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NBA Playoffs 2017: As post-season intensity arrives, Masai Ujiri plays it cool

Despite the intensity of the post-season, the Raptors president remains, as always, unperturbed.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Masai Ujiri, the president of the Toronto Raptors, remains in essence an inscrutable figure. When pressed, he’ll answer questions in long flowing sentences — his pre-playoff conference went a good 16 minutes — but upon review, there’s not always a lot of substance there. It feels safe to say for sure, however, that it’s a good time to be Masai Ujiri. The Raptors roster he has built is arguably the best in franchise history and poised to make a serious run in the 2017 NBA playoffs.

“I think our team is a little bit better. We are a little more well-rounded I think,” said Ujiri in advance of tomorrow evening’s Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks. “We have always talked about having a power forward and I think Serge Ibaka brings that perspective. We have always talked about having those hybrid defenders. DeMarre brings that, PJ brings that, Patrick Patterson brings that. Kyle Lowry is an All-Star. DeMar is an All-Star. And then our young guys have slowly grown as players.

“We understand we are a growing team but I’m not going to come here and continue to say we are a growing team. We want to win. Basketball and playoff basketball is all about winning and that is what we want to do.”

Ujiri’s goal of winning with the Raptors has been gradually achieved. “Nobody feels sorry for us anymore,” he noted. In Ujiri’s four years as general manager and team president, he’s watched the Raptors move from the edge of ruin into pseudo-contenders. The history has been well-documented — the dumping of bad contracts, the almost-Kyle Lowry trade, the surprising playoff series against the Nets, the terrible sweep at the hands of the Wizards, the showdown with LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals. There are still steps to make, but the belief in this steady climb is there. “We've tried to build a winning culture here, and it's not as big as the big teams,” said Ujiri. “But there's been a level of consistency, and I think that starts to stick.”

As the Raptors enter their fourth straight post-season, with much the same core intact, the natural question arises: just how good is this version of the team? Ujiri noted with a chuckle that if Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Patrick Patterson hadn’t missed games, the Raps could have competed more rigorously for the first seed in the East. Then again, some of those absences seemed to drive Ujiri to make the trades he did — for Ibaka and Tucker — to shore up the roster and provide it with the versatility it lacked. The Raptors now, on paper, have depth at every position, shooting where they need it, and the ability to go big or small in their offensive and defensive schemes. Despite the odd ups and downs of the regular season, Ujiri’s team-building work has been exemplary.

Now the playoffs arrive and we learn whether or not it was all worth it. Win or lose, we know the Raptors will have an off-season filled with questions — three of the team’s four most important players are free agents this summer. Ujiri will have to navigate that in the present while also determining the best course into the future. The outcome of this post-season will matter, but as always with Ujiri, his intentions are not as clear as that.

“Everybody thought we would go the other way after the [2015] Washington series,” said Ujiri when asked how the coming playoffs would inform his decision-making process. “You have to dig deep after you go through a playoff battle. And you have to evaluate and see exactly what went wrong with your team, or what went right with your team, so it's a tough place, it's a tough question to answer now.

“There's no yes or no, there's no: OK, if you lose now it's done, you break up the team, or if you win you break up the team. I think you look at everything that goes on and you talk to your players, you talk to your coaches and you really evaluate where your team is before making those decisions.”

Ujiri did confirm that after that Wizards sweep, the team’s brain trust decided they would re-load and try again. The result was a continuation of the winning culture the franchise so obviously craves. What Ujiri will decide to do after this post-season run, win or lose, remains an open question. His answers on the eve of Game 1 confirmed little besides base emotion — Ujiri welcomes the post-season’s intensity, for example. But always his comments reflect the same pragmatism, citing luck and instinct, based on a dedication to the work.

It may all sound vague, but we know this for certain: with Ujiri, the Raptors continue to be in cool and capable hands.