Toronto Raptors go down fighting in longest, strangest season in history

Toronto Raptors go down fighting in longest, strangest season in history

When the Toronto Raptors were swept by Washington in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, Kyle Lowry made himself read every scathing word written about him.

“Good, bad, evil, terrible, awesome, and I used it as motivation,” Lowry said.

The Raptors’ longest, strangest and in some ways most endearing season in franchise history came to an end Friday night, eliminated by Boston in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal slugfest.

Pascal Siakam shouldered the blame for his part in Toronto’s exit. After leading the team in scoring before COVID-19 shut down the league on March 11, he failed to find an offensive rhythm once the season resumed.

But in the minutes after the loss, Lowry had kind words for his struggling teammate. Much like the painful days that followed his elimination by the Wizards, the 34-year-old said Siakam can use the criticism as fuel.

“That’s the advice I would give him,” Lowry said. “This is a learning experience. I think it’s only going to make him a better basketball player, a better man, a better everything. And I would not be surprised to see him come back even hungrier and destroying people.”

Siakam averaged 22.9 points a game in the regular season, and earned his first all-star spot. But something was amiss when the Raptors reconvened in Florida. Against Boston, he averaged just 13 points a game, and shot 4-for-32 from three-point range.

The 26-year-old, who was on a steep trajectory before this bump, spoke at length after the loss about taking the blame. What’s important, he said, is how he can grow from it.

“Are you gonna take it as a man as an experience or are you just gonna feel sorry for yourself?” Siakam said. ”Because at the end of the day nobody’s gonna feel sorry for you. I come from a background of just always working hard and fighting my way through everything that was thrown at me and I feel like this was just another step for me.”

The athletic 6-foot-9 forward was a huge reason for the team’s success in the regular season. The Raptors were virtually an NBA afterthought when they opened the season without Kawhi Leonard, but fought through a slew of injuries to finish second in the East, with a franchise-record winning percentage.

To many, this team — led by a workhorse in Lowry, and believers of scoring by committee — was even more likable than last season’s.

“I’m actually really proud of them,” coach Nick Nurse said. “They represent the city, the country, organization … when you watch our team most nights, win, lose or draw you gotta come out of there saying at least those guys gave you everything they have.

“It’s an extraordinary level of commitment and desire and fight that they bring. It’s always sad when a season ends for sure, that’s a special team.”

And a team that will look nothing like this next season — whenever next season is.

“Some of these guys, you don’t know if you’ll see them, you don’t know if you’ll play with them, so yeah, that’s tough, that’s tough,” Fred VanVleet said.

VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are all free agents. Lowry has one year left on his contract, as does Nurse and his staff.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri may choose to completely rebuild. It would be a bittersweet ending to a two-year run that captivated fans across the country. The Raptors boast the best record for regular-season wins over the past seven years, and lead the conference in consecutive playoff appearances.

In his post-game interview, an emotional Nurse was sad to see the season end, and lamented what losses might be coming. The coach believed until the final buzzer sounded Friday that he’d have at least another series before saying goodbye.

“I’m thinking about it right now, I already miss this team. You know what I mean?,” said Nurse, who earned NBA coach of the year honours.

“It was a hell of a two-year run with the core group of these guys,” Nurse said. “I wasn’t thinking about it being over at all. I was really planning on winning this series and getting ready for Miami (in the conference finals) tonight when I got back to the hotel. Now just thinking back again, a hell of a run for this team and some amazing moments and I think everyone should be really proud of them.”

Proud for reasons both on the court and off. The season restart was bigger than basketball. After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd ignited protests across the U.S., and even abroad, players were adamant that amplifying messages of racial and social injustice be a theme of the Disney World bubble.

The defending NBA champion Raptors led the way, arriving at Disney World in busses with “Black Lives Matter” spelled out in huge block letters. Nurse and his staff led an initiative to encourage Americans living in Canada to register to vote in the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

After the Wisconsin shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, VanVleet and Norman Powell spoke about a potential boycott. The Milwaukee Bucks did just that, refusing to play their game against Orlando. The players’ strike led to a three-day shutdown, and sparked similar protests in Major League baseball and soccer and the NHL.

“It’s not an immediate change, obviously,” Gasol said of the players’ efforts. “It takes a lot of time and effort and determination, so, yeah, I think that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

Lowry played a big part in league discussions around the restart and its messaging.

“It was challenging. It was well put together. The NBA and the teams and the players did a hell of a job sacrificing,” Lowry said. “We used our platform for our voices to be heard, and the social injustices, getting guys to go out there and vote. Justice for Breonna Taylor. Justice for everybody, every Black American out there that are being harmed by police and police brutality. So I think the bubble was a success.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory congratulated the Raptors on Saturday.

“Beyond how well they played… they also did us proud in terms of the way they represent our city every day, just their general posture, the dignity, the commitment to social justice that they demonstrated,” Tory said. ”And I think they do Torontonians proud all the time and they certainly played their hearts out the entire series.”

Tory said hopefully Raptors fans will have an opportunity to cheer them on next season. But it’s tough to say what that will look like. With Canada-U.S. border restrictions, when will the Raptors next run onto the floor at Scotiabank Arena? The league hoped to tip off next season soon after Christmas Day, but COVID-19 still rages across the U.S.

On the roster front, VanVleet will be hotly sought after in free agency, and whatever the salary cap turns out to be in this unprecedented season will go a long way in determining Toronto’s ability to re-sign him.

Mr. Bet On Yourself — or “Steady Freddy” to fans — said the pause due to the global pandemic forced him to reflect on his career, and look at life in a different way.

“You never sit down for that long and just reflect on your place and where you are in your job and what you do and your family,” he said. “Being at home for that long, it gives you a lot of time to reflect on things so, I’m sure — like all of us — everybody’s jobs were in jeopardy, I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen with the league, I wasn’t sure about next year with the cap and what the numbers would look like.

“It put a lot of things in perspective.”

After the coronavirus brought global sport to its knees in March, the NBA was both the first to shutter and among the first pro sports leagues to resume, resurrecting the season in a quasi-bubble that was weird, but proved what was possible.

The games were played in front of virtual fans. Officials wore masks behind protective Plexiglas.

Players talked about the mental health issues of being isolated. Nurse spent some of his free time riding a bike. Boston coach Brad Stevens went for daily mental health walks around the Disney campus.

So if Friday’s loss came with a consolation prize, it’s that Raptors players and staff would be reunited with family on Saturday.

“I’m ready to go home,” VanVleet said.

“I get to go see my babies, man,” Lowry said of his two sons Karter and Kameron. “I’ve been gone damn near three months without seeing my kids.”

Lowry’s parting words: “Time to leave this (expletive). Thank you guys.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 12, 2020.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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