After undergoing a promising transformation this season and heading into the playoffs with seemingly everything working in their favour, it was Groundhog Day all over again for Toronto as they met an all-too-familiar ending.
The Raptors were swept soundly in four games by James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs, one year after suffering the exact same fate at the exact same point.
Toronto were also beaten in six games by Cleveland in 2016, meaning they’ve now failed three straight seasons to dethrone James.
The previous two exits undoubtedly stung for a franchise that seemingly plateaued as good, but not great. The pain of this year’s elimination, however, feels like something more.
The Raptors are the first number-one seed to be swept in a series prior to the conference finals since the current 16-team format was introduced in 1984.— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) May 8, 2018
This was supposed to be the Raptors’ time to get over the hump and vanquish their demons. While they were clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference this season, Cleveland were a weaker side than in years past. Star power, depth, home-court advantage… you name it, Toronto had it on their side.
The one thing they didn’t have and what ended up mattering more than anything was James himself.
Which is why as much as it seems like the Raptors should blow it all up instead of continuing to bang their heads against the wall, the best approach might be patience.
Toronto aren’t without their warts – their All-Star backcourt has a tendency to either go missing or revert to an archaic style in the playoffs – but this may well be a LeBron problem and not a Raptors problem.
There’s a chance James is playing out West next season, and even though the Celtics and 76ers will continue to get better for the foreseeable future, the East will be more open with the best player on the other side of the bracket.
Even if James stays though – which seems like more of a possibility with every game Cleveland win in the playoffs – there’s something to be said about being a middle-class team. After all, only one franchise can raise a banner every year. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.
That doesn’t mean the Raptors shouldn’t pivot and be more bold with their moves. But maybe that means trading one star, or firing Dwane Casey – not going nuclear and tearing it all down by pressing the detonation button.
With his team fighting for its life and the season on the line, Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown turned to an undrafted free agent.
After playing effective, but limited minutes through the first three games of the series (plus-20 in 37 minutes), McConnell was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Robert Covington for Game 4.
The move paid instant dividends for Brown as the guard raised the 76ers’ defensive intensity while providing playmaking on the other end, where he had 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting to go with five assists and no turnovers.
Aside from the tangible impact McConnell had on the game, he also fired up the 76ers’ home crowd and lifted spirits with Philadelphia staring at a near-impossible 3-0 series hole.
“You need to come in with a spirit. You need to come in with a tenacity,” Brown said. “T.J. epitomises that, so we start him. To declare that to a team – and you’re fighting for your life – and to then put him in an environment that lets him do it makes more sense to me as a coach.”
McConnell is now far and away Philadelphia’s leader in plus-minus for the series at plus-38. That’s not only better than anyone also on Boston’s roster, but ranks ninth among all players in the second round.
His defence on Terry Rozier, who had his worst outing of the series in Game 4 – 11 points, two assists and 4-of-11 shooting – will be critical if the 76ers want to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 deficit.
The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar went the length of the court and banked a running, one-handed floater off the glass as time expired to capture a 105-103 victory.
Before James and Cavaliers go for the sweep Sunday night, relive the magical moment with video of the amazing shot below.