One of the biggest challenges Masai Ujiri will face moving forward is figuring out exactly what he has in these Raptors.
He’s been evaluating for years and been rewarded for his unusual patience in the regular season (franchise bests after franchise bests, boffo attendance and merchandise sales, etc.), but what now?
Ujiri needs to reach an important conclusion to whether or not it’s just the great LeBron James his group can’t compete with, or would any solid opponent also be insurmountable?
“It seems like it’s one play, but it’s a lot of things,” Kyle Lowry said on Sunday, a day before the Raptors play possibly their last game of the season in Cleveland. “It’s just just one play that wins or loses a game. It comes down to us missing four shots or five shots including overtime in Game 1. But we had plenty of mistakes in the first quarter, second quarter. (Saturday) night we had plenty of mistakes. It’s not just one play. It’s a lot of plays, an accumulation of plays throughout the whole game.”
“We know what the issues are, what they were,” Casey said. “From a team standpoint, 17 turnovers broke our back, some of our schematic things that we didn’t cover properly broke our back.
“We worked on some of the things today in practice. And tomorrow, we’ll watch them and show them. Cleveland, they didn’t do anything differently as far as plays, sets, positioning. we just have to do a better job in covering them.”
But the Toronto Raptors have been so disappointing for so long that Thaddeus Young of the Indiana Pacers felt the freedom to be cruel. A week ago, the Pacers – who lost their only bonafide superstar in the off-season – pushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to within a few minutes of defeat.
And then the Raptors tripped over the ropes on the way into the ring.
“Toronto has to win at least a couple games,” Young told HoopsHype. “We’re sitting at home and watching these games like, ’Man, we would’ve at least been in a game. We would’ve at least gotten ourselves back into the game and made it a fight.”
On Sunday morning, after the disappointment of the night before, Casey met with DeRozan. Just the two of them. There was no yelling or shouting. There was some explanation. Casey told DeRozan why he didn’t use him in the fourth quarter of Game 3 against the Cavaliers. Casey told him what he needed to do to be more efficient and more effective.
Still, it is remarkably rare for an NBA coach to sit a star for an entire quarter of a playoff game that comes down to the last shot. Not many would make that kind of call. Casey doesn’t care much for the history or attention or this kind of decision-making. He was trying to win a game. He wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone.
The Toronto Raptors went in that direction with DeRozan in Game 3 against Cleveland. But they were rewarded with one of their best quarters of the series as they came oh-so-close to completing a 17-point second-half comeback, only to be undone with by James’s running, fading, one-legged, game-winning bank shot as the clock expired.
“It was one of them games,” said DeRozan in explaining his absence.
“He had a tough night,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey.
But it’s not the first time DeRozan hasn’t seen the floor in the fourth quarter of important games. When the Raptors desperately needed to hold off the Boston Celtics to clinch the first seed in the Eastern Conference? DeRozan was on the bench.
“There’s nobody that’s going to stop James one-on-one, but I think he’s making him work for every inch of the court, and that’s what you’ve got to do,” coach Dwane Casey said. “But his confidence level, his maturity, his composure is huge for a rookie. Because the moment is big. Again, you say: ‘What was the plan?’ But a lot of times, experienced players will read a situation and make a play, and that’s what he’s doing. There were a couple of plays last night, it wasn’t his ‘base-go’, to get him to cover the (James) drive, but he read it and made the play. So those are the plays that mature, veteran players make in those situations, that are reads. He’s doing little things like that also.”
“It’s extremely hard, extremely hard,” DeRozan said. “I just want to be out there helping my team, way more than anything. It definitely sucks to be watching … we’ve got to give credit to those guys. We fought hard and gave ourselves a chance to win.”
Casey did not discuss his decision to bench DeRozan after the game. The coach did hint that the decision wasn’t just about DeRozan’s poor shooting. He was a team-worst minus-23 on the night.
“You choose to continue to fight,” Raptors’ head coach Dwane Casey said of his message to his team. “I remember back in Seattle we were down 3-0 in the finals in ‘96, and everybody wrote us off, against Chicago. But at that time, guys just made up their minds that we’re not going to quit. We’ve got too much sweat equity, we won the regular-season conference title, guys put in the work to get where they are and we’ve got a group of young players who committed to getting better and they did.
“So again, the easy thing to do is just to write us off, and write ourselves off,” Casey said. “But you choose to be a warrior. You choose to continue to fight. And I think he have a roomful of guys who showed that in the fourth quarter Saturday night. Whatever narrative comes out of that, you know, people choose to write or talk about, let them do it. But don’t let the narrative be that you didn’t choose to continue to fight.”
Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has been fined $25,000 for walking onto the playing court at halftime of Saturday’s Game 3 to verbally confront game officials, NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell announced Sunday.
The incident apparently was triggered by a call that went against the Raptors toward the end of the first half in Cleveland.
A basket by Serge Ibaka was originally counted and then waved off by the referees after they consulted. The call led to DeMar DeRozan, coach Dwane Casey and his assistants screaming at the officials, and Ujiri also joined in.
At 0-3, the story essentially has been written, a struggling team’s fate decided. In the NBA, there is no wiggle room whatsoever – 129 teams in league playoff history have fallen behind 0-3 in a best-of-seven, 129 teams have lost those series. Only three such teams even rallied enough to force a Game 7: the 1951 Rochester Royals against New York, the 1994 Denver Nuggets against Utah and the 2003 Portland Trailblazers against Dallas.
And yet, nothing is official.
The plug hasn’t been pulled, flatline or not. That was evident Sunday when someone asked Toronto’s Kyle Lowry one of those big-picture, assess-this-season questions.
Playoff story lines change day-to-day – that’s the nature of a seven-game series – but the narrative surrounding this Cavaliers team oscillated from one extreme (they’re washed) to the other (with James, all things are possible) in a week.
“At the end of the day, you have to do whatever it takes to win, and we found a way to get another win, so, it doesn’t matter how it happens. We’ve just got to be a little better,” James said. “That’s basically what I’m trying to say. We’ve got to be a lot better, especially coming into Game 4.”