TORONTO – These Toronto Raptors will think about the ankle of Kyle Lowry and wonder to themselves: Would it have made a difference? In all likelihood, it would’ve merely postponed the inevitable: For every move the franchise has made with the Cleveland Cavaliers as its solitary motivation – tens of millions of dollars in increased management, coaching and players salaries, trades and free agents and draft picks – it has done nothing to close the gap.
“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”
James had 35 points on Friday night, the Cavaliers crushed the Raptors 115-94 in Game 3, and Cleveland moved to the cusp of consecutive Eastern Conference playoff series sweeps over Indiana and Toronto.
Indiana constructed rosters to beat James when he was with Miami and Cleveland, and lost prime years of Paul George, cycling through general managers and coaches on the way. Toronto is wondering, too: How do we keep everything together, and seriously believe we’re on the brink of overtaking James?
“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”
In the Eastern Conference, Boston has pursued a sound plan of restraint, refusing to cash its windfall Brooklyn Nets 2017 and 2018 draft picks for stars just good enough for LeBron James to give a “Nice try” hug at the end of a Game 6 or 7 in the conference finals.
James has won six straight Eastern Conference championships, and he’s closing hard on a seventh. He’s 32 years old and he has separated himself in history as one of the great destroyers of dreams and plans, players and franchises.
“Michael Jordan, the same way,” Cleveland Cavaliers coach Ty Lue told The Vertical on Friday night. “There’s a reason why guys like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller don’t have championships, because of Michael Jordan. And now, in this era, because of LeBron James.”
With Lowry and Serge Ibaka awaiting free agency in July, with a payroll that could be strapped with 30-somethings on massive long-term contracts, Toronto president Masai Ujiri has to decide his franchise’s next steps. In the Western Conference, the Clippers are living with comparable choices. Together, they all wonder: Maybe this isn’t working, but what’s the alternative? If you’re going to keep DeMar DeRozan and Chris Paul, you aren’t rebuilding. Halfway in might be the only thing worse than all-in.
For most of the NBA, competing in the now has become a futile enterprise: Everyone is waiting out Golden State in the West, and Cleveland in the East. As general managers themselves wonder: What will the league’s roster composition look like when everyone is trying to hedge on two teams, wait them out, and only five or six franchises are truly trying to compete in the short term?
Lowry awoke on Friday morning determined to play Game 3 on a sprained ankle, tried three different times on the court to find a way to make the movements an All-Star guard needs to make and left the court despondent. “I thought my adrenalin would take me, but it just didn’t work out,” Lowry told The Vertical.
Lowry wants to find a way to play on Sunday in Game 4, do what he can to spare the Raptors the indignity of a Cleveland sweep on Canadian soil. The Raptors pushed the Cavaliers to six games in the conference finals a year ago, loaded up the roster, and suddenly, it’s conceivable they’ll get blown out four straight times a year later.
“LeBron ain’t breaking spirits here, but he’s just that good,” Lowry told The Vertical. “He’s a dominant player, one of the top five most dominant players in basketball history.”
And soon, the Raptors will be one more franchise left in James’ wake, one more foiled Eastern Conference championship bid. Toronto has brutal decisions to make, with only complex and risky alternative directions to move.
When Lowry was asked his thoughts on Toronto’s next course of action, he simply shook his head and shrugged. “Those aren’t decisions for me to make here,” he said, and it was easy to understand why he wanted no part of that burden: LeBron James is still standing in the way, and yes, trying to close the gap on him has become the fool’s errand of the East.
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