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Raptors soul-searching after play-in loss

Fred VanVleet thinks it’s time for the Toronto Raptors to move on from their 2019 NBA championship. Not necessarily a wholesale personnel change, but come to grips with the fact that they’re a different team now.

Fred VanVleet thinks it’s time for the Toronto Raptors to move on from their 2019 NBA championship. Not necessarily a wholesale personnel change, but come to grips with the fact that they’re a different team now.

VanVleet spoke frankly about what went wrong with the Raptors’ season on Thursday, a day after Toronto was eliminated from the NBA’s post-season by a 109-105 play-in loss to the Chicago Bulls.

“I think we just got to find another identity, whatever that is,” said VanVleet, adding that the team has talent and the right defensive schemes, but those plays need to be better executed. “I think for us the devil is going to be in the details and I think that we have to rep that and build that.

“We can’t try to do that by osmosis and try to carry over a championship from four years ago and expect to add that to a group that we have now.”

VanVleet was one of several players who spoke on Thursday as they had debriefings with head coach Nick Nurse, Toronto’s front office and the team’s medical staff.

Most of the Raptors were still processing the play-in loss from the night before, which saw Toronto cough up an 18-point lead and shoot only 50 per cent from the free-throw line, when they made it to the OVO Centre’s media centre.

But VanVleet, one of the most experienced leaders in Toronto’s locker room, already had a plan for how the Raptors could recalibrate for the 2023-24 campaign.

“You’ve got to start building every single detail offensively and defensively so when you get down to a situation where you need to win a game, those things show,” said VanVleet. “As a group, as players, that is my focus.

“Get our habits back right and our details back right and everything else will fall in place accordingly after that.”

Head coach Nick Nurse and every player who spoke with media acknowledged that consistency was a problem, not just against the Bulls, but all season. The root cause of that erratic play wasn’t immediately apparent, however.

“I think that we started slow, like way too slow, and once we picked it up we were already four, five, six games under .500,” said Nurse. “I think that starting in January the team started to take a bit of a shift in the right direction and adding (centre Jakob Poeltl via trade on Feb. 9) changed the complexion a lot.

“So it was really like almost three different stages of the season.”

Pascal Siakam, the Raptors’ lone all-star this season, averaged 24.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game. When asked what went wrong this season, Siakam mused that it was a good question, but one he didn’t have an answer to.

“I didn’t sleep at all last night, but I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking,” said Siakam. “But I also wasn’t really thinking of anything. I don’t know if that makes sense. It was a lot.

“We weren’t consistent enough as a team. We had a lot of ups and downs. Win three games here, lose three games there. It wasn’t enough consistency to be able to win in this league, a much-improved league, I would say, especially in the East.”

There are several questions floating around Toronto heading into this summer.

Nurse denied any friction with team president Masai Ujiri on Thursday, even though there had been media speculation for weeks he may have coached his last season with the Raptors.

“My job is to make the best decisions for this organization. I’ve always believed that from Day 1 and I still believe that 10 years later,” said Nurse, whose contract expires after next season. “When you sit back and look at it, all decisions have to be made for what’s best for the organization.”

Poeltl will become a free agent this summer, while VanVleet, shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., and small forward Otto Porter Jr., have player options they can exercise.

“I’ll take a couple days, couple weeks,” said VanVleet on whether he’ll opt out or not. “I don’t think there’s much rush to jump into a decision one way or another.”

Trent also said he wanted to take time to reflect on the season before making any decisions about staying in Toronto.

“I have not come to terms with that yet,” he said. “Obviously, I’ll sit down and talk to my team and we’ll go in and see how everything plays out.”