The Raptors and Not Getting Fooled Again

The regular season in the NBA means a whole lot for playoff success. One of my favorite stats concerning the NBA playoffs in a historical context is that of the 71 NBA champions between 1947 and 2017, a grand total of one club — the 1995 Houston Rockets, who were defending champions — came from outside the top four playoff seeds in a conference.

Unless Utah or New Orleans can pull off the unthinkable and beat one or both of Golden State and Houston, that club isn't getting a second member in June.

But after Cleveland went up 3-0 on Toronto Saturday night with a LeBron James buzzer-beater that everyone knew was going in as soon as he crossed half-court, you could be forgiven for trotting out the casual fan line of, "this is the NBA, the regular season means nothing."

After all, Toronto won 59 games, the second-most in the entire league. The Raptors were the only team to finish in the top five in offense and defense. An offense featuring more ball movement and three-pointers would prevent another iso-ball-induced playoff flameout.

While a semi-dysfunctional Washington team took the Raptors to six games, Toronto was only out of Game 3 in the second half against the Wizards and was 41 percent from behind the arc for the whole series. Meanwhile, the Cavs struggled with an Indiana team at least a year ahead of schedule, and needed three 40-point LeBron performances just to eek out nail-biter wins in Games 2, 5, and 7.

Last Tuesday morning, depending on your bookmaker, the Raptors were -180 or -190 moneyline favorites in the series against Cleveland, and while the price seemed conservative, you couldn't really make a strong case for the Cavs being favorites that didn't revolve around the Raptors bottling it like they hadn't so far this season or LeBron being beyond superhuman once again.

But that night's actual game, featuring 11 consecutive missed Toronto shots at the end of regulation, was akin to a tennis player a point or two away from a set in a major final bashing second serve after second serve into the net. The Cavs won in OT, and as if the gig wasn't up on the Raptors' stellar season by the buzzer in Game 1, it surely was after a second-half capitulation on defense at home in Game 2.

I've wanted to trust the Raptors for a while now, and I thought their playing style changes and defensive improvement would be the ticket for a possible Finals bid in an East with LeBron in roster makeover purgatory, Boston without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, and Philadelphia making its first playoff run with a young nucleus.

I was wrong, and I'm not going to believe in the Raptors anymore. Period.

I don't want to bash the Raptors too much, because 22 teams would love to be in their shoes right now, despite the inevitability of the 0-3 deficit in the NBA. Sometimes above-average teams run into some of the greatest players of all time. NBA history is littered with examples. The nature of the game and the primacy of having a legendary player play 40-plus minutes each game in the playoffs is tough to overcome.

I liken the current Raptors' run with DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Dwane Casey to the 1980s Denver Nuggets teams of Alex English, Fat Lever, and Doug Moe. The Nuggets made the playoffs nine years in a row from 1982 to 1990, made one conference finals (as Toronto did in 2016), but couldn't get past Magic Johnson's Lakers when the chance came in the playoffs.

Hardcore basketball fans remember those run-and-gun teams fondly, as I think more fans will with these Raptors after more people come to terms with LeBron's likely GOAT status.

Obviously, that won't soften the blow for Raptors fans. After this series loss, nothing short of somehow beating LeBron and/or getting to the Finals will even begin to get rid of the choker or "Craptors" branding.

And as mentioned before, this was probably Toronto's best chance to make a run. Even if LeBron stays in Cleveland instead of jumping ship to L.A., Boston might be the East favorite in 2019. Ben Simmons won't be a bad shooter forever in Philadelphia. Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost surely get a coaching and scheme upgrade in Milwaukee.

Furthermore, Toronto is capped out in salary commitments in a such a way through the end of next season that changing the team significantly would require one or more trades and parting of first-round draft picks. They probably are what they are at this point.

That's still good enough to win 45-55 games in the NBA, but not good enough to win in the playoffs or for anyone to expect them to make the next leap into the NBA's elite.

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