TORONTO — Dwane Casey was excited last October. He'd spent his summer thinking of ways to use his players and could finally get back on the practice court with them. "Coaches love training camp, but players dread it," the Toronto Raptors head coach said.
Casey faced a common challenge in his line of work: developing young players and competing at the same time. He gladly talked about the style he wanted Toronto to play, but was cautious about setting expectations. He steered completely clear of predictions and playoff talk.
"We're taking the steps," Casey said then. "Probably not as fast as we want to, but we're going to win."
At that point, many thought it would take years. After five straight seasons without a playoff berth, tanking for premier prospects seemed logical.
Since then, though, the Raptors enjoyed an accelerated ascent, the type of season coaches are never promised. After a slow start and a major trade in December, they clicked. Toronto wound up with the East's third seed and a franchise-record 48 regular-season wins. Its fans became sensations after packing the Air Canada Centre and the square outside of it during a first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets.
On Sunday, before the Raptors' first Game 7 since 2001, Casey was asked what he'd have said if he'd been told seven months ago that they'd be in this position.
"I would take those odds, and I would probably say you're probably over-medicated," Casey said, laughing.
But Toronto's surprising season ended in heartbreaking fashion. The Raptors couldn't score from the perimeter, couldn't stop the Nets in the second quarter and couldn't quite complete their gutsy fourth-quarter comeback. Down 104-103 with 6.2 seconds left, Kyle Lowry willed his way into the lane, but had his shot blocked by Brooklyn's Paul Pierce. Lowry collapsed on the floor and the image of DeMar DeRozan hovering over him with words of encouragement won't soon be forgotten here.
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After the buzzer sounded, the crowd chanted, "Let's go Raptors" one last, loud time for 2013-14. It was appropriate and earned. They never gave up, and they came such a long way.
Afterwards, Pierce told Lowry, a free-agent to be, that he had a bright future in Toronto and made a nice duo with DeRozan. Making life difficult for that backcourt was the Nets' top priority on defense for seven hard-fought games, but Lowry exploded for 36 points in Game 5 and managed 28 in Game 7 before that final possession.
NBA Playoffs 2014
NBA Playoffs 2014
Mere months ago, Lowry faced a number of question marks. He'd arrived at training camp in impeccable shape, but many looked at him as a talented underachiever, a difficult player to coach. He hadn't lasted in Memphis or Houston and no one was sure he'd make it through the year in Toronto. When it was over, Casey was talking about how proud he was of Lowry for outgrowing his reputation, a sentiment shared by all those who witnessed his career season up close.
"From seeing flashes at Houston, for him to be a complete leader of a team and putting the team on his back and getting all the recognition that he deserves, it's just a great feeling as a fan to watch, but an even better feeling as a friend," said Patrick Patterson, who also played with Lowry on the Rockets.
Sunday was the first time a Game 7 was decided by one point since 2001. Lowry watched that game, rooting for the Philadelphia 76ers and his favorite player, Allen Iverson. The Raptors were their opponents, and a missed Vince Carter shot was the difference. The duel between those two stars is still Toronto's biggest moment in the NBA spotlight, but this one could be more meaningful if the team builds on it.
Lowry was noncommittal when asked about his free agency, but said this was the best group of teammates he's had in his life. The love is reciprocal. The Raptors all know how good he is, how determined he is and how much he means to the team.
"I always admired the dog that he has in him," Toronto swingman and fellow Philadelphia native John Salmons said after a recent game. "He's very tough. He has a lot of heart, and he plays with it, leaves it all out on the court, similar to A.I. That's really, from Day 1, that's what I always saw."
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Seated at the podium beside his 2-year-old son, Karter, Lowry said he expected to go farther than the first round. He also endorsed Casey's return.
"I'm sure coach is gonna be back," he said. "I'm sure. He's done a great job. He's grown, he's become a great coach."
Casey said that the city should hope Lowry would come back and that the memory of the point guard "going through the meat-grinder" to get to the basket on that final possession would be fresh in his memory throughout the summer. He added that the loss will motivate the team and that the organization is in a good place. With his future up in the air — Casey's contract expires after this season — he sounded like a man who'd like to see things through.
"We're not a finished product," Casey said. "We're taking steps there. We're on our way there. Everybody wants to rush the process. We're a little bit ahead of it right now, but we're still not a finished product."
A season like this means most involved want another chance. Reserve point guard Greivis Vasquez has been saying for a while that he wants every single player to be back. Patterson said he hopes this is something that can carry over into next season. Both will be restricted free agents and neither knew what to expect from the team or the fans when they landed in Toronto by way of Sacramento in December.
Weeks earlier, forward Steve Novak admitted no one really saw this coming.
"Even going back to some of our internal meetings, I think to be honest, our expectations, we didn't set ‘em the highest," he said. "To be honest with you, I think we just decided we were going to come out and play as hard as we could and come together as a team and buy into our system. We did that, and I think very good things have come out of that."
In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, it wasn't easy to stay positive, even if the big picture is pleasing. The Raptors could be proud of how they battled, but they were by no means satisfied with the result.
"It's two completely different vantage points, obviously," Novak said. "You have the beginning of the year, where, like I said, I think there were very low expectations for us. And then you have the vantage of point of now, that we feel like maybe we actually have underachieved this year. I think we understood, as the season went on, how good we could be. Then I think we started to believe it.
"And I think, now, that's what makes this loss hurt."