TORONTO – To DeMar DeRozan, regular-season and playoff basketball are as different as checkers and chess.
In LeBron James, DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors keep running into the ultimate grandmaster. Their inability to beat him might force coach Dwane Casey into a cruel checkmate.
Toronto’s postseason fizzled out against a familiar foe on Monday night when James and the Cleveland Cavaliers finished off back-to-back second-round sweeps of Toronto. It’s the third straight year the Cavs have bounced the Raptors from the playoffs.
After a franchise-record 59 wins, good for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, it was as tough a defeat as DeRozan has endured.
“This is probably the toughest, most frustrating, difficult, lowest feeling I’ve had,” DeRozan said Tuesday. “You get to that point where you’re standing firm through everything and you feel like you can’t get knocked down again, and you realize you do get knocked back down again. It’s kind of the worst feeling.”
Teammate Kyle Lowry was equally gloomy, calling it a “wasted year” in spite of Toronto’s historic achievements.
“We felt like we could possibly make the NBA Finals,” Lowry said. “That was our goal.”
The series slipped away after a Game 1 loss in which the Raptors coughed up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, missed multiple potential winning baskets, and lost 113-112 in overtime.
Toronto nearly rallied to win Game 3, but James banked in a remarkable tie-breaking basket at the buzzer.
“There was opportunity there, we just didn’t seize it,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “These playoffs will be in the back of our minds all summer.”
Casey has coached Toronto since 2011, leading the team to five straight playoff appearances and three consecutive 50-win seasons. The Raptors have set franchise-record win totals in three of the past four years and finished atop the East for the first time this year.
Toronto’s deepest playoff run came in 2016 when it lost to the eventual-champion Cavaliers in a six-game Eastern Conference Finals.
Neither Casey nor team president Masai Ujiri spoke to reporters Tuesday. Ujiri is expected to speak later this week, but no date has been set.
On Monday, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said it would be “absurd” for the Raptors to fire Casey.
Neither Lowry nor DeRozan directly endorsed Casey on Tuesday, but both spoke glowingly about their coach.
“All of my success, I have to credit Casey,” DeRozan said. “No matter what, I’m always going to have the utmost respect when it comes to coach Casey.”
Lowry acknowledged he and Casey have clashed over the years, but said he’s “always believed in him.”
“He’s one of the best coaches out there,” Lowry said.
Lowry said he was frustrated the Raptors let the Cavs get “way too comfortable” after Cleveland entered the second round worn down by a tough, seven-game series against Indiana.
“We weren’t ready to be as physical as we needed to be,” Lowry said. “We did a great job in the regular season, but playoffs are just different.”
James is different, too, a generational talent who has represented the Eastern Conference in seven straight NBA Finals and is now one round away from reaching his eighth.
Lowry called LeBron “one of the greatest players to ever play the game.”
Despite his disappointment, DeRozan said he won’t shy away from the challenge of facing James.
“As a competitor, we want to go up against that because the story is sweeter once you dethrone a great,” DeRozan said.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, they’re still looking for a way to unseat King James.
Here are some other things to watch as the offseason begins:
Toronto’s deep bench was held in check by Cleveland, which made sure to match LeBron against the Raptors’ reserves.
“We pretty much shredded almost every bench in the NBA throughout the regular season,” VanVleet said. “We just didn’t get it done in the playoffs. Kind of true to our team in terms of underperforming when it mattered the most.”
VanVleet, who injured his right shoulder in the regular-season finale and missed most of the first round, admitted he dealt with lingering pain throughout the playoffs.
“I’ve been lying to myself for the last two, three weeks just because I had plans on playing into June,” VanVleet said. “It was something I just got accustomed to.”
VanVleet plans to visit a specialist in New York City within the next week to ensure his playoff minutes didn’t cause further damage to his shoulder.
A restricted free agent this summer, VanVleet said he’d be happy to remain a Raptor.
“I love it here,” he said. “This is the place that gave me a chance, gave me an opportunity. I’m a loyal guy, I always have been. Hopefully things work out.”
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