The Toronto Raptors players gathered at their practice facility near Toronto’s waterfront Tuesday morning for a post-mortem press conference just hours after having their season ripped apart by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Here’s what they had to say.
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Kyle Lowry told reporters on Tuesday morning. “We’ve continuously failed against the team that made the Finals the last three years.”
Lowry, like the rest of his team, failed to keep up the production that had fuelled the Raptors to their best regular season in franchise history and a No. 1 seed in the East. Everything appeared to be lining up for the team to go on an extended playoff run and move on from last year’s embarrassing second-round sweep versus Cleveland.
Lowry himself was poised for a big post-season after seeing his regular-season minutes cut considerably in order to help keep his legs fresh and avoid the fatigue from logging heavy minutes each of the past two years. This season his playing time dropped by over five minutes per game, and even in “limited” minutes he was able to make a typical impact on the floor.
Once the post-season came around, Lowry put up solid numbers but it wasn’t enough to help prevent a total collapse. The all-star point guard said that, from Game 1 of the Cavs series, the Raptors weren’t physical enough and allowed their opponents to get too comfortable on the court.
“It’s just different basketball,” Lowry said of the playoffs. “We weren’t ready to be as physical as we needed to be.”
He went on to call the 2017-18 feeling a “wasted year.”
To say 2017-18 has been a roller-coaster ride for DeRozan is an understatement. On the court, he continued to improve and round out his game, remaining a consistent scorer while flashing signs of a confident three-point stroke. In the midst of the season, he’s been regularly flying back and forth on off-days to his hometown Los Angeles to be with his ailing father, Frank, and became the NBA’s face of mental health awareness after going public about his battles with depression.
Through it all, DeRozan was an anchor on the East’s top team and put his mark all over the Raptors’ best season in franchise history.
That’s what makes his playoff collapse against Cleveland so painful. After putting in the work and showing a willingness to evolve in the team’s new systems — with great results to show for it — it all unravelled in the second round.
“Yeah we had a great year, did a lot of great things,” DeRozan said, but added that it only made the way their season ended hit harder.
DeRozan spoke to the obvious fact that the Cavaliers have posed a consistent problem for the Raptors in the post-season, now bowing out to them for three consecutive years.
“They’re the only speed bump we’ve hit in three years,” he said. When asked how the Raptors can exorcise that demon, he said simply: “Beat them, or don’t play them.”
“We came across Cleveland three years in a row and we just couldn’t get past them. You look up four games later and you’re like, ‘Damn, what happened?’ And you’re sitting here today.”
“It’s going to be a long summer,” said VanVleet, the Raptors’ breakout star reserve who is in line for a hefty raise when he hits free agency this summer.
“I felt like we had more to give,” he elaborated. “Everybody had our sights set on playing for another month. To get knocked out early, it sucks. The post-season, for sure, was a failure. We came up short. But looking back and reflecting, there’s a lot of opportunities that we missed.”
VanVleet also discussed his injured shoulder and admitted that it was a lot worse than he had led on throughout the playoffs.
For the 10 players from this year’s team who were members of the 2016-17 edition of the club, this season marked major change, both in terms of playing style and expectations.
And for 82 regular-season games and one round of the playoffs, it paid off until, well, it didn’t.
One of the team’s few newcomers, C.J. Miles, the most experienced member of the roster at 13 seasons in the NBA, met with the media and explained why he sees plenty of room for the team to continue to build off the new habits instilled this season.
“I think there’s a lot of growth left,” Miles said. “It was a little bit easier for me because I came in with a clean slate. I didn’t have to re-learn or erase anything. For our guys being able to change and adapt says a lot about them. It can only get better. We have to figure out ways to take things up a notch in the playoffs.”
Averaging an even 10 points per game throughout the regular season, Miles scored 9.6 per game in the post-season, improving his three-point percentage from 36 per cent to 42.
Miles mentioned that he felt that, given how well the Raptors performed throughout the season, aiming for a championship was a realistic goal for the team this year, one it fell well short of.
Encountering a Cavaliers team that got better each game in the series, anchored by one of the greatest stretches of LeBron James‘ career, Miles wasn’t shy about the challenge containing James and the Cavs presented, explaining it in fitting terms for the Dallas, Texas native:
“When you grab the bull by the horns,” he said, “you can hold on for a second, but until you figure out everything that you need to do in that situation, it’s hard.”
James averaged 34 points on 55 per cent shooting in 42 minutes per game versus the Raptors. After having just one player average double-digit scoring in the first round, Cleveland’s supporting cast stepped up against Toronto. In Game 4 the team hit 12 three-pointers compared to just four from the Raps, while all Cavaliers starters scored in double figures.
When asked if the Raptors wasted an opportunity as the No. 1 seed — meaning they would have maintained home court throughout the playoffs vs. East opponents, and against all West opponents save for Houston — Miles said he has received the same question from friends and family, but wasn’t ready to overlook the strides the team took to earn that top seed in the first place.
“I don’t know how to answer that yet,” he said. “Because when you’re in it, you’re not thinking [about that]. You’re in the grind, thinking about how to get better.
“You can’t take away from what we did during the year. I think that still counts for something. The goal is to win a ring, but [the regular season still means] something.”
He also spoke to camaraderie of the group, the coaching and support staff, describing how rare it was “to have a group of guys who understand we want to accomplish one thing, which is to win a championship, and put everything else aside to do it.”
Miles is one of 12 Raptors under contract next season.