The scene in the Toronto Raptors locker room after their 104-103 series-ending loss to the Brooklyn Nets was a reflection of a team that had taken everyone by surprise.
As the media horde waited inside an adjacent room for the okay to enter, there were wives, girlfriends and fiancees, mothers, fathers and children streaming through the hallway into the family room until their husband/boyfriend/son/father finished with his media obligations.
When the media were finally allowed in, the first player to be seen was Kyle Lowry. Slumped in his locker still wearing his Raptors uniform, shoes replaced with shower sandals, Lowry scrolled through his phone.
Across the room, his son, Karter, didn’t care that his father had fallen just short of a game-winning bucket at the buzzer. He was focused on the blue and green markers and whiteboard at his disposal. Standing beside Steve Novak’s son, Mack, Karter scribbled on the board and squealed with delight as he wiped away his creation. Of course, he soon wanted more real estate to work with, and found his way over to Mack’s side of the board.
Lowry, still seated in front of his locker, called over to his son, reminding him that it’s important to share. Landry Fields, already dressed and a father himself, decided to give Lowry a hand. Explaining to Karter and Mack that each could have his own side of the whiteboard, peace and harmony were restored.
Having watched Game 7 slowly slip away before battling back and earning one final shot at stealing the series, the Raptors don’t get to erase the sting of defeat as easily as Karter’s doodles on the whiteboard.
Still, the locker room was a collection of players disappointed in the loss, but encouraged in all that was proven over the course of the season. Upset that they failed to accomplish their goal of advancing to the second round, the team also took solace in knowing that it went down swinging. They earned the respect of the Nets. Their fans showed the world the incredible support that comes with slipping on a Raptors jersey. They proved that the future is extremely bright and they were not a team simply benefiting from a weak Eastern Conference.
From the first week of training camp to the final possession of a first-round Game 7, this team defiantly stared down its doubters and found strength in one another.
As Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross praised their point guard, Lowry discussed the bright futures of Ross and Jonas Valanciunas as well as Casey’s growth over the course of the season. Casey highlighted DeRozan’s evolution — a “skinny kid from Compton — turning into an All-Star,” while DeRozan spoke with complete confidence about locking up Lowry long-term. In his arms was his near-year old daughter, sequins from her “Baby DeRozan” Raptors jersey reflecting under the bright lights of the podium. As DeRozan shifted from professional basketball player to father attempting to keep his toddler from hitting the microphone, Casey’s words rang true.
It was a long game and a draining day filled with more emotion than anyone can prepare to handle all at once. The intensity of it being the end for this group as they know it will hit in waves over the next little while.
There will be vacations and trips home. Time off to heal bruised and worn-down bodies. Early mornings in the weight room and late nights shooting in the gym. There will be plenty of positives to take from a season no one could have predicted from a team many expected to be torn apart.
There will be flashbacks of Game 7, too.
The vibe inside the Raptors locker room was somber, but proud on Sunday afternoon. Proud of knowing they had left everything out there on the court and proud of this basketball culture they watched explode during the postseason. The enduring characteristic of this lovable group, through all of its ups and downs, has been its resiliency. With the Game 7 experience under their belt, the one thing that can be counted on is this team coming back with that same pride and even loftier goals. Even if they wish they had a fast-forward button for the next few months.