Kyle Lowry Raptors Cavaliers
Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball as George Hill #3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers defends in the first half of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 1, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

This year was supposed to be different. After two seasons of being eliminated from the playoffs by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors were finally the team to beat.

Toronto earned the East’s No.1 seed by winning 59 regular-season games and finishing nine games ahead of Cleveland in the standings. They’ve got home-court advantage over the Cavs in their conference semifinals matchup and needed one fewer game to make it out of the first round.

The Raptors are a well-rounded team with several playmakers, while the Cavs don’t have one reliable player beyond James. It’s why Toronto entered the second round as 1/2 favorites to defeat the defending Eastern Conference champions and end James’ streak of seven straight trips to the NBA Finals.

Then Game 1 came, and none of that mattered. The Raptors’ inability to beat the Cavs in big games remained the same that it’s been for the last three years. Toronto coughed up a fourth-quarter lead and eventually lost in overtime.

Cleveland came out on top 113-112 despite never once leading in regulation. Toronto was up by 10 points with 10 minutes left, facing James on his worst shooting night of the playoffs. Clearly exhausted from playing more than 41 minutes per game in a series that ended two days prior, James scored 26 points on 30 shots in 47 minutes Tuesday night.

James missed five of six free-throw attempts and seven of eight attempts from three-point range. Kevin Love, Cleveland’s second-leading scorer, missed 10 of his 13 field-goal attempts. Cleveland shot just 41.2 percent from the field.

The Cavs didn’t simply steal Game 1—the Raptors handed it to them.

Toronto couldn’t buy a bucket in crunch time. They missed their last 11 shots of the fourth quarter, including five on their final possession with the game tied at 105-105. Fred VanVleet missed an open three-pointer, and three different Raptors couldn’t convert tip-in attempts.

“There’s a lid on the rim!” yelled TNT announcer Ian Eagle when Toronto failed to make any of their potential game-winners. That’s what it felt like over the course of the entire fourth quarter as the Raptors made just three of 16 shot attempts within five feet of the hoop.

Maybe it just wasn’t Toronto’s night. Or maybe the Raptors are still haunted by their recent playoff failures, and they faltered under the pressure.

“I don't know if it was nerves, or yips, or what,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said in the post-game press conference. “Things that just shot ourselves in the foot.”

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both have something to prove this series, failing to perform like the All-Stars they are against Cleveland in two straight postseasons. Lowry has been particularly disappointing, scoring 13 points or fewer in three losses to Cleveland in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. An ankle injury kept him out of Game 3 and Game 4 a year ago when the Cavs swept the Raptors.

In Tuesday’s fourth quarter, Lowry didn’t make a single shot. He went one-of-four from the field in the game’s final 20 minutes. Part of that has to do with how he was brilliantly defended by James, but it’s hard to ignore the way his shot-making disappeared when Toronto needed a score.

DeRozan led the team with 23.0 points per game in the regular season and 26.0 points per game against the Washington Wizards in the first round. He scored seven points on nine shot attempts in the second half and overtime, going just one-of-two from the field in the pivotal fourth quarter.

It was an all-too-familiar sight for Toronto. Their backcourt stars just didn’t have it when it mattered most, and there’s enough history to suggest that it will be the Raptors’ undoing this postseason.

No more is Toronto favored to reach the conference finals. All it took was one game of them looking like the Raptors of old for the betting odds to shift in Cleveland’s favor. The Cavs have seized control of home-court advantage and become -140 favorites at BetOnline. Toronto is a +120 underdog.

An optimistic Raptors fan might chalk it up to a simple lack of execution down the stretch. After all, James didn’t score in overtime and missed his last five shots.

But if Toronto can’t beat Cleveland when James shoots poorly, how are they going to win when the planet’s best basketball player starts hitting shots?

James, of course, was still effective, notching a triple-double and being the most impactful defender on the court. He scored at least 44 points on no more than 25 shot attempts in three first-round victories against the Indiana Pacers. You can be sure he has a few performances like that up his sleeve for Toronto.

“I definitely wasn't as efficient as I would like to be,” James told reporters Tuesday night. “But, at the end of the day the only thing that matters is to try to get a win, and my teammates were unbelievable tonight. They stepped up when I wasn't at my best.”

With James’ best likely on the way, Toronto is headed down the same path for the third straight year.