Raptors refusing to admit East finals are over

TORONTO — If the Toronto Raptors are already dead, they will not admit it. Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry sat at a podium at their practice facility Friday and repeatedly said that they believe in themselves. This is despite the fact that Toronto is down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, and it lost those games by 31 and 19 points.

“We have no reason not to be confident,” Lowry said. “We got here for a reason. We are in this situation for a reason. It wasn’t by luck. We had to beat two teams, we had to play a regular season.”

There was some luck involved, though. The Raptors have not been at their best for the entire postseason, but they were not punished for it by the offensively challenged Indiana Pacers and the beaten-up Miami Heat. Toronto squeaked by them both with two Game 7 victories, making this the most successful season in franchise history. Now the Raptors are going up against a championship contender led by a true superstar, and all signs point to this being a short series.

The Cavaliers are clicking at the perfect time. Unlike last year, they are healthy when it matters most. Toronto, on the other hand, is without starting center Jonas Valanciunas, who will miss Game 3 because of a sprained ankle and might not play another minute this season. Lowry’s elbow has been bothering him for a couple of months, DeMar DeRozan is playing through a thumb injury and DeMarre Carroll is still working his way into form after knee surgery. Those are the Raptors’ four best players, so these losses should not be surprising. They could be disheartening, though, and Toronto is trying its best to stay positive.

DeRozan pointed to the fact that Game 2 was tied 46-46 with four minutes left in the first half, before the Raptors picked up five fouls and Cleveland went on a 16-2 run. He said they couldn’t afford to have those lapses against a team like the Cavs, and he thinks being at home will give them a boost. Lowry said the Raptors were simply missing open looks, and things would look a lot different when they go in on Saturday.

“We fight hard,” Lowry said. “I think people are making it more than what it is. Yeah, we lost two games on their home floor. It’s their home floor. Now we have to bounce back and play our game and be us on our home floor.”

Lowry, in particular, has to be himself. After slumping through much of the playoffs, it looked like he had broken out of it with four huge performances against Miami. He has shot 4 for 14 in each of the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, with totals of nine turnovers and eight assists. This is to say nothing of his flat out leaving the court during Game 2 to collect himself in the locker room. He is clearly not himself right now.

In February, Lowry played perhaps the best game of his career against Cleveland, scoring 43 points on 15-for-20 shooting, with nine assists. Toronto needed all of that, including the winning jumper, just to beat the Cavs by two points at the Air Canada Centre.

Unlike LeBron James, Lowry does not have the luxury of two other All-Star teammates capable of generating good looks at just about any time. Unlike the Cavaliers, the Raptors’ role players are not all shooting the lights out. There is a ton of pressure on Lowry, and he credited Cleveland for collapsing on him and forcing him to give up the ball. If he doesn’t put up big numbers, it’s hard to see Toronto even keeping it close.

“It’s just not him,” DeRozan said. “It’s all of us. It’s a collective effort. Not one guy is going to beat this team. We all gotta come together and be great on both ends of the floor.”

Lowry and the Raptors can be great against Cleveland and still lose. Heading into Game 3, though, the question is whether they can make things interesting. In seven of the Cavs’ eight wins against the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, James had to play at least 38 minutes. He only played 28 and 34 in the first two games against the Raptors. No one outside of Toronto’s locker room thinks it has a chance to get to the NBA Finals, but it would be deflating to go out with four straight blowouts.

“It’s an opportunity,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “We’re in the Eastern Conference finals. There’s a lot of teams that want to be here and now we gotta go out and play like it, with pride and togetherness and belief that we can beat this team.”

Realistically, Toronto should be thrilled just to be here. While it is here, though, it might as well do whatever it can to compete. Casey blamed himself for the fact that Cleveland has outscored the Raptors by 22 points in the 19 minutes that Channing Frye and James have been out the court together. Toronto played solid defense for the first two rounds, but there is almost no room for error against the Cavs. If the Raptors make a bunch of mistakes, they will be thinking about them all summer.

There is no shame in losing to a juggernaut like Cleveland, and this Toronto team has already given its fans plenty to be happy about. It’s time to see if it has anything left.

Bismack Biyombo is not happy about a callBismack Biyombo expresses his displeasure. USATSI

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