If this was the Toronto Raptors’ best, one thing is certain: it plainly, nakedly, wasn’t good enough. Not close. Not in any shape or form.
If the effort, commitment and focus they brought to their first-round series against Wizards wasn’t their best then the issues facing the franchise may run deeper than anyone thought.
Either way Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri has a tractor-trailer load of freight to sort through now that the off-season has arrived with all the subtlety of a piano falling out a 10th-floor window, and just as suddenly.
The Washington Wizards deserve credit in the wake of their 125-94 win in Game 4 as they earned their first seven-game series sweep in franchise history. It was also the first time the Raptors have been swept in a seven-game series, but seventh time in eight tries they’ve failed to advance beyond the first round.
While the Raptors floundered, the Wizards found their game with a rejuvenated Paul Pierce, emerging superstar John Wall and 21-year-olds Otto Porter Jr. and Bradley Beal looking like they can be starters on very good teams long into the future. Add some quality big-men play by Marcin Gortat and Nene – Washington out-rebounded Toronto in all four games – and the ingredients for the Wizards’ domination were in plain sight.
That the Wizards are a good team is not the debate. The question for Ujiri – and he’s the one who needs to get the answer just right – is what kind of team are the Raptors?
On Sunday night they were the worst version of what they’ve been through the playoffs, the worst-case scenario of the team that went 13-16 after the all-star break – 13-20 if you count the playoffs – and won just two games against teams with .500 records.
They couldn’t shoot, couldn’t defend, couldn’t rebound and didn’t compete well enough to extend the series.
"I’ll say it. It was embarrassing," said Pat Patterson. "A horrific effort on our part. Not that we didn’t try. We wanted to bring it back to Toronto, no one wanted to go out but it was embarrassing, it was horrific, it was a let down. It was just ugly. "
Before the last game of the season, head coach Dwane Casey was confident his team would treat Game 4 like something precious not to be squandered. He thought that with their season on the line and their future as a group very much hanging in the balance – not to mention his own future – the Raptors would deliver their best effort.
With their season on the line the Raptors gave up 36 first-quarter points to the Wizards, allowing them to shoot 71.4 per cent (10-of-14) and turn a flurry of Raptors misses – they shot 38 per cent for the quarter in what was a trend – into fastbreak opportunities that yielded easy scores or more often free throw attempts as Washington got to the stripe 15 times in the first 12 minutes, an extraordinary amount. They led 36-22 after the first quarter and it was never in doubt again. It wasn’t so much a blowout as a laydown. The Wizards shot 55.4 percent and had seven players score at least 10 points.
"We had three tough games going into it," said Casey. "We knew if things didn’t go the right way that adversity might hit and we didn’t fight through it. … I thought we were just emotionally drained and gave in."
The refs’ whistle was a point of contention for the Raptors but really just another revealing moment. Kyle Lowry battled foul trouble all series and was hit with a dubious call by referee Brian Forte when picking up his second as he barely brushed an on-rushing Wall midway through the first quarter.
He vented his frustration at a timeout a moment later by petulantly pushing an extra crisp pass at Forte, who whistled him for a technical foul, justifiably. A minute later Lowry picked up another foul, his third, as he was fooled by a Beal pump fake and, for the second time in three games, Lowry found himself benched after picking up a needless third foul early in the game.
Fighting through frustration is part of being an elite playoff performer and if Lowry has shown anything in the series, where he shot 32 percent from the floor and never came close to performing at an all-star level, it’s that he doesn’t yet have the ability to put his emotions aside when the things aren’t going his way.
"[The series] definitely tested me but at the end of the day I try to go out there and fight for my teammates," said Lowry, who declared himself injury-free. "We didn’t do the job we set out to do so it’s a little bit upsetting, I think everyone in this locker room is extremely frustrated, but you have take the positives from the season."
It makes for another interesting question for Ujiri: Will Lowry learn from his playoff meltdown? Or did Ujiri learn something about him?
The questions run up and down the roster, from head coach Casey to James Johnson, the fan favourite and potential difference maker who played all of 12 minutes in the series – during which the Raptors were minus-8 – and never saw the floor again.
There were legitimate doubts as they went 13-16 after the all-star break and finished the season as one of the NBA’s worst passing, rebounding and defending teams. But there was hope that those shortcomings could be smoothed over with the playoff focus and the Raptors’ top-three offence would help them carry the day against a team they’d swept in the regular season and beaten seven of their last eight games.
Instead all of their regular-season sins were magnified as the Wizards had them game-planned to perfection. Defensively they loaded up on Lowry, DeRozan and Lou Williams, confident the Raptors’ leading scorers wouldn’t make plays for their teammates and if they did the Raptors’ secondary pieces wouldn’t hurt them.
The Wizards were right on both counts and the Raptors’ big three combined to shoot 35 percent from the floor while taking more shots than the rest of the team combined.
Offensively Washington went small more often and moved the ball more often than during the regular season and the NBA’s 24th-ranked regular-season offence was rewarded by breakdown after breakdown by an increasingly leaky Raptors defence that was always one more pass away from giving up a lay-up or a wide open three.
Pierce challenged Toronto, saying the team didn’t have the ‘It’ factor before the series and went on to break their backs, the Raptors powerless to do anything about it. Pierce led all scorers in Game 1; scored 11 of his 18 points down the stretch in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and in the third quarter of Game 4 – as if to personally make good on his pledge to avoid going through Canadian customs again – knocked down three more threes to turn the Wizards’ 66-50 halftime lead into a 102-70 romp heading into the fourth quarter.
He left the game to a standing ovation with three minutes left in the third and the 38-year-old deserved every note of it.
The evaluation period will likely play out over a period of weeks and perhaps months. The one thing Ujiri has proven in his two years running the club is that patience is the one commodity he has in abundance.
The problem is his team is short on so many others.
His challenge is properly weighing what has been accomplished in the past two seasons – two playoff appearances, franchise records for wins in consecutive seasons, all-star appearances by DeRozan and Lowry, a Sixth Man of the Year award for Williams and a general revival of the image of a franchise that was punctured – against what he’s seen the past two months and in particular in the last eight days.
Were the Raptors’ flaws the function of Casey preaching the wrong message or were they a product of a roster that couldn’t execute the mission Casey had them on – how much better would the Raptors be defensively if they had personnel who could finish off possessions with rebounds, for example. We never got the chance to find out and as far as Casey is concerned, may not in the future.
Is Lowry the point guard Ujiri thought when he rewarded him with a four-year, $48-million contract in the off-season? Or is he the player who played two great months this season and four months of poor basketball, punctuated by a four-game disaster in the playoffs.
There are all kinds of questions. Now, sooner than anyone thought, it’s up to Ujiri to provide the answers.