A proud end to a great season

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In the end, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a better team than the Toronto Raptors.
This should have surprised nobody as Cleveland wrapped up the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Final series in six games on Friday, cruising down the stretch of a 113-87 victory. The Cavaliers, after all, employ LeBron James, one of the greatest basketball players in the world and of all time, and he spent the series serving reminders of the various ways he can dominate a game. They also employ Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, as offensively gifted a supporting duo as there is. Their depth, buoyed by the league’s largest payroll and what will likely wind up as the most substantial luxury tax bill of all time, is impressive. They’re well-coached. They’re experienced. And they’re immensely talented.
All of that is on full display in the 2015-16 postseason, as the Cavs cruise to a record-setting offensive efficiency through three rounds despite playing against three above-average defenses. James has quietly put up numbers – 24.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, seven assists, 2.2 steals, and a 60-percent true-shooting mark – that shouldn’t exist quietly, that would be screamed, throaty and guttural, by any other player unleashing such a salvo. The Raptors gave them more of a fight than they received in the first two rounds, taking a pair of games and, at least for a short time, looking like a threat to James’ pre-ordained sixth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
In the end, the Raptors weren’t as good as the Cavaliers, and they lost in Game 6 of the conference finals. To call that conclusion to the season anything but the most remarkable of achievements would be to put all of sports through a sordid, narrow lens in which only the refracted light of a 1-in-30 championship can break the darkness. The 2015-16 Toronto Raptors did something special, turning in what was unquestionably the greatest season in franchise history, and making the fan base proud as they went out, swinging but over-matched.
Losing to a better team at this stage in the series is acceptable, if naturally a little disappointing, as most endings are. The Raptors are here early. The goal for the season, as in all seasons, was to compete for a championship. At the more realistic and honest level, the goal was to top 2013-14 and  2014-15, because teams can only work their way up the development curve a step at a time in most cases. Preseason questions abounded about whether the Raptors could win a playoff series, erasing 15 years worth of demons of the most mediocre variety. They did that and far more, taking an additional step or two on that curve and reaching a height no Raptors team before it had.
To their credit, the Raptors spent all season moving the goalposts. Perhaps that serves to confuse now, as people eventually talked themselves into (or at least hoped on) the Raptors taking a real run at the Cavaliers in this spot. After winning 56 games and placing second in the East, the Raptors fancied themselves the biggest threat to James’ assumed mantle in the finals, and it was almost forgotten that such a lofty aim would have initially been thought beyond the scope of this season. The Raptors are young – a half-year below the league average in terms of age – and they were mostly inexperienced, untested beyond the first round of the playoffs.
They were also summarily dispatched in the first round a year prior, threatening to stall out an organic slow-build to relevance. Instead of taking a step back, general manager Masai Ujiri fortified the roster, built the team more in the image of lame-duck head coach Dwane Casey, and kept the keys firmly in the hands of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. His vision was rewarded with All-Star seasons from both guards, the best coaching performance of Casey’s career, and a manifestation of the offseason’s goals: The Raptors could win when they weren’t scoring, they were far tougher mentally and much more resilient, and they were, in the early words of mega-bargain Bismack Biyombo, not going to be punked.
Every bit of that was necessary at times in the playoffs, as the Raptors struggled through injury, ineffectiveness, and a battle to prove that they belong in the group beyond the annual first-round fodder. They stumbled against the Indiana Pacers in a series they should have won more easily if Lowry and DeRozan weren’t shooting woefully, and they may have been a Frank Vogel coaching mishap in Game 5 from going home early again, resulting in wholesale changes. Against the Miami Heat, they lost Jonas Valanciunas right in the middle of a postseason breakout, and they were left to claw their way to offense and try to slow Dwyane Wade over the course of seven games. Again, they managed, and there were signs of Lowry and DeRozan coming into form.
That would be necessary against Cleveland, where Toronto’s only hope was for those two to be the second- and third-best players in the series. The Raptors would need to play near-perfect basketball to upset the talent difference, and they’d need to lean on every bit of depth and role player production and defense in support. That didn’t happen. Banged up, mentally exhausted, and in the midst of a grueling playoff stretch without time off, the Raptors came out flat in back-to-back games. Lowry and DeRozan dug deep to help lead the team to Games 3 and 4 victories, and then the Cavaliers ran the Raptors off the floor in Game 5.
The deciding Game 6 went mostly as expected, a nice avatar for how most thought the series would play out and for the Raptors’ season as a whole. Cleveland was better. They were playing better, and they were hitting more shots as Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and DeMarre Carroll continued their shooting slumps and the Raptors’ couldn’t find a handle on a very, very weird first half (and kudos to the Raptors by staying on-brand with a game that reached the height of strangeness). When Lowry turned the ball over on an ill-advised rush to the rim with the shot clock off at the end of the half, resulting in a Love triple and a 13-point deficit, the ending seemed certain.
But as they’ve refused to do all year, the Raptors wouldn’t stop fighting. Casey gave in and started Patterson over the struggling Luis Scola. Valanciunas, in his second game back, got the call fairly early, continuing his strong offensive first half. DeRozan went back to being more aggressive off the ball, and the Raptors started leaning heavily on rarely-used but highly effective one-two pick-and-rolls in order to ride or die with their stars.
And if you’re going to die with someone, if you’re going to fight a losing battle with someone, and if you’re going to go down swinging with someone, there’s no better person than Lowry. Lowry spoke before the game about not wanting the season to be over, and he played as such, trying his damnedest to put the team on his back and will them to a victory. Triple after triple, Lowry kept the Cavs’ offensive momentum from pulling them too far away. Whenever the Raptors were bending, Lowry snapped them back into place. He scored 18 points in the third, hitting 4-of-5 on threes and 5-of-6 overall, as the Raptors managed to win the quarter and leave a glimmer of hope. As tweets started to filter out eulogizing the Raptors and writers began prepping their deadline filings, Lowry kept throwing wild cross after staggered hook, daring the Cavs to keep coming, making them work to close out a series in this arena, in his arena. Lowry wouldn’t go down, because Lowry doesn’t go down, and if he was going out, he was going out as only he can, somehow Over Everything even in a loss, turning in one last gutty, memorable, career-defining effort.
It wasn’t enough, and the Air Canada Centre showered him in appreciation as he checked out with a few minutes to go, spent, drained, emotional, and yes, finally, defeated. He scored 35 points. When this season is reflected on in years to come, it will be Lowry who comes to mind first. It will be the season in which he reached heights only Vince Carter reached before him. It will be the season in which he made his claim for the mantle of GROAT (Greatest Raptor Of All Time). It will be the season in which he made a second All-Star team, received votes for Most Valuable Player, and graded as a top-10 player by advanced metrics. It will be the season in which he raised expectations higher than they’ve ever been with a game-winning punch to the mouth against these same Cavaliers, a top-10 moment in franchise history. It will be the season in which he was somehow, inexplicably still the team’s best player through an extended and untimely shooting slump, and in which he stayed at the ACC past 1 a.m. to try to rediscover his touch. It will be the season in which he hit a half-court heave to force overtime, in which he posted three 30-point games in the second round, in which he dropped 35 to take a game from the Cavs, and in which he scored 35 again in making the Cavs give him something close to their best shot to keep him down.
The ACC crowd, who had a terrific and fan-base defining postseason run of their own, showering Lowry and company in applause and chants of Let’s Go Raptors and We The North was the perfect end to the season. Or, rather, a championship would have been. But assuming that wasn’t in the cards, Lowry being appreciated for one last attempt at a KLOE performance, and for being the leader and the catalyst of an Eternal Sunshining of a moribund narrative around the franchise, was. The Raptors are not a joke. They, led by Lowry, doubted for nearly as long as the franchise itself, proved they belonged. Maybe not at the very top, but in the conversation, as a threat. They outperformed their talent level, particularly given injuries. They out-kicked their coverage, so to speak. They redefined what would be a successful season for themselves all year long, and in the process, redefined what this franchise can be. They redefined what it should want to be.
And no, the Raptors didn’t win the title, which is all that matters to some, it would seem. The players are disappointed, and justifiably so, for this moment. Not all seasons can be defined solely by a ring, and the Raptors aren’t there yet. There are a lot of difficult questions to be asked entering the offseason about how to get there, and the Raptors may look a little different whether to take a step forward or in taking one back to take a larger one – the toughest one left to take – down the line. Those questions will be asked in due time, here and within their offices.
The question that needn’t be asked is whether or not this season was a success. Ask the front office, whose jobs are now much more difficult than they may have been six weeks or six months ago. Ask LeBron James, who had a real moment with the crowd as he conducted his post-game interview. Ask the bars full of people engaging in Raptors chants and spilling into the street, hugging, knowing they were just a part of a special year. Ask the ACC crowd that poured their hearts out for Lowry and company as the 102nd game of the season came to a close. And eventually, you’d hope, ask the players, who three years ago bonded together over being the forgotten, the written-off, and the unwanted, stumbled upon a strange, unexpected, ethereal chemistry, and by sheer force made the organization and the fan base commit, again and again, and rewarded all of that leash and all of that faith in unrelenting fashion this year.
The Raptors lost on Friday, ending the best season the franchise has ever known.
Follow @raptorsrepublicFollow @BlakeMurphyODCA proud end to a great season originated on Raptors Republic: ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog.

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