The NBA’s perpetual underdogs finally saw the best season in franchise history come to an end on Friday night as the Toronto Raptors fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. With the win, the Cavaliers reached their second consecutive NBA finals.
And while it wasn’t quite the dismantling that was seen in Game 5 was (a 116-78 Cavaliers win) the Cavs will enter the finals with confidence, having handed the Raptors only their third home court post-season loss in 11 games at the Air Canada Centre.
The home faithful rarely fell quiet, continually hoping for a miracle after the Game 5 drubbing. Raptors fans, who throughout the season made the ACC one of the more difficult buildings to play in for visiting teams, were treated to and ugly first half. A series of questionable calls slowed the pace of the game to a crawl. The referees threatened to become the storyline as 22 fouls were called in the first half. Among them was a flagrant foul assigned to Raptors center Bismack Biyombo after an elbow against Kevin Love. The flagrant would have ruled Biyombo out of Game 7.
But Game 7, and the NBA finals for that matter, were not meant to be for the Raptors. “We had lapses in the second quarter,” said Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. “And they took advantage of that.
“You sacrifice so much for moments like this and to have it taken away from you, it’s hurtful.”
There are good teams and there are elite teams in the NBA and Friday night drew a clear line in the sand between the two.
“Every situation [in this year’s playoffs] was new for us,” the Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the game. “It’s a learning experience for our guys. We’re learning. We’re not where they are right now.”
While that may be true of the Raptors, a 56-win regular season and a spot in the final four in the NBA is nothing to scoff at. The Raptors still have room to grow (and perhaps room to add within free agency) but that didn’t mean Casey wasn’t confident about the Raptors’ future: “We should be proud ... but we’re not satisfied.”
Even as fresh as the wounds might be for the Raptors, the postmortem will soon begin. Kyle Lowry recently became just the third Raptor in franchise history to be named to an All-NBA team but many would argue that the lack of an elite supporting cast is still a glaring hole for the Raptors that needs to be addressed in the off-season.
Post-game, the Cavaliers coach, Tyronn Lue, addressed how important this Cavaliers run is to the city of Cleveland. But the case the Raptors had more of an opportunity to make an impact in their home city. It is a hockey-first city, and may always be, but this Raptors team deserves credit for trying to captivate not just a city but an entire country.
An identity was built late in the season. Whether they build off that or go in a different direction with free agent signings will be one of the biggest questions for the Raptors.
“I think we’re a step ahead in the process,” said Casey. “We’re still a relatively young team to talk about competing for a championship. We still have a ways to go.”
And just as there are good and elite teams, there was LeBron James.
James was a force all game, shrugging off persistent boos from the rowdy home crowd, to lead the Cavaliers scorers with 33 points, including going 3-6 from three-point range and shooting 59.1% from the field. “I think he has a chance in this league,” Casey joked. Lue said before the evening’s events that “This is our Game 7” and as to be expected, James responded through 41:15 minutes. His performance was no joke as he slowly broke down the Raptors defense, continually finding open lanes.
“We needed LeBron to set the tempo for us early,” said Lue. “We knew he was going to run out of gas,” he added, speaking to how much the Cavaliers’ incredible supporting cast of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving contributed to Game 6.
Now entering his sixth straight NBA Finals, it doesn’t appear as if James or the Cavaliers are going to run out of gas anytime soon. “Even that 30 seconds I took LeBron out in the first half, he got mad about that,” Lue said of James’ first half performance, in which he logged 23:23 minutes.
“We’re not entitled to anything,” said James. “We earned our right to be here today.”
Now they are Eastern Conference champions. But soon, the focus will shift to the NBA finals. “We’re still OK,” said James of the Cavaliers. “We’re not great yet.”
The Raptors will have to wait for next season for another crack at their first ever NBA finals. “We the North!” the crowd chanted emphatically as the final seconds ticked off. “These fans mean a lot to the team,” said James of the crowd.
One team marches forward while another must look inwards. Still, despite the loss in Game 6, you have to believe that the Toronto Raptors have finally shed the underdog tag once and for all.
This article was written by Joshua Kloke at the Air Canada Centre, Toronto, for theguardian.com on Saturday 28th May 2016 04.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010