In some ways the Toronto Raptors
' 2013-14 season was similar to the franchise's 2000-01 campaign.
Buoyed by a trade made during the season, both teams reached the playoffs with perhaps-more-than-expected fanfare in the city. And both seasons ended when the team's best player, an impending free agent, failed to sink a potential series-winning basket in a Game 7.
While the on-court comparisons end there (the 2001 Raps were never pegged early on as a possible lottery team, and of course Kyle Lowry
circa 2014 is not Vince Carter circa '01) the question marks entering the off-season are similar.
Will Lowry return? How much does GM Masai Ujiri offer him? What about Patrick Patterson
? Is this a team on the rise or an aberration? Does the social capital built with casual fans mean anything if the franchise doesn't build on the success going forward?
A day after the Raptors' heartbreaking one-point loss
to the Brooklyn Nets, Lowry predictably avoided questions
about his future. For what it's worth, the emotion of Sunday was still raw. When a reporter at Monday's season-ending player availability asked him what was going through his head "the last eight seconds of the game," Lowry was quick to correct.
"Six point two," he blurted out, referring to the number of seconds left in Game 7 when the Raptors got the ball back with a chance to win it.
The play has been micro-analyzed since, and while some fans were quick to blame NBA officials for a non-call, the simple fact is that Patterson affected Lowry's spacing when he moved for the loose ball that Kevin Garnett had knocked free. So go figure. In the ultimate play of the series, the Nets' vets came up big, punctuated when Paul Pierce blocked Lowry's crowded shot.
"It felt like the longest 6.2 seconds of my life, but in a way also the fastest," Lowry said Monday.
While an atrocious foul call on Lowry earlier in the fourth quarter, and equally questionable whistles on Amir Johnson
, provide fodder for the legion of NBA and U.S. television conspiracy theorists, it's amateur hour to blame Joey Crawford and his crew for the Raptors' failures. Toronto began losing the series in the fourth quarter of Game 5
, when it blew a 26-point lead. As it had in stretches during the regular season, the team's defence completely collapsed. In their last nine quarters, the Raptors were outscored 241-210 and lost their edge in rebounding.
But back to the future.
The immediate version hinges on the lack of contracts going forward for Lowry and coach Dwane Casey. Logic dictates both will be back, but due process includes constructive criticism. Make no mistake, Casey is a big reason for the Raptors' success (when they aren't falling apart defensively). Yet questions could be asked regarding some of his player rotations and offensive play calling out of timeouts.
(Editor's note: Reports emerged soon after this was published that Casey will sign a three-year contract extension
Concurrently, the criticism of Lowry was more pronounced in the past, whether it was pudginess or a perception that he was uncoachable. He blew all of that out of the water with a career season, one in which he should have been an all-star. That's not totally unexpected, however, in a contract year, and when he showed up ripped to watch Summer League in Vegas last July, there was a feeling he was on the verge of a big season.
Patterson even poked fun at that Monday, saying, "What impresses me the most about Kyle is his ability to lose weight," referring to the time when they were teammates in Houston and Lowry was a little chubbier.
"Why would he leave?" DeMar DeRozan
said after Sunday's loss, when asked about Lowry's future in Toronto.Max money?
Yet how much is Lowry worth? The max money that the Washington Wizards gave fellow point guard John Wall? And if Ujiri and the Raptors don't think so, does anyone else believe that? A similar question exists with Patterson as a restricted free agent. These Raptors without their catalyst Lowry are not a playoff team, and that may well have happened this season if it weren't for New York Knicks owner James Dolan's fear of being bamboozled once again by Ujiri.
And that's why it's nonsense to call a first-round playoff loss a failure.
Round two against Miami would have been nice, but none of this was even supposed to happen.
"We lost a Game 7 by one point," DeRozan said Monday. "One point."
As one Toronto newspaper adroitly stated, it was a highly un-Raptoresque season with a Raptoresque ending. Sure, some fatalist Torontonians have pointed out how, for the second straight spring, a team from the city lost a Game 7 with more than a thousand heartbroken fans watching in the newly devised "square" outside the Air Canada Centre.
Yet the fact that those fans were there for the Raptors this year indicates something. A year ago, there were media types waxing poetic about the NBA team's "lack of relevance" in the market. It shows what a difference winning makes, but it also shines light on how narratives work in a social media-fuelled landscape where too many people have the memories of gnats.
As well, it's worth noting how more than one person has pointed out that the diversity of the Raptors' crowd in Maple Leaf Square was significantly more noticeable this spring than during last year's Leafs-Bruins debacle.
And here's where we loop back to the summer of 2001. While things were much different and it was a longer playoff run then, it ended with the Raptors re-signing Vince Carter, Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Alvin Williams. Led by the injury-riddled descent of Carter's career, those moves didn't pay off, and while the die-hard fans always remained, the casual fans disappeared.
It's a different situation this time player-wise. But it's worth noting at this, another high-water mark in Raptors history. Some, cluelessly, will say the season was a waste and now Toronto won't get a shot at two blue-chip Canadians in the draft, Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis.
Sort of like now, there was sense of optimism in '01 too. And don't look now, but rumours are out there that Carter could be coming back to the Raptors this summer.
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