Over the past couple of years, the NBA’s fanbase has grown accustomed to viewing the Toronto Raptors as a great regular season team. But when it comes down to the playoffs, the players lack the ability to seize the spotlight.
Whether one ties these playoff failures back to Vince Carter‘s days in Air Canada Centre, or the early days of the Lowry and DeRozan duo, Raptors fans have had little to look forward to when it comes to the postseason.
As a fan of the team myself, this year seemed different. Coming off a year where they got swept by the Cavaliers and HC Dwane Casey was now on the hot-seat after two consecutive 50-win seasons with nothing to show for it in the postseason.
The fanbase was absolutely clamoring for his firing, but what the team needed was something completely different. President Masai Ujiri called for a “culture change”, stating,
“We are going to hold everybody accountable because we need to. We need to figure it out.”
And so they did.
A New Culture
Before the start of the 2017-18 season, the team was too reliant on their two stars (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) playing hero ball, setting up iso’s and overall being inefficient offensively, as they mostly settled for two-pointers.
As the regular season progressed, fans now saw the ball flowing fluidly through the offense and there was more emphasis on the three-ball. These changes were reflected on the stat sheets as Toronto had the third-best offensive rating in the league, trailing only offensive juggernauts Golden State and Houston.
Moreover, perhaps the biggest change they made to their whole team, in general, was to rely on their bench players. The “Bench Mob” made up of Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, and the shining star of the unit, Fred VanVleet, were all played more than 17 minutes per game.
This change paid off huge dividends.
Their bench had by far the best net rating in the entire league with an 8.3, and this meant that Lowry and DeRozan carried less of the load offensively. Even some, namely Wright, Miles, and VanVleet, played huge minutes in the fourth quarter and provided runs when the team most needed them.
Overall, going into the postseason, Toronto Raptors fans (including myself) had great reasons to look forward to this year’s Eastern Conference title race, as I put it in the article I wrote back in March prior to the playoffs. With LeBron‘s Cavs’ stumbling to 50 wins and the fourth seed, and the Celtics being without their two stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, there was at last hope.
Basketball fans have constantly disrespected the franchise for so long now, and I sincerely thought if the Raptors made it out of the East, then they’d gain their rightful respect. But as it turns out, the postseason is a whole different monster entirely.
An Excellent Start
As the No. 1 seed with a 59-23 record, many analysts viewed Toronto as the favorites to come out of a considerably weakened Eastern conference. They matched up with the 8th-seeded Washington Wizards, which prior to the playoffs had gotten back their star player, John Wall, after a knee injury that sidelined him for two months.
In their franchise history, Toronto has never won the first game of their first playoff series (they are 0-9). Even Kyle Lowry acknowledged this, saying,
“We’ve lost a lot of Game 1s (laughs). So we’ve got to play it like a Game 7.”
One could tell that the team as a whole wanted to avenge these ghosts of playoff failures past, and with the unit they have as a whole, they could go as far as they want to, not just getting past Game 1.
And the streak came to an end that night in Air Canada Centre. They played as a team, with 6 players having gone into double-digit points, and huge performances from Delon Wright and Serge Ibaka propelled this team to a Game 1 W.
Game 2 went even better for the Raptors. They blew out the Wizards the whole game, and the final result was 130-119. They had 76 points by halftime, and DeMar DeRozan showed up big, as he scored 37 points on an efficient 60% shooting. Defensively, they also held Bradley Beal to 9 points on 3-11 shooting, and Casey even had a 13-man rotation. It looked all but certain that this would be a sweep for the Raptors, or at least a gentleman’s sweep (4 games to 1 win), but what would follow over the next couple of days would be completely unexpected.
Home Sweet Home
Everything that could’ve gone wrong in Game 3 did so.
The Raptors could not stop the backcourt duo of Wall and Beal, who combined for 56 points and the former also dished out 14 dimes. Serge Ibaka played 28 minutes and put up a measly 3 points, and the bench was absolutely overwhelmed by the tag-team by Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Lawson, and Ian Mahinmi, which bench scored 35 points.
On Washington’s home-floor, again the Raptors looked like the past year’s team that got swept by the Cavs. A bounce-back game was due for them, and it seemed that they would regain the form that won them the first two games.
Game 4 was a very uninspiring loss for Toronto. Again, Wall and Beal combined for 58 points, finishing with 27 and 31 points respectively. This time, DeRozan and Lowry played well finishing 35 and 19 points, but the problem the Raptors faced this time was that they simply could not close out when it mattered most. The Wizards held a 3 point lead with under 2 minutes left, and even with Bradley Beal fouling out of the game, the Raptors could not take advantage.
Overall, this was a game they easily could’ve won, but miscues including missed shots and defensive rotation mistakes buried them in the game’s final minutes. With the series now tied at two apiece, Toronto needed to respond to adversity, especially considering the fact Game 5 was back in home-court.
Game 5 was a statement game for them, as the core of DeRozan’s 32-point outburst Lowry’s steady two-way performance, and Delon Wright’s 18 points from the bench willed the Raptors to a 10-point win. Starting center Jonas Valanciunas finally played significant minutes in the final frame, and he executed the pick and roll to perfection with Lowry, along with helping out on the glass with 7 rebounds.
Coach Casey had this to say about him,
“I thought he moved his feet well tonight. There’s days and games that he does, that he shows that. We just need to see it more. But he has the ability to do that in certain situations.”
Faith in the team was restored again, however, the one concerning red flag was the string paltry of performances by Serge Ibaka, who hadn’t reached double-digit points since Game 2.
Before the eventual final game of the series, the team announced that Fred VanVleet would return back to the rotation, which would be a huge boost for the team. There was an imploring need to close out the series at Washington, and boy, they did it in style. With their OVO uniforms on, Lowry provided 24 points to help close out the series, and in general, the Raps outscored the Wizards 29-14 in the fourth. The return of VanVleet proved to be key, since even though he put up a stat-line of 5-4-4, with him on the floor, Toronto was +12, meaning his presence was being felt on the floor.
Even though it took them more games than expected to move on to the second round, Dwane Casey had this to say about the win “We want to enjoy it. Celebrate it until midnight. I told the guys, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. We still have some playoff series to go, hopefully. We’ve got to keep our mind on our business.”
That fish he mentions, of course, is LeBron James. Expectations were high rolling into the series, as the Cavs had taken out the Raptors for two straight years in the playoffs. It was about time they’d dethrone the king, as they were one game away from doing so two years ago in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This Cavs team was much different though since LeBron arguably had arguably his worst supporting cast since his last playoff run in his first stint with Cleveland. But then again, it’s The King. The expectation was that the Raptors would finally fry that fish Casey mentions, but as we saw, this was only the beginning of the end of this playoff run.
A Harsh Reality
Going into Game 1, LeBron James had played 40+ minutes in the previous series all but one of the seven games. No one could have possibly thought that he was not exhausted, and common sense should indicate that he would need added rest. This would mean less minutes and therefore the “Bench Mob” can pounce on the Cavs’ lack of depth. This was the game plan going in.
Well, the unexpected had took place in Game 1. Despite Jonas Valanciunas’ efforts reminiscent of Bismack Biyombo two years ago, LeBron played 47(!) minutes, registering a triple-double, and the bench unit got massacred. The final result was a 1 point win in OT for the Cavs. J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver both shot lights out, with 19 and 20 points respectively.
Overall, LeBron’s teammates showed up on a very inefficient night (12-30 from the field.) But the bigger issue the Raptors faced was again closing out games, as they missed their final 11 shots in regulation. That is inexplicable.
“I don’t know if it was nerves or yips or what. Just things that shot ourselves in the foot when we had a 10-point lead.” – Dwane Casey postgame
Indeed, things needed to change heading into Game 2. The recurrent theme throughout Game 1 was Dwane Casey’s inability to make lineup adjustments when the team most needed it, and things were bound to change.
LeBron’s fadeaway in Game 2 was such a beautiful sight to see. Seeing him lean back against his defender (OG Anunoby), and then fading back, releasing the ball with such a soft stroke and seeing the ball hit the bottom of the net was spectacular. It was not a beautiful sight to see that happen seven times. And the meme of #LeBronto was born. 43 points, 8 rebounds, 14 assists. Kevin Love also had 31 and 11 to secure a 128-110 win, and they now possessed a 2-0 lead.
Toronto was now in panic mode. The Cavs took both games hosted by Air Canada Centre. The Raptors were 0-5 in the playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena down in Ohio, and the fans (including myself) were starting to get worried. When asked how could the Raptors come back from a 2-0 deficit, DeMar DeRozan had this to say,
“It’s the only option, (that’s) how we look at it, we don’t look at it no other way,”
with his basketball cap pulled down low. Ibaka had yet to show up since Game 2 of the Washington series, and Dwane Casey decided to play him only 12 minutes due to his poor performance. Lowry and DeRozan both went over 20 points, showing that the problem was not them, but the team as a whole.
The Beginning of the End
Toronto had stuck with the same lineup throughout the series, consisting of Lowry, DeRozan, Anunoby, Ibaka, and Valanciunas. In Game 3, Casey finally made a lineup change out of desperation, inserting Fred VanVleet into the starters rotation, benching Ibaka. However, I guess the difference between both teams is that one has James and the other one does not.
This proved to be vital as LeBron sunk a game-winning floater at the buzzzer, in the only way he could do so. Again, he had a virtuoso performance, scoring 38. Again, Kevin Love played lights out with 21 and 16, compared to his disappointing first round play. DeMar DeRozan was a letdown this game, scoring eight points on 3-12 shooting. He sat out the fourth quarter.
One can say Toronto was now all out of options. Teams historically in the NBA were 0-129 when trailing 3-0 in the playoffs. Kyle Lowry didn’t think so.
“Fight. Rumble. What else are you gonna do?”
Unfortunately, the fanbase and every NBA fan with common sense thought it was all over.
An Ugly Ending
Ahead of Game 4, Casey made another lineup change. He swapped out Valanciunas for C.J. Miles in another desperation move, which I could not comprehend. The Lithuanian center had probably been, up to that point, the best and most consistent player throughout the series, with averages of 16 points and 15 rebounds during the series.
During the game, DeMar DeRozan got thrown out late in the third, finishing with 13 points, and a disheartening performance throughout the series. James finished with 29 points and 11 assists; Love with 23 and grabbed six boards. On the other hand, Valanciunas, from the bench, finished with 18 and 5. After the game, an unnamed AP writer puts it best:
“James hugged his kids and rubbed their heads. He treated the Toronto Raptors the same way. Child’s play.”
That essentially sums up the series; a catastrophic waste of a regular season. 59 wins all for nothing. Raptors fans were looking forward to their team finally eradicating the playoff demons that have haunted the team for so long; the result of this postseason run did exactly the opposite.
A couple of days ago, Masai Ujiri made an announcement; the team was now going to part ways with their HC Dwane Casey. In their short history, he had the highest winning percentage in their short franchise history and he is responsible for the team’s only three 50-win seasons. Casey was named coach of the year by the National Basketball Coaches Association, an award voted on by NBA head coaches. He is probably the only one to be that while also promptly being fired shortly after.
Now here’s my take: the organization has probably made the biggest mistake of their franchise lifetime parting ways with him. He is essentially getting blamed for the poor play of his players, and former Raptors player Patrick Patterson also thinks so. On Twitter, he posted this series of tweets concerning the firing of his former coach.
Scapegoat. Agree with Stephen A. on that one. Casey doesn’t deserve it.
— Patrick Patterson (@pdpatt) May 11, 2018
Sacrificial lamb.. #smh
— Patrick Patterson (@pdpatt) May 11, 2018
On the other hand, Ujiri has already stated this team will not go into tanking mode, having this to say, “We’re not doing that here, we’re finding young players. We’re going to grow. We’re going to win.”
So what exactly will take place this offseason then? Are we going to ignore the fact that LeBron is probably going to stay in the Eastern Conference (whether it be the Cavs or the 76ers) and continue treating the Raptors like his other sons? Are we also going to ignore the fact that the Celtics will now be fully healthy next season? Here’s what I think should happen this summer down in Toronto.
What’s Next for the Raptors
Many fans are demanding that the core of this team must break up and go into a rebuilding phase. However, if that happens, the little prime years that DeRozan and Lowry still have will be wasted for nothing.
First of all; Serge Ibaka needs to go.
He had averages of 8.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, which is extremely disappointing considering he’s apparently “a deadly mid-range shooter, floor spacer, and terrific rim defender.” Let’s face it; his prime days are now over, and have been since his time with OKC. He also is under contract for two more seasons, having signed a 3 year, $65 million deal last July. He carries a $44 million cap hit over the next two seasons, which makes the Raptors have little financial flexibility, since they are over $20 million over the cap. Here’s a potential trade option that could free up some cap room;
Toronto Raptors Receive: Denver Nuggets 15th pick, SG Malik Beasley
Denver Nuggets Receive: PF Serge Ibaka, PG Lorenzo Brown
This deal makes complete sense. Even though they are taking on a huge cap load, the Nuggets get a power forward who certainly is an upgrade to the inconsistent Kenneth Faried. They also get a capable reserve point guard in Lorenzo Brown who can back up a rising star in Jamal Murray.
The big problem Toronto encounters this June is not having a single draft pick to work with during the draft, and this trade gives them the chance to snag a project player who can develop into a starter, like when they drafted OG Anunoby with the 23rd pick last year. They also receive depth at guard with Malik Beasley, who is a capable knockdown shooter and can also provide some more floor spacing.
Re-Signing Fred VanVleet Should Be A Priority
This Raptors 905 alumni was huge to the team’s success this season. As a leader of Toronto’s second unit this season, he was instrumental to forging a dangerous backcourt duo with Delon Wright. He terrorized other team’s benches on his way to career-high averages of 8.6 points, 2.4 assists, and shooting 40-40 numbers. He will be a free agent this summer unless re-signed, and there is strong belief that a new contract for him is on the way.
Lastly, Keep The Core Together
Since the Raptors are still in win-now mode, it’s very important no other player leaves the team. The bench unit is still intact, however, I believe that due to the hypothetical loss of Serge Ibaka, PF Pascal Siakam is now ready to enter the starters rotation. His defense was particularly impressive throughout the course of the season, and especially during the playoffs, where he showed signs of being a great 1-5 defender. Offensively, he still needs to work on his shooting stroke, but he’s proven to be a great playmaker, constantly dishing out dimes to cutters (most frequently Jakob Poeltl) for easy baskets.
Moreover, the rest of the starters should be able to keep their place in the lineup. DeRozan and Lowry need to gear up a again for a long season ahead of them, Anunoby needs to build on his impressive rookie season, and Valanciunas needs to stay consistent throughout.
Whoever the Raptors decide to hire as their head coach, I’m fine with. As long as the roster is not blown up and some win-now moves happen to stay competitive, I’m also fine with that. Raptors fans, gear up for a long summer. Come the start of the season though, there is reason to have hope that this will finally be our year (again).