If you’re like most Raptors fans these six seconds from April 2, 2016 are burned into your brain:
“I think you’re getting to the finals. I swear to God. No bullshit.”
At the time it caused something of a stir here, and why not? Gregg Popovich, arguably the greatest living basketball coach, thought that the Toronto Raptors were the best team in the Eastern Conference.
The reason? The Raps had done their very best Spurs imitation, resting DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry on the road, while fighting San Antonio down to the wire. Toronto ended up losing 102-95 to a Spurs team that set a franchise record for the season with the win.
Tucked away in that box score though, was a break-out game from Delon Wright: 22 minutes, 14 points, 4 boards, three assists, three steals. In the crucible that is San Antonio, Wright a first-round pick who many Raps fans had begun to forget about produced, the best game of his career.
Cool story, Glenn.
If you’re like any Raptors fan but me you probably don’t remember December 3, 2016. Or if you do, you remember it for this moment.
The Raptors blew out the Hawks that day 128-84. With four minutes left Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Bruno Caboclo checked in, to join Norman Powell (who played six minutes that night), and Pascal Siakam (who played 27).
It was a nothing game, 117-79 at that point, but those baby Raps came in and took it seriously. Within two minutes the Hawks scrubs were pissed. Why the hell was Toronto going at them so hard? Didn’t these guys know it didn’t matter?
What should have been nothing, sloppy basketball, instead became intense, sloppy basketball — with the Raps quintet fighting through every screen, filling passing lanes and racking up four steals, three blocked shots and three offensive boards in those final four minutes.
You could see the kids, even the ever smiling Bruno, wanted everyone in the organization to know that they wanted more floor time, and that they knew that the way to get it, was to treat every possession like a playoff game.
Again, cool story, Glenn.
I’ve got one more for you, from last night against the Bulls in the home opener. It started when Dwane Casey went all hockey line change, and brought in the Raptors’ bench: VanVleet, Wright, Poeltl, new kid on the block OG Anunoby, and old new kid on the block C.J. Miles, who then did that 20-2 run thing they did.
Yes, the Bulls are awful. Any decent bench should beat them. A good bench should kill the Bulls reserves right now.
But that’s the point, the Raptors bench loaded with kids did kill the Bulls. They did, what a good bench would do. And they did it because, despite never having played significant minutes together as a unit, they know exactly what is expected of them on the court.
The point is that all this talk about the Raps needing a culture reset is nonsense. Tactics? Sure. Roster shuffling? Maybe. Culture? Don’t touch a thing.
The point is, the Toronto Raptors are stocked, from top to bottom, with professionals. Moreso than ever before in franchise history. Even with the departure of P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson, two men who defined the word professional.
(DeMarre Carroll moving on probably doesn’t hurt here either, his comments on the way out cemented the idea of a guy who was a little too into his own “brand,” but that’s not really the issue.)
The point is, the fruits of Masai Ujiri’s labours can now be seen. He’s carefully built this team, and from the G-League on up, it’s dead clear what being a Raptor means: toughness, intelligence, and a lack of on-court ego.
The Toronto Raptors are going to be better than people think this year — I’m calling for over 50 wins. The reason is their culture. Once again, they’re going to scrap for 48 minutes every night of the year. Their third-string point guard will die in an alley to get a loose ball. As will their star one.
It’s easy to forget how young this team really is, and to forget that with youth comes a hunger and drive to prove yourself. Make no mistake the Raps are going to be hungry, but, unlike most young teams, they’re going to be disciplined, they’re going to execute, and they’re going to be selfless, because that’s the way they’re coached, because that’s the way they’ve been built, because that’s their culture.
Pop knew it. The rookies in a blow-out in December knew it. And, after the Raps “overachieve” this year, the rest of the NBA will remember it too.