"I've been a part of some really adverse situations, and I just didn't believe this was one of them." LeBron James said that two years ago when the Toronto Raptors evened their Eastern Conference Semifinals series against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at two games apiece. Since he said those comments, the Raptors have not won a postseason game against the Cavs. In case you're counting, that's 10 losses in a row for the Raps, including back-to-back sweeps in the 2017 and 2018 playoffs, the latter with the Raps being the number one seed in the Eastern Conference.
Nobody knew at that time—maybe except James himself—but those comments have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Raptors, a reminder that as good as Toronto has been in the last three seasons, as great as it's been this season after finishing in the top three in overall offense and defense, its biggest weakness isn't its roster, depth, and coaching. It's the existential fear of having to face James and the Cavaliers in the playoffs and the fatalistic dread that comes with it.
The Raptors can puff their chests about the improvements they've made this season. To be fair, the team did have a season for the ages. Its two stars—DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry—elevated their games and became more efficient. Dwayne Casey showed his coaching chops by adopting a more free-flowing offense that helped create more passes, more 3s, and more bench involvement. The teams even managed to harvest a group of promising young players, each offering something different to the table. By (almost) all accounts, this year should be celebrated as the Raps’ most successful season in franchise history.
That is until it ran into its boogeyman. Just like that, the Raptors reverted back to the fatally flawed team that shrunk at the sight of James staring at them from across the court. Toronto can take comfort knowing that Games 1 and 3 could've gone their way with a few different bounces of the ball. If Cleveland doesn't come back from that 14-point deficit in Game 1 and LeBron James doesn't hit that incredible leaning floater to beat the buzzer in Game 3, this series would be tied at 2-2 and the narratives would be completely different. But all the what-could've-beens and happy-to-be-here pats on the back stopped for Toronto a long time ago. This was supposed to be the year it proved its legitimacy as a title contender. It had its best season and in team history, yet it got swept by a Cavaliers team that barely had enough left on the tank after a seven-game grind against the Indiana Pacers.
General manager Masai Ujiri now has a lot of tough questions to answer, beginning with the legitimacy of having Derozan and Lowry serve as the faces of the franchise. History may not be on the Raps' side, but so are any meaningful upgrades from what the team already has. Perspective means nothing in the East for a team that's supposed to finally dethrone James. The good news is that its biggest problem—James himself—might end up giving the Raps the free pass of a lifetime if he decides to move West next season.
That in itself, though, tells you how James continues to dictate the state of the Eastern Conference. The Raptors were supposed to have been the one team that could rise above the shadow that LeBron has cast over the whole conference for nearly 10 years. They were supposed to be the most equipped team that could finally strike down James' monopoly. The whole narrative about this conference revolves around overcoming LeBron. The Raptors were supposed to do that.
Unfortunately, "supposed to" doesn't mean much when all those years of playoff frustration come flooding back. Watching the Raptors unravel in Game 4 against the Cavs isn't a death knell for the franchise. But to see it fail against LeBron and the Cavs over and over again is like watching a team digging a grave with the intention of burying someone under six feet of dirt.
Given what we've come to know about the Raptors, at some point, you wonder if that grave they're digging is actually for them.