That is an understatement. Heading into the playoffs, the Raptors felt they were the best team in the Eastern Conference. A second-round matchup against the Cavaliers was not ideal, but at least it would provide a chance to legitimize their regular season. After the first round, when the Raptors coolly dispatched of the Wizards and the Cavaliers struggled to inch by the Pacers, confidence built.
Then, in the wake of a devastating Game 1, it disappeared.
“I know how confident how we came into the first game. Not just from us, not just from our fans, not just from the players, but even from (the media). Everybody felt good about it,” Ujiri said. “Even after that game everyone felt good about it. OK, why did we give that game away? But for me the margin of error when you play in the playoffs is this small. There those turning points and Game 1 for us was like that. We missed so many layups, we missed bunnies that could have won the game.”
In Wednesday’s exit interviews, Casey and Ujiri fixated on the randomness of Game 1, which they both saw as a turning point. In their eyes, that loss featured two open potential game-winning threes, four tip-ins that rimmed out at the end of regulation, a blown double-digit lead, and a missed flagrant foul call on Kevin Love late in the game.
“If a flagrant foul is called and looked at, does it go a different way?” asked Ujiri, who got fined for confronting the officials in Game 3. “I don’t know. I know one thing: we’ve come to a point in this league where we deserved to go look at that play. That might not be the reason [we lost]. We missed a hundred layups. We had 400 turnovers. But all I’m saying is the margin of error is small. And that’s the playoffs.”
Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri has to offer the proverbial sacrificial lamb or risk an angry mob. But in his case, it isn’t about appeasing them but saving the team.
Changes need to be made.
If another embarrassing playoff defeat at the hands of LeBron and the Cavs in which the Raptors became the first top seed in almost 50 years to get swept before the Conference Finals doesn’t demand change, then nothing will.
Former Raptors star Damon Stoudamire leaned back on a couch in a downtown Toronto office and recalled the team’s early days when he anchored an expansion squad that would struggle for years.
The NBA team won just 21 games in its debut 1995-96 season, with Stoudamire’s rookie of the year award one of the few highlights from the team’s early era. The man nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” lasted only two-plus seasons in Toronto but always felt the franchise would eventually be successful.
Ujiri has been extremely patient since replacing his former mentor, Bryan Colangelo, and has done solid work in overseeing the finest run in Raptors history, but he’s no dummy. Nor is he satisfied. He’s not foolish enough to truly believe that the current group is good enough to take the next step, the leap Ujiri so desires his squad to make: Becoming a true contender.
The Raptors had a tremendous season, winning more regular-season games than any team besides the Houston Rockets, pacing the Eastern Conference, ranking in the top five in the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency.