Long summer, tough questions await freshly swept Toronto Raptors
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TORONTO — Dressing at his locker-room stall Sunday, Toronto centre Jonas Valanciunas politely asked a scrum of waiting media to clear a space.
Once they moved aside, he fired his towel into the no-longer-hidden hamper.
"Good shot," said a reporter. "Too late," said Valanciunas.
He wasn't the only Raptor to lament Sunday's sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers after a 109-102 defeat. Or to wish that the grit shown in Game 4 had come earlier.
"Everybody's upset," said Norman Powell. "It's tough, going in the summer knowing you got swept. It's not a good feeling. You've got to use that as motivation to get better, focus on the little things, focus on what you really have do to get better for next year. That's what's going to happen."
Asked if fans had seen the best of the Raptors in the playoffs, Powell said: "No, not at all."
But he pointed to Sunday's effort, which saw Toronto lead by as much as 11 in the first and claw its way back in the fourth before the Cavs pulled away for good.
"We fought them hard, we played them tight, we played them tough," he said. "If we played like that for the four games, we're talking about a different series. And if we played like that and Kyle (Lowry) was back, we're talking about a very winnable game."
"We're trying to play the best basketball but that's not the best," he added. "It was a good hard-fought game. We came out with a lot of pride, a lot of grit, a lot of toughness, that never-quit attitude. That was the result of it — a close game. But it's not the best basketball that we could play."
Coach Dwane Casey also wondered what might have been.
"It's tough because we know we're better, we could have played better in the first two games and we didn't," he said.
In the absence of the sidelined Lowry (ankle), Cory Joseph stepped up Sunday with 20 points and 12 assists. It is a measure of LeBron James' greatness that he scored 35 points despite wearing six-foot-six 245-pound P.J. Tucker for most of the game.
Serge Ibaka sank some big shots en route to his team-leading 23 points. DeMar DeRozan had 22 points and eight assists despite taking an Iman Shumpert knee to the groin in the second quarter.
Tucker, who has battled James since they were nine years old, took little solace in his personal battle with basketball's biggest star.
"Any time you lose, you don't feel good," said Tucker, who exited looking resplendent in a sports jacket over a vintage Iron Maiden T-shirt featuring the 1981 album "Killers."
But he too liked the fight in the Raptors Sunday
"I just like our guys didn't give up. Down 0-3, it's impossible to win, I guess (according to) the odds. But guys came here, put the hard hat on and went to work. So I commend all my teammates."
Patrick Patterson, who like Tucker is approaching free agency, said the Raptors "weren't able to put games together like we wanted to."
Asked about the Game 4 effort, he said "Better late than never. Yeah we fought tonight. We just didn't come out with the win."
Cleveland had Toronto's number from three-point range, outscoring the Raptors 183-81 from beyond the arc in the series.
And when push came to shove Sunday, with Toronto finally leading at 93-92 with 6:38 remaining, the Raptors could not stop Kyrie Irving from reeling off 11 straight points and James sinking a dagger of a three-pointer then shaking his head at what was suddenly a 106-95 Cleveland lead.
For Valanciunas, coming close Sunday still sucked in a sweep.
"It feels bad, it hurts to lose. Especially it hurts to lose like that," said the seven-foot Lithuanian who had eight points off the bench. "But we can't just look back now and feel sorry for ourselves. We've got to learn from that."
The Cavaliers have now ended Toronto's season two years in a row. There are decisions to be made by the Raptors' braintrust.
Cleveland swept Detroit and Atlanta last year before dispatching the Raptors in six games in the Eastern Conference final and Golden State in seven in the NBA finals. So far in these playoffs, they have swept Indiana and Toronto.
James was thinking of other numbers, however.
"It's going to be my ninth time in 14 years," he said of making the conference final. "I'll take those numbers."
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