As the Raptors’ practice wound down Sunday, star guard DeMar DeRozan sat alone with his back to the wall and headphones clamped on his hoodie-clad head.
One could only imagine the torrent of emotions whirling inside.
After a nightmarish eight-point performance in the first three quarters, Toronto’s marquee man sat out the finale Saturday night when the Raptors were beaten at the buzzer by LeBron James.
DeRozan, by his own admission a poor sleeper at the best of times, endured another “extremely long” night.
“There’s really nothing much you can do, honestly, but watch the time go by,” he said. “And wait for the time to come to be able to get this feeling off you. And the only way to get that feeling off you is to go back out there, help your teammates and get a win.”
Time is running out for the Raptors, down 3-0 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinal. Game 4 goes Monday at Quicken Loans Arena.
One senses the Raptors have no answers. Except to come out swinging and hope something connects.
“You choose to continue to fight,” said coach Dwane Casey.
Casey recalled the 1995-1996 NBA final when his Seattle SuperSonics — he was an assistant coach — went down 3-0 to the Chicago Bulls.
“Everybody wrote us off …. but at that time guys just made up their mind — ‘We’re not going to quit. We’re not giving in, we’re not quitting. Because we’ve got too much sweat equity.'”
There was a bounce-back but no happy ending. The Sonics won Games 4 and 5 before the Bulls put them away in Game 6.
No NBA team has ever rallied from an 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, with 129 trying and failing.
“The easy thing to do is just to write us off, write ourselves off and say ‘Hey, look we’re not worthy,'” Casey continued. “But you choose to be a warrior, you choose to continue to fight.”
Kyle Lowry echoed those fighting words.
“No matter what, you’ve got to just rumble,” he said.
Toronto, which compiled a record season to finish first in the East, has been unable to fire on all cylinders against the Cavaliers. Instead it has found different ways to lose.
The Raptors led all the way through regulation time in Game 1, only to lose in overtime. James put on a clinic in a Game 2 blowout. And James delivered the dagger with a majestic off-balance buzzer-beater in Game 3 as the Cavs held off one Raptor comeback after another.
Power forward Serge Ibaka has faded out of the starting lineup. DeRozan was reduced to a spectator. Lowry has been hot and cold.
Casey chose not to show his players film of Game 3 on Sunday. But he did speak to DeRozan before practice, downplaying the decision to bench his star by saying he didn’t want to break up the quintet he had on the court at the time.
While the Raptors have thrown up their hands at the officiating — with team president Masai Ujiri hit with a $25,000 fine for walking onto the court at halftime to berate the officials Saturday — James has simply dazzled.
He has lifted up his teammates while doing his best to break the Raptors’ spirit by dipping into a seemingly bottomless toolbox to get the job done.
The 33-year-old has trended on social media at Toronto’s expense, adding the word LeBronto to basketball’s vocabulary after having his way north of the border and earning kudos from fellow pros for the wonder-shot Saturday.
“Tough shot. Makes it look easy,” tweeted veteran Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki.
“We really witnessing history,” added Brooklyn point guard D’Angelo Russell.
Rubbing salt in the wound, James’ latest heroics came right in front of the Toronto bench. A photo on the front of the Cleveland Plain Dealer sports section Sunday shows the stunned Raptors contingent as the ball is about to leave James’ right hand.
Ibaka stands hands on hip, with a look of near resignation. You could almost slip a cob of corn in the open mouth of assistant coach Jim Sann.
James has been nothing but classy off the floor. But he clearly chooses his words — and wardrobe — carefully.
After Game 2, James made a point of citing Casey for helping make him the player he is. The Cavs star said he learned from the defences drawn up by Casey, then a Dallas assistant coach, in the 2010-11 NBA final won by the Mavericks over James’ Miami Heat.
On Saturday night, there was perhaps another subtle dig as James wore a baseball cap with the Seagram’s 7s Canadian whisky logo to the post-game news conference.