The Toronto Raptors’ 2016 playoff journey is over, but it confirmed that the franchise is back on track.
It feels like a lot more than six weeks ago that the Raptors stumbled out of the post-season traps, losing game one to the Indiana Pacers and bringing back troubling memories of the sweep that the Washington Wizards inflicted on them the previous year.
Toronto needed seven games to see off the Pacers, with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry mired in shooting slumps, but got the job done on its home court. The Raptors’ second round series against the Miami Heat went the distance too, before Lowry played one of the best games of his career in the decider. And on they went.
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The Eastern Conference Finals were supposed to be a procession for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers – and the first two games suggested that was no exaggeration. But the over-matched Raptors battled back, won games three and four, and made it a series.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” head coach Dwane Casey said after game six. “This is a great learning experience.”
While the disappointment of elimination will linger, Toronto has made huge strides this season – it is easy to forget that the franchise had not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2001. Lowry and DeRozan faced adversity and criticism throughout the Pacers series (and the start of the Miami series in Lowry’s case), but never turned their back on each other. Seeing them both battle through it and hit form at the same time in the last three games against the Heat, and again in the two home wins over Cleveland, was the type of magic that will live long in the memory for Raptors fans.
This group of players, at the very least, met expectations this season – and many would argue that they surpassed them. But Toronto General Manager Masai Ujiri is left with some tough decisions this off-season as the franchise looks to take the next step forward.
DeRozan is a restricted free agent and is expected to be viewed around the league as worthy of a maximum contract. Opinion is split on whether Toronto should pay up and re-sign DeRozan – and his up and down playoff performances have only fueled that debate. The smart money is on the shooting guard returning, but Ujiri may well at least explore other wings that might be available, with the Charlotte Hornets’ Nicolas Batum one name that has been linked. Either way, the Cleveland series provided a reminder that adding more three-point shooting to space the floor is a must.
Bismack Biyombo, fresh off a solid season and a breakout playoff run, will surely opt out of the last year of his contract and the Raptors have little chance of bringing him back, but Jonas Valanciunas, whose ankle injury derailed what was shaping up to be “the leap” that Toronto was banking on, is ready for a bigger role in the offense.
In Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson, Toronto has proven contributors off the bench, allowing Ujiri to likely focus his time on the team’s glaring hole – the power forward spot. While Patterson is a huge cog in the Raptors’ wheel, he seems more comfortable coming off the bench. Armed with the ninth and 24th picks in the upcoming draft, Toronto could easily put an attractive package together for an upgrade.
So yes, fading after getting within two games of the NBA Finals is a bitter pill to swallow. But the Raptors made a statement on this run, putting the franchise on the map again and hinting at a bright future.