Bucks should build off this year's playoff appearance with star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

That's not even factoring in LeBron's plan for his future, which might be the most important element when sizing up Toronto's future in the Eastern Conference.

Is James the only thing holding Toronto back?

That's not just the Raptors' problem. That's a company-wide issue for teams not named Cleveland in the East, and another reminder not to make any rash decisions before James unveils his plans. Toronto can compete in the East, but they haven't proven a true threat to win the East.

Regardless of where James goes, Lowry and DeRozan need to be better in the postseason for that to happen. DeRozan sat in the fourth quarter in Game 3. Lowry had five points at halftime of Game 4 and wasn't enough of a factor while the Cavaliers built an insurmountable lead in the third quarter.

James scored 15 points in that quarter, the final shot a high-arching fadeaway over Pascal that didn't touch the net for a 97-70 advantage, and DeRozan was ejected after a flagrant foul with 23.6 seconds before the fourth quarter even started.

That's the epitaph on a series the Raptors will have a hard time forgetting, no matter how hard they try. James poured on a few more jumpers for a 30-point lead and checked out of a series he dominated with 7:38 left in the fourth quarter. Chants of "MVP! MVP!" reached deafening levels, and the Raptors were reminded one more time that the regular season is a formality.

James is still King in the East, and as far as the Raptors should be concerned, the King in the North, too. That's not an insult. It's the harsh reality Toronto must face with that long, uncomfortable summer here sooner than expected.

"It sucks to dwell and sit here going into the summer not knowing if the opportunity presents itself again," DeRozan said. "We have to carry that over team-wise and player-wise and, like I said, get ready for the next go-round."

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