TORONTO â€” Win or lose Sunday, DeMar DeRozan believes this season hasn’t been a failure for the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors face elimination in Sunday’s Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cavaliers. A loss would end a post-season that began with Toronto aiming to go one step further than last year’s historic playoff run.
Instead, they wound up facing Cleveland one round earlier than last season, and have been virtual roadkill for a Cavaliers team that looks poised for a repeat appearance in the NBA finals.
“You still can’t take away everything we accomplished this year,” DeRozan said after Saturday’s practice. “We won back-to-back 50-plus games, that never happened in franchise history. Just to win 50 games is tough, period, in the NBA.
“For us to do that, with all the dealing with trades, having guys in and out, having injuries early, missing Kyle (Lowry), I missed games â€” everything you can look at, and we still find some (way) to put ourselves in the best situation to compete. But you run into the champs and you’ve got the ultimate challenge earlier than expected.”
The challenge is the brick wall that is LeBron James, who’s playing the best basketball of his career, and is just 176 points shy of Michael Jordan for the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring record. He’s averaging 34.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists in these playoffs, on 57 per cent shooting.
“You got one of the all-time greatest players on your team for a reason,” said DeRozan, who scored a career playoff high 37 points in Friday’s 115-94 loss. “That’s a challenge you look forward to every single year, especially being in the Eastern Conference. I guarantee every team’s thought process is: let’s figure out a way to get past LeBron and you can play for a title.
“Pretty sure the same thing all them ’90s teams had to deal with with the Bulls,” he added. “It’s a challenge that as competitors, you want to be in these moments and measure yourself and be able to compete and see. It’s extremely tough, but I wouldn’t want to go against nobody else to make it easier.”
The Raptors took the Cavs to six games in last season’s conference finals. But after suffering back-to-back routs in Cleveland this week, they lost Lowry to a sprained ankle. The all-star point guard said it’s “doubtful” he’ll play Sunday.
“We would love to have him,” said coach Dwane Casey. “I hope he is able to go (Sunday) but if he is not it’s a great opportunity for Cory (Joseph) to step in and play. I thought we played well for three quarters (Friday) night. If you have (Lowry) is it going to be a different story? We don’t know. But we would much rather have him because he is the hub of our toughness, energy, all of the above. We are a better team with him.”
History says the series is all but over. No NBA team has ever come back after losing the first three games. And going back to the Cavs’ rally in the NBA finals, Cleveland has won 10 consecutive playoff games.
After what might have been the Raptors’ final practice of the season, Casey was asked if preparing for Sunday is his most difficult job. He reiterated DeRozan’s thoughts on the season.
“We tend to forget, I think we have had an excellent season,” Casey said. “We are in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference playoffs and yeah we are struggling against probably the favourite to win our conference. That is what I reminded the guys. They have put in a lot of sweat equity to get here. Let’s not let go of the rope and not come out to prepare tomorrow because it will hurt all summer. It will hurt everybody all summer if we don’t come out and hold onto the rope together.
“Win, lose, or draw you have to come out and compete your behinds off like you did (Friday) for longer periods of time. They understand you have to have some pride not to get swept even though (the Cavs) have already been crowned so-called Eastern Conference champions.”
Game 5, if necessary, would be Tuesday in Cleveland where Toronto has suffered five consecutive double-digit post-season losses.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press