For the second straight year the Toronto Raptors saw their season come to an end at the hands of LeBron James and the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers but, as many around the team have rightly pointed out, the feeling is different this time around.
When they ran into the Cavs in last year's Conference Finals, they had already exceeded - or, at minimum, met - most reasonable expectations. Not only had they won the franchise's first ever best-of-seven playoff series, but they won two, and the experience of sparring with the soon-to-be NBA champions would be an invaluable one, win or lose.
They set out to win, of course they set out to win, but in the end there was no shame in losing to the best, and there still isn't, for what it's worth. A year later, expectations have changed and - now more than ever before - if they're not going to win, it matters how they lose.
By the time Sunday's Game 4 began, with Toronto on the brink of elimination, the Raptors had turned in just three competitive quarters over the course of three contests, all of which were decided by double figures. The final nail in their coffin, while also an 11-point defeat, was their best and most hard-fought showing of the series, but it was also one that begged the question: what took so long? It was, as they say, too little too late. The damage had been done.
Make no mistake, the Cavs were always supposed to win the series, even before taking their game to a level we hadn't seen from them since last spring, but the Raptors believed they had narrowed that gap enough to at least put up more of a fight. They were wrong. After stealing two games from the champs a year ago, Toronto was swept and there's just no sugarcoating the reality: the result - and, most importantly, what led to it - should be considered a major disappointment.
"It's not a step forward," said Patrick Patterson, one of several Raptors to have a dismal series. "I can't really say right now if it's a step back, I just know it's not a step forward."
For the Raptors, summer vacation begins a couple weeks earlier this year but, to be clear, failing to make it back to the East Finals isn't a failure at all. This was the series they had spent the last 12 months preparing for, regardless of when it came. Cleveland was the bar in which they would be measuring themselves - more specifically, James was the bar - and they happened to draw them in the second round.
Perhaps we overestimated the Raptors. Maybe we underestimated the Cavaliers. Most likely, it was a bit of both. Toronto needed to be at its best to have a real shot in this series, and while they weren't even close, it might not have even mattered. Cleveland was simply that good.
In four games, they averaged 116.3 points on 50 per cent shooting. They outscored Toronto by a ridiculous 102 points from beyond the arc, tying the largest 3-point disparity in a four-game series, ever. Outside of last year's NBA Finals, James may have been better than we've seen him. He became the first player in NBA history to score at least 35 points in each game of a four-game sweep, doing so while shooting 57 per cent from the field and 48 per cent from three-point range.
"Anytime you have No. 23 you can flip every switch you want to," Dwane Casey said of James and the Cavs. "What did he play [on Sunday]? 46 minutes? People complain about that. He is the difference. They did flip a switch. They are a totally different team defensively and definitely offensively [since the end of the regular season]. Anybody that thinks anything differently doesn’t know anything about basketball."
He's so damn good he gets in your head and the Raptors were awestruck from the moment this series began, whether they care to admit it or not. It's not just what he's doing, but what he's done. The legacy he's building can't help but intimidate and Toronto certainly isn't the first team to fall pray. He owns the East and everybody knows it.
"If we had LeBron on our team, too, we woulda won," said DeMar DeRozan, tongue in cheek after being asked an unrelated 'what if' question. "It happened. We got swept. It’s gonna be one of them long summers for us."
With Cleveland and Miami, James is chasing his seventh straight trip to the Finals. Since the last time he was eliminated by an intra-Conference opponent - 2010, in his first stint with the Cavs - he's 80-20 in playoff games against the East, 32-4 since his return to Ohio.
As he continues to dominate at age 32, the comparisons with Michael Jordan are becoming more relevant. Like MJ did in the 90s, he's left several good teams - and some great players - wondering: what if? What if a transcendent, all-time talent wasn't blocking their path?
That's the harsh reality many franchises have been forced to face over the years. From the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards to the Celtics big three. From the Bulls to the Pacers to the Hawks, all of whom look very different than they did just a few seasons ago. LeBron is almost single handedly breaking up teams. Now what comes of the Raptors, who were very clearly exposed in this series?