TORONTO (AP) — For the sixth time in seven playoff appearances, the Raptors are finished after the first round.
In Toronto, with expectations on the rise, early playoff exits aren’t going to be good enough anymore.
“That’s got to be our goal, to get out of the first round,” coach Dwane Casey said Monday as the Raptors cleaned out their lockers. “Next year, getting to the playoffs won’t be enough. We’ve got to get to the next round.”
To reach the next level, they will need more consistency. The Raptors were blunt in acknowledging Monday that they got complacent after roaring to the top of the Eastern Conference standings with a 24-7 start. Still, they insisted they’re not as bad as the team that went 25-26 in the last part of the season, losing nine of 11 immediately after the All-Star break.
“We were ahead of the curve a little bit at the start of the season,” All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said. “We just got to the point where the high was over. We still went out there and gave it our all, we just lost rhythm. It wasn’t what it was when we started the season. We just couldn’t find a way to get it back together.”
The playoffs exposed that, with a reeling Raptors team swept away by Washington, capped off by a 31-point whitewash in Game 4.
“We’re kind of embarrassed a little bit at the way we finished the season,” guard Greivis Vasquez said. “That’s not really us.”
DeMar DeRozan said the sweep left him with “a sickening feeling.”
“It’s tough to realize I have to go home and sit, still watch other teams play,” DeRozan said.
It was while DeRozan was last forced to sit and watch, during a 21-game absence for a torn tendon in his left groin, that Toronto’s troubles took root.
“After DeMar went down, our defense took a huge hit,” Casey said. “We kind of got away from our defensive principles by trying to do some different things to hide some weaknesses. When you do that you kind of get disheveled defensively and we never recovered.”
Casey’s efforts to create a more up-tempo attack paid dividends, but Toronto’s defense paid the price.
“It’s fun to watch, it’s exciting,” Casey said of the energetic offense, “but it compromises your defense in so many ways.”
With the team scoring big and still winning in the first few weeks of his injury, DeRozan said the Raptors allowed themselves to forget about “the dark side and the tough times that got you there.”
“Expectations grow once you’re winning,” DeRozan said. “Unconsciously, you don’t think about the tough times. Once they hit, now you’ve got to figure things out on the go. That’s where we kind of got in a slump.”
Their season swung wildly, but Toronto still captured its second straight Atlantic Division title and finished with a franchise-high 49 wins, one more than the previous year.
“I feel like we have something brewing here, we have something special,” reserve forward Patrick Patterson said.
So, are they worth keeping together for another shot, or is wholesale change required? Six Raptors are free agents this summer, including reigning Sixth Man award winner Lou Williams and longtime starter Amir Johnson. Casey is under contract for two more years, but isn’t on a lavish, long-term deal.
“We’re not far away at all,” DeRozan said. “I think we’re just missing one or two things, a couple of veterans, not a lot. We proved early in the season that we’re a talented team, we just need to get over that one little hump that keeps blocking us.”