With free agency looming, Raptors reflect on memorable run and what comes next

marc-gasol-high-fives-fred-vanvleet

Marc Gasol (33) finished with of the Toronto Raptors high five during the game against the New York Knicks on February 9, 2019 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. (Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors’ season came to an end Friday night when they fell to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series 92-87.

In a bizarre season that began nearly a full calendar year from Friday’s elimination, the Raptors entered the season as, perhaps, the least-heralded defending champions in NBA history. They had lost their Finals MVP from the season before in Kawhi Leonard and key rotation piece Danny Green, both in free agency, and were counting on an aging Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, who had never in his basketball-playing career been relied upon as a go-to scorer, to lead the way for them.

Then the season started and the Raptors looked to not miss a beat at all as they set a franchise record with a .736 win percentage, going 53-19 as head coach Nick Nurse won Coach of the Year, helping guide his team to this mark despite sustaining many injuries and, of course, the COVID-19-mandated season suspension.

So, while it wasn’t the end the Raptors wanted, the 2019-20 Raptors season should still be viewed as a successful one.

Toronto now faces an off-season of uncertainty with three key players in Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka set to become unrestricted free agents.

As a result, it was a somewhat somber scene during the Raptors’ final availability of the season with much reflection on what was probably the longest, strangest season in NBA history, the future of the club and on missed opportunities.

Because we may not hear from them again any time soon, here’s some of the highlights of what each Raptor said during what was essentially their 2019-20 exit interviews.

Nick Nurse

On the pride he has for this team: “I’m actually really proud of them. 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. And I think they do it at an extraordinary level. 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, a special team.”

On what he’ll remember of this season’s team: “I think we are going to remember how well we played considering there was really low expectations for us. We never got hung up on that. I don’t think we got hung up on winning the title last year. I think we took it as this season and tried to max out what we could do and for the most part we did.

“Listen we didn’t play great in this series. There is just no denying that. But pretty much the whole rest of everything else we did this year we played awesome, with overcoming a lot, and just never really wavered. It’s almost hard to believe we were really within a possession of continuing on here tonight.”

On this season possibly being the last time this group is together: “I’m thinking about it right now. I already miss this team. You know what I mean? It was a hell of a two-year run with the core group of these guys but I didn’t think that at all here until the game ended. I wasn’t thinking about it being over at all. I was really planning on winning this series and getting ready for Miami 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.”

Kyle Lowry

On a well-fought series with the Celtics: “An unbelievable battle, man. Those guys, they beat us fair and square. They played extremely hard. They made it tough on us. We made it tough on them. We had opportunities to win it. They came out and did their job and they won and they move on. For us, it’s sad that we had more to give, but, unfortunately, we’re not giving no more right now.”

Lowry was very happy and grateful for playing with this group: “I enjoyed this year. The emergence of Pascal, the emergence of Freddy. Just being around these guys, these young guys. Now we’ve got a couple free agents. I’m gonna be happy for these guys that are going out in free agency and are gonna get paid.

“A guy like Freddy, I know he’s worked extremely hard. I’m excited for him to see what his future holds. He worked extremely hard to get to this point. Serge, he’s gonna get his money. Marc, he’s gonna get the money. OG. They’re just gonna continue to grow. I’m just proud of these guys.

“For me, being 14 years in, playing with these young guys, those guys pushing me to be better every single day, and those guys letting me lead them, that’s important for a guy like me. Fourteen years have gone by so fast, you want to cherish every moment. Now I’m going on and on, it’s kind of a rant, but you miss out on these moments that you don’t win a championship. You miss out on an opportunity to keep continuing to play with these great [expletive] guys.”

On what he was most proud of this season: I’m proud of the emergence of these guys: Freddy, Pascal, you know, Oshae getting an opportunity to play a little bit, Rondae getting an opportunity to be down here, Terence Davis had a great rookie season. But I’m just proud of the coaching staff letting us be us and letting us figure things out. Serge and Marc being who they are. But I’m just really proud of these guys and took this opportunity to become better basketball players, take advantage of the moments.

“You guys know I have a real soft spot for Freddy, and I know he’s going to be the future franchise point guard and I’m just so proud of him, man. And I know it’s just like, I’m happy for him because he went through this whole season knowing he’s going to be a free agent, he played his ass off, and now he’s going to be rewarded. And that, to me, it means the world, that he can take care of his family at a high level because he’s doing his job at a high level and he wants it. And he’s going to continue to work hard and be a better basketball player and be a better father.

“Pascal, he earned his contract and now he’s going to outgrow that contract. Those guys, just continuing to grow and get better. That’s what I will take from this season is the moments from those guys.”

On the impending free agency of Gasol and Ibaka: “I want them to both be back. I think those guys have earned contracts. And, I mean, I don’t care about the age thing. I’m 34 and I’m still playing what I’m playing, so I don’t think age means nothing, to be honest with you. So that don’t mean anything. Those guys are pros, and they’re pro pros. You know, those guys will be rewarded well, and they’ll continue to be hopefully here in Toronto.”

Though unhappy his team lost, Lowry’s happy to be heading home: “I get to go see my babies, man. I’ve been gone damn near three months without seeing my kids. I don’t want to be going home, I really don’t, and I know my kids don’t want me to be home, because they wanted their daddy to win a championship, but I get to go see my babies, man.”

His final thoughts on the bubble experiment: “It was challenging. It was well put together. The NBA and the teams and the players did a hell of a job sacrificing. 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.”

Fred VanVleet

His thoughts on the season as a whole: “I think, when we look back on the entire season, and the work that we put in, I think we can be proud of ourselves. But it’s hard to feel that way right now with that performance we just had.

“All in all, I thought, I’m proud of the effort that our guys gave, especially coming off a championship and losing what we lost and coming into this season and all these people that expected us to be good were the people in our locker room. I’m proud of that part.”

On his upcoming off-season and his impending free agency: “I’m a free agent, so I think about it every day. Basketball is pretty easy for me, so I can separate that when I’m on the court. It doesn’t affect the way I play, or the way I approach my professionalism every day. But, sure, Coronavirus gave me a new perspective on life and I’d like to think I already had a good perspective, but definitely put things in perspective.

“So I’ll wait and see how free agency plays out, but at the end of the day, I’m not writing a cheque to myself, so I’ve just gotta wait and see what happens, and I’ll feel better about the year that I had. I wish it would have ended with a championship, but that didn’t happen for us.”

On the possibility this team may not be back together again: “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. I think you got a lot of free agents this season and stuff, everything is up in the air, so it makes it that much tougher to go out on a loss and we would have hoped to continue to compete for a championship and our team was definitely good enough to do that. We just didn’t play up to that performance level for long enough in these playoffs.”

On COVID-19 changing his perspective on life: “I think 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. 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 so it put a lot of things in perspective. So, speaking on that, in general, it changed the way you would view everything and makes you appreciate things a lot more.

“So, like I said, I think that people have been talking to me all year about how much money I’m gonna make this summer and I’m a skeptical person so I gotta wait and see to believe it. So, that’s kinda what I’m speaking to there, is I’m not looking ahead or I was never looking ahead all year. I was focused on trying to win a championship with this team and we got the opportunity to come back here in the bubble and give ourselves a chance and that’s all you can ask for.”

Pascal Siakam

Struggling all post-season long, Siakam fell on the sword: “I think, you know, it was tough and I think we hung in there trying to find ways and at the end of the day, obviously, I have to be better. It was definitely a learning moment for me just learning from this experience and just learning that you’ve gotta be ready and that I wasn’t able to really help my teammates, so, yeah, I take a lot of the blame, man.

“I take a lot of the blame, just, you know, continuing to work, it’s a learning experience for me and I just have to go back to the drawing board and come back better and that’s something that I’ve always been able to do as a player. So I’ll just go back and figure it out.

“We had great chances, you know, I think we hung in there trying to find a way to win the games that we played. Obviously, I felt like I didn’t really give what was expected from me and I definitely take a lot of that blame, but as a team I think we played well and we fought. Like, that’s something that we did all season when things weren’t going well. We always fought and ‘til the end and I’m proud of those guys and I think everyone gave everything they had and, like I said, obviously, I’ve got to do better.”

On the biggest challenge he faced during the season suspension: “I think for me, maybe the most challenging part was that time where I didn’t really have somewhere to go to work out at. I was stuck in Canada. I couldn’t travel to the U.S. because of Visa issues. But at the end of the day, I did everything that I could, being home, having all the stuff to be in shape. I think I gave it a lot and I’ll live with the results.”

Final thoughts on the bubble experience: “I mean, obviously, being safe, that’s the first thing, and being healthy. I know a lot of people are going through a lot right now, and just keeping them in our prayers, and the league did a fantastic job to have this thing working and having people play basketball and having people enjoy basketball. It’s definitely an experience of a lifetime and something I never thought would happen. So, yeah, amazing job by the NBA, and hopefully it continues to work.”

Marc Gasol

On his impending free agency: “I really don’t know right now. After everything, every ounce of energy is put into this game and given the circumstances that we’ve been on for the past few months, all you think about right now is trying to get to your family. At least for me. I’m trying to see my kids that I haven’t seen obviously in quite a while and see my wife and that’s about it, as far as my mind goes right now.

“Whenever that process starts, as far as thinking goes, we’ll start making those decisions when the time comes. But right now, honestly, every ounce of energy I had and mind, was into just the next day. And you play every game until there’s no games to be played. And after that you just take one day at a time.”

On whether the team accomplished its goals for social justice: “It’s not an immediate change, obviously. It takes a lot of time and effort and determination, so, yeah, I think that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

Serge Ibaka

On the series with the Celtics: “It was disappointing. We tried hard, man. We tried everything. They have a good team, they have one of the best coaches, they’re there for a reason, right? And we went to seven for a reason because both teams are good and we just fell short. But we did everything. Could we have done things better? For sure we could’ve got better but we did everything so let’s give them credit and every time we tried to push there was a response and that’s basketball, man. You win some, you lose some.”

Reflecting on the season as a whole: “Yeah, this year has been crazy, man. The pandemic and the shutdown of the season, we come back, we start in the bubble, but, hey, it happened to everybody, not just us. So no excuses. They just were better tonight. We tried hard and they just were better than us and that’s what happened.

“Like I said, this was crazy for everybody. For them, too, for us, everybody. But, at the end of the day, we still do something we love and that’s what happened. In a Game 7 anything can happen. Last year we got a last shot from Kawhi and this year it ended a different way.”

On the success of the NBA’s bubble: “I’m [grateful] to be in this position to do something that I love to do and be safe. I’m thankful for that, man. … Like you said, there’s a lot of people out there dying, there’s a lot of people out there losing their jobs and life could be worse. So I’m just grateful.”

On what he and the players did in the fight for social justice: “I would say I’m just grateful. Grateful for everything we did as an organization. It’s something to be proud of. This moment is going to stay forever. I’m just grateful.”

On if he’s given any thought to his impending free agency: “It’s too fresh right now. We just finished. Tough night. We lost. Right now I’m thinking of going home just to spend time with my daughter. That’s what’s on my mind right now. I want to hug my daughter and spend time with her.

“If there’s anything I can say on this, to be in the position to do something I love to do. Basketball has been great to me so now I’m just thinking of going home to see my beautiful daughter.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.