The painful ending was familiar, but the process was new. Toronto never trailed Cleveland for the first 48 minutes, and had it not been for a comical smattering of missed layups before the end of regulation, there would be no revival of the tired debates over the Raptors' playoff demons.
Instead of wallowing in the inevitability of LeBron James, the Raptors fixated on how the improvements that helped them capture the No. 1 seed nearly produced a Game 1 victory. They felt they were the better team, and that's a marked difference from their last two meetings with Cleveland.
"We should have won. We should have had that game, and it was more, damn, we gotta wait to redeem ourselves, to get this feeling off of us," Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said of the attitude of his team.
"That was more the feeling. The confidence hasn't went anywhere. If anything, it heightened to even want to get back out there."
DeRozan's defiance on Wednesday stood in stark contrast to his words last season when he sheepishly offered $100 to anyone who could stop James after he led the Cavaliers to a 23-point win in Game 2 of an eventual sweep. James had 39 points that night while parading to the line for 21 free throws.
If that offer still stood, DeRozan would owe $50 apiece to OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, as they limited James to 12-of-30 shooting for 26 points. Toronto's young forwards drew rave reviews from their teammates for their persistence, as they showed more in one game than any of their predecessors ever did - an ignominious list that includes expensive specialists in P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll, who were recruited specifically with James in mind.
James still finished with a triple-double and hit a tough fadeaway jumper to force overtime, but even he admitted that Game 1 was one of the worst of his career. Anunoby and Siakam were able to reasonably keep James from bullying his way to the basket and that gave Toronto's other defenders the opportunity to stay home on Cleveland's dead-eye shooters. If that pattern persists, the Raptors have a glorious chance to become the first team in the East to eliminate James since 2010.
With that said, the Raptors failed to capitalize on Anunoby and Siakam's efforts in Game 1, as they allowed J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver to wiggle free for eighteen 3-point attempts, which ultimately swung the game. They should be wary of their narrow margin for error against Cleveland, and the Raptors could very well regret Game 1, but they wisely kept everything in perspective.
"When you think in the negative, automatically it’s a negative thing. But I don’t think we are thinking that way and that’s the difference if that is what you are asking. I don’t sense that 'woe is me' in us. We see the mistakes we made," head coach Dwane Casey said of his team.
The Raptors weren't devastated by those mistakes and that's perhaps the biggest difference from recent seasons. DeRozan was determined, Kyle Lowry was jovial, Fred VanVleet was steady, and Casey was patient after practice. They delivered a unified message of sticking to the same game plan that led to the No. 1 seed.
"I detect the guys are very confident, there's no dejection or defeated attitude where there's been times in the past in playoffs where, 'Guys, you can't do this.' But I don't detect that at all," Casey said.