Raptors better off looking forward, not back, after playoff streak ends

Kawhi Leonard scored 20 points, Paul George added 16 and the Los Angeles Clippers led all the way Tuesday night in a 115-96 win over the Toronto Raptors.

It didn’t have to be this way, though it’s probably not healthy at this stage to look back at what might have been and get too deep down the rabbit hole of what went wrong and what should have been done right. Not now. We’ve all been through too much and we’re still going through it.

Just to be clear: I’m not referring to the third wave of the pandemic, but rather, the Toronto Raptors' seven-season playoff streak finally, officially, coming to an end as it did this week.

Still, some of the same logic applies: Better to look forward and hope and plan for better days than stew about what’s come before and can’t be changed.

But as the Raptors were getting set to play their first regular-season game that didn’t have playoff implications since April of 2012 it was hard not to look back at what might have been, particularly with the Los Angeles Clippers visiting the Raptors in Tampa and former Raptors big man Serge Ibaka in the building.

Was Nurse disappointed that the Raptors weren’t able to re-sign Ibaka, the 12-year veteran who was coming off a career season in 2020-21?

Turns out he wasn’t happy to say goodbye to the mobile big who could protect the rim and was a deadly shooter both from mid-range and from deep.

“I certainly was, for sure. I think our team was. I think our organization was,” said Nurse, citing Ibaka’s ability to take over games on both ends of the floor, his preparation and his veteran leadership. “…I was planning on him being back and keeping that core together as much as possible. It doesn’t always work out. It’s tricky.”

It wasn’t that tricky, to be honest. According to sources when the Raptors met with Ibaka in Mexico the Raptors wouldn’t commit to not running back a platoon system with Marc Gasol which got things off on the wrong foot. Things got worse when they wouldn’t offer him more than a one-year deal as they wanted to keep their powder dry in case Giannis Antetokounmpo became available in free agency this summer. And when they wouldn’t offer more than $12 million on a one-year deal to make it worth Ibaka’s while to turn down the two-year, $18 million he got from the Clippers, it was over.

The Raptors didn’t end up keeping Gasol either and Toronto spent the first three months of the 2020-21 season playing without a usable starting centre on their roster.

There were other contributing factors to the Raptors playoff streak came to an end -- relocating to Tampa, half the team getting COVID-19 mid-season and a string of untimely injuries among them -- but the end of the streak started in the off-season and the Raptors were playing catch-up from the beginning.

What they had was no small feat. Only two other teams – Portland and Houston -- had comparable seven-year streaks. The Raptors also had a streak of five years with at least one playoff series win, not to mention 2019 when they won four of them on their way to the NBA title.

They officially ran out of road on Monday night when a win by the Indiana Pacers mathematically eliminated Toronto from the playoff picture, so Tuesday offered an occasion for reflection.

“I mean, listen, it's certainly not easy to get a seven-year run,” said Nurse. "…So, I think first the organization, and all of us, should be proud of that.

“And then on the other hand, it's disappointing. I thought we played about as well as we could last year [Toronto had the second-best record in the regular season and lost a seven-game series to Boston in the second round] and with a break or two could have kept on rolling who knows how far a year ago.

“And to kinda come back and be where we are today is certainly, it's very disappointing, and it's a little sad, to be honest, to have that run. It was a hell of a run. Hopefully it'll sting a little bit this summer. We'll feel that sting in the summer workouts, things like that to get ourselves back to where we're used to being.”

That’s what the last four games of the season are already pointed towards and what the off-season will be all about.

Falling 115-96 to the Clippers served both purposes well. The loss further entrenched the Raptors (27-42) chances of finishing with the seventh-worst record which brings with it a 7.5 per cent chance at the first overall pick and 31.9 per cent chance of picking in the top four.

But in a game where regulars Kyle Lowry (rest); Fred VanVleet (hip); OG Anunoby (calf) and Pascal Siakam (shoulder) were all held out -- they may well be done for the season – there were plenty of opportunities to evaluate talent that may or may not be part of the Raptors immediate future.

So even in a blowout loss there were things to like. Freddie Gillespie made his mark with a couple of highlight-worthy blocks -- first on DeMarcus Cousins and then on Clippers big man Ivica Zubac -- and with 10 points and seven rebounds as well continued to make his case that he deserves to be part of the Raptors rotation next season. Joining him there should be Khem Birch who has shown he can find a way to contribute no matter who he’s on the floor with as he finished with 13 points and three assists in 31 minutes. Rookie wing Jalen Harris is getting a chance to make up for lost time in an injury-plagued season with his share of opportunistic scoring, chipping in 10 points on six shots in 25 minutes to go along with some encouraging defensive activity. Chris Boucher, back after missing nine games with a sprained knee, took advantage of extended reps as a power-forward or even a wing -- positions he’ll have to prove he can play now that it’s been determined he can’t defend as a centre consistently enough to stay on the floor.

“There's probably a lot more learning and teaching that needs to go on with younger players, maybe that's what you're seeing a little bit,” Nurse, who was active during timeouts with his younger players, said after the game. “Usually the vets are, you know, you tell them one time and they're gonna make the shift or whatever or they're gonna make it on their own or whatever and younger guys just need, again, they don't see it, they don't feel it so you’ve got to maybe tell them again or tell them in a different way or draw it out for ‘em or whatever it is you just keep looking for the way that they can let it sink in and then take it to the floor and execute it.”

They didn’t execute well enough to win against Kawhi Leonard (20 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes) and a Clippers team gearing up for a run at a championship and they may not win again this season. The reality is the Raptors' days of winning enough to be in the playoffs and compete for a title are over for now.

It’s sad, but it was more than fun while it lasted. It was an era that cemented the profile of the Raptors in Toronto and Canada.

The bar has been forever set.

But now it’s time to look ahead.

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