Raptors Show Some life, but the end is near: Arthur

You can see the end, now. It could be Sunday in Toronto; if the Raptors can come up with something unexpected, it could be Tuesday in Cleveland. Beyond that seems impossible to imagine at the moment, with Kyle Lowry limping with an ankle sprain, and three straight blowout losses to the defending champs. No, the end is coming. Soon, or later.

“I’m still proud of our guys, the way they scratched and what they stand for,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey after Toronto lost Game 3 of this second-round playoff series 115-94. “But it’s a make-or-miss league, and a win-or-lose league.”

“Sunday’s game is about pride. You don’t want to get swept, especially in your home building . . . Things get hard on Sunday, do you keep fighting? Do you keep scrapping, keep scratching? Our team has played with pride all year long.”

This is a more talented Raptors team than last season, and they are going to lose one round earlier in the playoffs than they did last year, and barring some miracles, in fewer games. On the surface, it’s a step back. Of course, you can pinpoint reasons: They didn’t have time to gel after trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker; Kyle Lowry didn’t have time to properly come back from his wrist surgery. Finally, take Lowry out of the lineup against Cleveland in Game 3 with a sprained ankle, and it was too much.

“It’s tough, we’re in a hole, but, what other (is there to do but) fight back,” said Cory Joseph, who started for Lowry but went 2-for-12, and 0-4 from three-point range. “I mean, obviously, going into the series we didn’t think we would be down 3-0. But we are, and we have to play through it.”

Lowry warmed up before limping off. From then on — the starting lineups, the hype videos, the free white T-shirts with the every-tourist-shop-in-the-country Canadian flag on the back, the giant flags, the “Let’s Go Raptors!” chants, Drake at courtside, all the trappings — it all felt a little . . . hollow. The pageantry is less exciting when you’re doomed.

They weren’t doomed right away, and that was all they had left to tell themselves. Toronto was left with the formula that carried the Raptors after Lowry’s wrist surgery: defend, and DeRozan. At halftime, Toronto led 52-49; after three quarters DeRozan had 36 points, and the Raptors were down 79-77. It felt, in the greater context, like a victory.

And then they had to sit DeRozan and Joseph for a minute, and Kyle Korver got loose and hit a few threes, and then Cleveland was up eight, up 15, gone, over the horizon. LeBron toyed with the game, hitting left-handed floaters.

Most importantly, Toronto’s three-pointers never came. In this era of three-pointers, they have been outscored 135-51 from three-point range in three games. Patrick Patterson didn’t even attempt a shot in 20 minutes of play; Norman Powell, Ibaka and Joseph combined to go 1-14 from three. On shots deemed contested by NBA.com, Toronto shot 21-for-43. On shots deemed uncontested, they went 17-for-44, or 38.6 per cent. Lowry took about a third of this team’s threes this year. Without him, DeRozan was great, but the Raptors looked like a relic from another era.

“We couldn’t hit no shots,” DeRozan said. “I mean, us as a team, we only made two three-pointers and both of them came late. We had some great looks, we just couldn’t get nothing to fall for us. They turned it up offensively, ran away with it . . . it’s tough to win a game when you only hit two three-pointers.

“At one point we were one of the top offensive teams in the league,” said Casey. “Depending on the three, knocking down the three, and now we’ve got to transfer it from regular-season basketball to playoff basketball.”

Casey said he thought DeRozan needed to sit at the end of the third to rest; through three quarters the shooting guard had played nearly 34 of the 36 minutes. DeRozan said, “I could have kept going. I didn’t feel like I needed a blow. At this point in time, there’s no need for rest.”

Maybe Casey should have left him in the game: he scored one point the rest of the way. Maybe Casey should have used Valanciunas, despite the defensive jeopardy associated with him. But maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The Cavaliers went on an 8-2 run with DeRozan out, and a 12-1 run when he came back in. The Raptors were holding on by their toes. They competed, they played well. But you miss enough shots, it comes back to haunt you.

Look, the Cavaliers are the champs, and in Games 1 and 2 they finally tapped into their potential in consecutive games for the first time in months. It took that long.

“I want to say, physically and mentally, we feel whole,” forward James Jones said. “We had our challenges during the year, trying to manage the schedule, trying to navigate injuries, trying to mesh and find rotations.”

If they were bored they aren’t anymore, and the Raptors don’t look whole at all, because they’re not. When the Raptors won Game 3 and Game 4 last year, the series didn’t truly hinge on it; the Cavaliers won the next two by a combined 64 points. If they were arm-wrestling, Cleveland always had a bazooka in its back pocket.

They did here, too. But then, last season the Cavaliers went on to summit a 73-win team in the final, with LeBron delivering a historic performance. This year, they look like they’re peaking. The Raptors lost their best player, and Cleveland’s is the king. What are you going to do?

“I just train my mind and train my body,” said LeBron, before his 35-point, eight-rebound-seven-assist game. “It’s the best part of the year. They say this is where legends are made, and where you can make a name for yourself that can last longer than when you play the game, when you’re done. I just try to put myself into position where I can be best remembered when I’m done playing.”

He’s playing against history. The Raptors are, too, but in a different way. When the end does come, the big questions will follow. Do they re-sign Lowry to a massive contract at age 31? Do they re-sign Ibaka, who is clearly not quick enough to play anything but centre, and who took poor shots in this game? Do they rebuild, and let not just Lowry walk but look at trading DeRozan? Do they start over?

These Raptors tried, but all the options are one loss from being on the table, now. Nothing is decided. But Sunday could be the end of the series, and of more.

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