monolith sports THE NAVA REPORT Post-Mortem in Toronto

A Playoff Post-Mortem in Toronto

Jon Nava

May 25th 2017

It’s been almost three weeks since the Toronto Raptors were unceremoniously swept in the Eastern Conference semi-final, in four straight losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers, thus ending Hogtown’s postseason run at the Air Canada Centre.  The series loss to the defending NBA Champion Cavaliers was a repeat of last year’s postseason dismissal, albeit a round earlier this time around.  Two weeks previous to the day, the Toronto Maple Leafs had their playoff aspirations halted by the league-leading Washington Capitals, a team that had amassed the most wins and points in the 2016-17 regular season.  Despite the Raptors actually winning a playoff round – a grinding, six-game affair against the Milwaukee Bucks – it is the Maple Leafs whose future aspirations seem brighter than their fellow NBA tenants.

The Raptors won 50-plus games for the second straight season, and made the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, all accolades that exemplify a new standard of excellence the franchise could only dream of after player defections in years past (otherworldly talents like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh).  Their successors in superstardom – shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry – have made the franchise relevant in Toronto and the NBA again, and a front office led by president Masai Ujiri and coach Dwane Casey have helped build a great team around that core of DeRozan and Lowry.  However, the winning play and accompanying attitude means the bar for expectation is set high.  None was set higher than making the Eastern Conference final in 2016 for the first time in the franchise’s 25-year history.  So losing to the Cavaliers – who are led by this generation’s greatest player, LeBron James, on the cusp of leading two teams to multiple titles – this season may seem a letdown after the dizzying heights of last year.

Despite adding a pivotal piece in Serge Ibaka before this year’s trade deadline, the Raptors struggled in the first round against Milwaukee.  Most alarming were double-digit losses in Games 1 and 3, and blowing a 25-point lead in Game 6 before rallying to win the series-clincher.  Despite hanging tough against the Bucks, the Raptors to a man promised things would be different against the Cavaliers.  Unfortunately those warning signs in the first round proved to a harbinger of things to come, as Cleveland proved Toronto still has a way to go before considering themselves a championship-caliber team.  Free agent signee DeMarre Carroll looked out of place in the Raptors rotation, while centre Jonas Valanciunas was benched at curious times despite producing on the floor.  Added to the fact that some key players are free agents after this season and may test the market – power forward Patrick Patterson and Lowry are the prominent that come to mind – this may be a changed Raptors team that assembles in the fall for training camp.  It may also be a Raptors team that may see its playoff streak end next season.

The Maple Leafs were not expected to have a winning record this year, much less make the playoffs.  The team already scored one victory before the season began by winning the draft lottery and acquiring the consensus number-one pick Auston Matthews.  This season was considered to be another step in rebuilding the club, with heralded coach Mike Babcock steering the talented youth on the team in the right direction.  

Even the most optimistic Maple Leafs fan couldn't fathom the season that would play out in 2016-17, as the team was a swift, offensive force to be reckoned with.  And that was shown greatly on Opening Night, where Matthews scored four goals in his NHL debut, as the Buds lost in overtime to Ottawa.  Youth was well served, as four first-year skaters set rookie records in assists (Mitchell Marner), power-play goals & points, point-game streaks (William Nylander), and short-handed goals (Zack Hyman).  But no other rookie grasped the Toronto consciousness like Matthews, setting club rookie records in goals and points.  Matthews also set a rookie record for game-winning goals, one of them winning the Centennial Classic played outdoors at BMO Field, celebrating the 100th year of the NHL and the franchise.  

The infusion of talented youth was leavened by a veteran presence in the form of forwards Nazem Kadri (a career-high in goals with 32), James van Riemsdyk (second to Matthews in points) and Tyler Bozak (fifth in points and second in assists).

With all that youth and offence, a few missteps were made on the way to the playoffs, as the Maple Leafs didn't clinch a berth until the penultimate night of the regular season.  Their wild-card finish ensured a spot against the President's Cup champion Washington Capitals, a match-up most hockey pundits said they had no chance of competing, much less winning.  But like the regular season, their play in the series against Washington belied their relative youth.  The team played with a grit and maturity in taking the Capitals to six games, all decided by one goal, and five of the matches going to overtime.  Despite the series loss, the most casual of Maple Leafs fans can agree that their hockey team is on the rise and can compete against many of the better teams in the league.

As Maple Leaf Square emptied out after the Game 6 loss to Washington, there was a feeling that the club played with house money making it to the playoffs, and that this kind of experience would help long-term in seasons following.  It was a time for any Maple Leafs fan to look up to the future, despite the sting of losing.  As Jurassic Park - situated, like Maple Leaf Square outside the Air Canada Centre - filtered out a Sunday two weeks later following the Cavaliers completing the sweep of the Raptors, even the most casual Raptors fan could only wonder if this was the apex of the team's success.  It was also a time for any Raptors fan to look up, if only to see what was ahead.