CLEVELAND — LeBron James had toppled over in front of the Toronto Raptors’ bench, a fall-away jumper shot into the rafters and sinking through the bottom of the net. James rose to his feet and stared over the entire bench of players and coaches. This has become life for the Raptors, for Eastern Conference teams outside of the one that calls Quicken Loans Arena home — LeBron playing the part of Michael Jordan in the 1990s, placing a barricade on everyone’s championship aspirations.
Blow by blow, James has won 12 of his last 14 playoff games over Toronto the past three seasons, delivering consecutive series sweeps in the conference semifinals. James had stared down the entire Raptors bench late Monday night — after that memorable fadeaway jumper with one minute left in the third quarter of a 128-93 rout in Game 4 — meeting blank, lifeless faces. Toronto imploded Monday night.
First came center Lucas Nogueira’s two-minute stint in which the reserve center — who, to be fair, had been a DNP-CD in Games 1 and 3 — appeared lost on both ends of the floor, committed a foul and a turnover and was minus-10. He entered the game with the Raptors trailing 51-47 with more than two minutes until halftime, and the deficit grew to 63-47 at half. Then it was DeMar DeRozan receiving a Flagrant 2 foul on a swipe at Jordan Clarkson’s head with 23.6 remaining in the third quarter, a call that paled in comparison to the non-call of Kevin Love’s elbow to DeRozan’s jaw in Game 1. Such became life in this series for the Raptors. Such was the frustration, which included Raptors president Masai Ujiri being fined $25,000 for confronting officials at halftime of Game 3 in Cleveland on Saturday night.
From the tarnished and lackluster efforts of the All-Star backcourt of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to the coaching of Dwane Casey, James delivered the Raptors one thing entering exit interviews on Tuesday: The re-evaluation of an entire franchise’s future, the question of whether this roster has fractured at his whim.
“Maybe they just have our number, because the last three years have been rough competing against this team,” DeRozan said. “We’re out, we’re done. It’s back to reality, and we have to work to get to the next stage. We don’t know if we’re ever going to get this opportunity again. Three opportunities like that, and to come up with a dud … it stings.”
Said Casey: “I thought our guys would come in and compete harder. … Whatever reason, we didn’t and that was disappointing.”
Toronto had a magical regular season, a franchise-record 59 wins and a freshened aura of confidence among its two stars and supporting cast. Ujiri and his front office found promising young players for the bench, from OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl to Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright, while Lowry and DeRozan appeared to elevate themselves as playmakers and leaders. The regular-season success made Casey a favorite to be named Coach of the Year. And now all of a sudden, this entire regime has been placed into question. It all could be on the table: The futures of DeRozan, Lowry and Serge Ibaka; or whether it looks within to make changes. And yet on the other hand is this: These Raptors have proven to be among the league’s elite, so how does the organization react to this generation’s best player standing in its way year after year?
Toronto players had hoped this season would be different, that its depth and regular-season success would carry into the series against LeBron. The Indiana Pacers had tested Cleveland in the first round in ways the Raptors never could, though, through ball movement and physical play, toughness and a lack of fear of James. Boston is expected to take a similar approach in a potential Eastern Conference finals. These Raptors appeared shaken — again.
“LeBron is on another level, and not having Kyrie [Irving], he’s taking his whole game up a notch,” VanVleet said. “Watching him last year from the bench and now this year playing, he was something else. We had chances, had to get Games 1 and 3, but this happens against him.”
From the brink of catastrophe to four wins from his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance, and James’ confidence had never wavered. Suddenly, Cavs guard George Hill, who dealt with a back strain in the first round, has new spring in his legs, finishing two monster dunks during a 12-point, five-assist night. Kevin Love (23 points) shared the podium with James and fit the bill as a co-star in this series. Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith combined for 31 points and seven 3-pointers on Monday night — a barometer of Cleveland’s success on a nightly basis.
“Everyone was burying my teammates alive, and I continued to preach to them that I need them to be great,” James said. “I felt coming in [Toronto] would be a tough challenge.”
Once again, LeBron James has buried an Eastern Conference team in distress. He’s done this over and over, confident teams go through a series with him, only to experience hope fleeting away. Stars have underproduced for the Raptors, coaching decisions haven’t gone right, from the lack of a double-team on James to close Game 3 to rotations throughout the series. The East has been James’ to own, and the Toronto Raptors were simply on his path toward another potential Finals. Will they make it back?
More from Yahoo Sports:
• ‘Game of Thrones’ star is finally World’s Strongest Man
• Stolen jacket caper ends with TV vet’s resignation
• Woman’s $18 Derby bet lands $1.2 million
• One-handed NFL rookie already turning heads