Let’s cut to the chase. The Toronto Raptors must defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals series or they will be rightly perceived as frauds—paper tigers whose roar is really a whimper.
The Raptors, No. 1 seed in the East, and their conference-leading 59 wins during the regular season are irrelevant now. Their 2018 resume holds no weight. What matters is whether they can get past the Cavaliers after being swept by the LeBrons—yes, that should be the team’s official name—in the conference semifinals last season and losing 4-2 to the Cavs in the conference finals two years ago.
The Raptors did little to ease the anxiety or allay the fears of their avid fan base headed by rapper Drake, losing a highly winnable Game 1 in overtime Tuesday night. The 113-112 defeat illuminated the inferiority complex and psychological barrier they experience when facing the Cavaliers. Man-for-man, the Raptors are a deeper and better team than their opponent. But the sheer presence and will of James, who had 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds in recording his 21st career playoff triple-double, compounded with the unforced errors the Raptors inflicted upon themselves, committing 13 turnovers to the Cavaliers’ five, and missing 21 of 25 shots in the fourth quarter, several right at the basket, made them hardly resemble a team intent on making it to their first NBA Finals and stopping James from making it to his eighth straight.
“A lot of things, we did to ourselves,” said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. “I think we’re a better team. We just didn’t make the shots down the stretch. I know it sounds simplistic, but we had our open looks, had our opportunities, that we didn’t cash in on, and some other things we could clean up defensively.”
The Raptors need to display utmost urgency and execution in Game 2 tonight (6 p.m.) in Toronto. Another loss at home would essentially be a death knell for a franchise with well-founded high hopes.