The end was unavoidable, almost predictable given all the obstacles and issues, the lost games and the many nights when players didn’t play when they could have.
It was inevitable and it became a reality for this Raptors group well before a shell of its team took to the floor at Tampa’s Amalie Arena Tuesday night when Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers came to town.
The Clipper left town with a 115-96 win.
The night, though, was more about reflection and admiration of a time some may have taken for granted.
A remarkable era in Raptors history came to an end Monday night when the Indiana Pacers beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, officially eliminating the Raptors from the post-season.
And what an era it was, capped off by the 2019 championship run, a team featuring a true superstar in Leonard.
The seven-year span featured five straight 50-win seasons, a period that saw Dwane Casey and Nick Nurse win coach of the year honours, Lou Williams cop sixth man, Pascal Siakam acknowledged as the league’s most improved player and Leonard earning NBA finals MVP, forever etched in team lore with The Shot.
“It’s not easy to get on a seven-year run,’’ said Nurse during his pre-game Zoom call. “It’s difficult. As an organization, we should all be proud of that.
“It’s also disappointing (that it ends). I think we played as well as we could (last year). A break or two and we could have kept rolling. How far, who knows. It’s very disappointing, a little sad to be honest.
“It was a helluva run. It’ll sting a little bit when we get into summer to feel what we used to be.”
Seven years of memorable playoff basketball against some of the best high-end competition and talent.
It began with an epic seven-game opening round when the young and athletic Raptors were pitted against the experienced and veteran Brooklyn Nets featuring Paul Pierce, Toronto’s first post-season foil who played on a Washington team the following spring when the Wizards swept Toronto.
LeBron James and the Cavs were next, a matchup that would play out over three successive playoffs, three successive Cleveland wins.
Nurse succeeded Casey, then DeMar DeRozan was replaced by Leonard as the face of a franchise that would win it all, the Game 7 buzzer-beater against Philly, the 0-2 series comeback against Milwaukee in the Eastern final, and the six-game NBA finals win over Golden State.
Last year’s playoffs were held in the Orlando bubble, the Raptors sweeping an undermanned Nets team and then losing in seven games to the Boston Celtics when Toronto could have easily won.
No post-season awaits the Raptors, who never found their footing by beginning their season with a 2-8 record, but their seven-year run won’t soon be forgotten.
Time will tell whether it will ever be replicated.
THE INS AND OUT
Kyle Lowry (rest), Fred VanVleet (hip), Siakam (shoulder) and OG Anunoby (calf) were out, four key core players who have been in and out of the lineup, it seems, for a month, if not longer. When the Raptors were in L.A. last week to play the Lakers and Clippers, Lowry lit it up in a win and then sat out Toronto’s loss to the Clippers, a night when VanVleet played after sitting out against the Lakers … If the Raptors finish with the seventh-worst record, they’ll have a 7.5% chance of landing the top pick and a 31.9% shot at moving into the top four in the July 29 draft.
BOUCHER IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Nurse wanted to see Chris Boucher at small forward.
Boucher had missed the team’s previous nine games because of a knee injury, but Nurse had him in the starting lineup against the Clippers and matched up against Marcus Morris.
It was Boucher’s 14th start.
It was the 35th different starting lineup for the Raptors.
Nurse has seen a lot of improvement from Boucher, but he needs to see more, especially if the Raptors want to use Boucher at small forward.
Nurse refers to his Jumbo lineup when Boucher is on the floor with Freddie Gillespie and Khem Birch, a combination that forces Boucher to focus at small forward.
Boucher scored Toronto’s first basket off a steal and a breakaway dunk.
NURSE ON SERGE
An injured Serge Ibaka (back) accompanied the Clippers to Tampa, a former Raptor who was instrumental in Toronto’s title run.
“I was a huge fan of his,” said Nurse. “I saw pretty early on that there were moments when he really got going that he was a special player. There were runs in games where he was blocking shots and all of a sudden nobody was driving. He’s grabbing rebounds. He’s knocking down a mid-range. Then he’s knocking down a three. He’s making shots in the fourth.
“Once I kind of saw that, I was like: ‘I’ve got to figure out how to get this guy on the floor and keep him on the floor.’ You know how it is. You’ve got (Marc) Gasol at the five. You’ve got Siakam playing unbelievable at the four. All of a sudden it’s like where does he fit? Well, let’s make him fit both places. Let’s give him backup minutes at the four, backup minutes at the five.”