TORONTO - Less than 48 hours after losing in another four-game sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey spoke separately at their season-ending media sessions - and they had similar takeaways from the series.
"One of those 11 shots (in Game 1) goes in, I think that takes your mental toughness and confidence up another two levels," Casey told reporters at Wednesday's availability. "That’s another mental hurdle that I think would have helped us if we would have gotten Game 1."
"The margin of error in the NBA is this small," Ujiri added, holding two fingers just millimeters apart to illustrate the point. "For me, when I look back at (Game 1), I say this was the turning point with that series and for some reason we just kind of lost something there."
Earlier in the day, Ujiri and Casey met for two hours. While Ujiri didn’t commit to his coach returning for next season - saying everything was still under evaluation, as always - Casey appeared confident they were on the same page when he met with the media.
Game 1 was indeed the turning point of the series. The Raptors were fully rested and facing a Cavaliers team that had finished a hard-fought seven-game series against the Pacers just two days earlier. Toronto held the lead for all of regulation, but shot 3-of-20 down the stretch, and was clearly deflated after missing four chances to win in the closing seconds of regulation and subsequently falling in overtime.
Casey admitted on several occasions that Game 1 had a significant carryover effect on the rest of the series, but still pointed to how closely the Raptors played the Cavs in that contest and in Game 3 as signs of progress. He also wasn't willing to take away from what his team accomplished during the regular season.
“The belief,” Casey replied when asked what was different between this year’s sweep and last year’s. “The mental toughness I think we’ve developed over the years. The consistency, the continuity we’ve had together.”
To pin the result of the series on Game 1 is fair to an extent, but it also ignores everything that followed it. With the best Raptors team to date, and the worst Cavaliers team since LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2014, Toronto delivered the same result with similar trends.
DeMar DeRozan needed 66 shots to score 67 points in the series, and finished with a minus-23.1 net rating in 136 minutes. That was similar to last season, when he finished another four-game sweep to the Cavs with a minus-23.3 rating in 152 minutes.
Serge Ibaka, who also disappeared for the majority of the first round, went from 16.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in last year’s playoff series against Cleveland to 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in four games this season, and was removed from the starting lineup in Game 3.
Kyle Lowry had his best postseason yet, and put up 17.8 points, 8.8 assists, and a 57.1/45.8/85.7 shooting line against Cleveland, which might be the most discouraging part of all, as the Raptors still couldn't make any progress against James and the Cavaliers with their best player performing up to expectations.
To ignore all these things and believe the Raptors simply lost the rope after Game 1 would ignore the bigger picture - that we learned nothing new but more of the same about this core group during the playoffs.
Ujiri knows this, and he'll evaluate everything, from the coaching staff to the roster. There was nothing to be gained by laying his cards on the table Wednesday. He left open the possibility of moving on from Casey after his evaluation is complete, and he'll surely explore options in free agency and via trade to improve the roster.
More than anything, Ujiri will have to decide if this roster is close. "The margin of error is very small," Casey contended, "but I know (the players) made huge strides of getting closer to knocking' 'em down. They’re right there."
You can believe in the internal improvement that will come from the bench mob that was so successful during the regular season, from rookie OG Anunoby, and from the fact that all the young players will grow from the experience of playing significant roles in the postseason. But ultimately, the core question remains: Did this Cavaliers series reveal all we needed to know about Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka, or do you bet on them rebounding and learning from it with Casey leading the way ... again?
“Where our program is, is not doomsday,” Ujiri said. “Because if people are talking about us, that means some way, somehow, we’re relevant now in the NBA. And when you get relevant, now you have to meet the challenges everyday, of expectations and growing.”
Now, Ujiri has to answer the most important question heading into the summer - whether he fundamentally believes in his head coach and his top players to do this all over again, with a different result.
"It’s on me," Ujiri said. "Put in on me. Forget all the other stuff that you guys are talking about. Put it on me."
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)