Before we head off to the (hopefully) sunnier pastures of 2018, let’s take a look back at the Toronto Raptors of 2017. As one would expect, there were ups and downs aplenty for our favourite team. Here are some of our favourite moments from the year. What was your favourite Raptors moment?
Dylan Litman on Jonas Valanciunas’ Dream Shake
With much of the Raptors’ recent success being attributed to DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the unexpectedly fiery bench, I’d like to take a minute and give a nod to Jonas Valanciunas. Yes, he’s incredibly inconsistent. Yes, his value on a modern NBA team is disintegrating at an alarming rate. Yes, his defensive issues are seemingly irreparable. But, oddly enough, one of my favourite Raptors moments this year comes from none other than the Lithuanian big man himself. Even stranger? This particular moment happened in the pre-season.
My favourite player of all-time is former Raptor(ish) Hakeem Olajuwon. The patience and grace he displayed in the post remains unmatched to this day. Once in a blue moon, Jonas will pull a Hakeem-esque dream shake that arouses goosebumps. When these moments happen, I relish them, and I encourage you to do the same. No matter how Jonas’ career pans out, I will always remember this gorgeous move — on Andre Drummond, no less!
Joel Stephens on the Young Bench
After losing bench staples Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and immediate fan favorite P.J. Tucker, many people believed the Raptors' bench would be a total hangup in the 2017-18 season. Guys like Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Fred VanVleet would be asked to play important minutes after barely touching the court in their first season (Delon missed all but 54 games in his first two seasons). This worried Raptors fans, and for good reason. Relying this heavily on unproven players is a dangerous thing to do as a team with dreams of contending in the NBA.
Fast forward four months: Steady Freddy is playing 20 minutes a game as the backup point guard, oftentimes closing games with Lowry at the two spot. Siakam has become the second unit's motor, proving to the team that he can make an impact without hitting his shots. Poeltl is the best center on the team according to some fans — and they may have a point. He's been a revelation on both ends, producing efficiently in limited minutes and earning every bit of playing time he gets. Delon Wright — the prodigal son that has yet to fully blossom — has been nothing short of brilliant at times, showing off his ever-improving change-of-pace style that catches opposing teams off guard and leaves them guessing his next move.
Masai Ujiri has constructed an incredibly cohesive bench unit that compliments the starting five perfectly, and has done so entirely with internal mechanisms — meaning the team is flexible and its players are inexpensive.
Four months after they began their 2017-18 season, the script has been flipped 180 degrees: what was once a point of extreme apprehension is now the team's safety net, and one of the best benches in the entire league. Who would have thought?
Conor McCreery on that Second Quarter in Portland
As many of you may know, I've been abnormally high on the Raps’ bench from Day 1 (my original take for this piece was to go back to Jak’s dunk on the Hawks, before Lt. Dan here told me that was technically 2016. Picky. Picky.). The reason is simple — the kids are ferocious on defense.
So, it was very satisfying to see Toronto, after two "young" performances on the road in close losses to the Dubs and Spurs, come out and put an absolute lid over the basket for 12 minutes against the Trailblazers. Portland has apparently tried to scrub all evidence of that 2nd quarter from the internet but I thought I'd share with you a couple of moments that got me all giddy.
Skinny Lucas Nogueira holds his ground against Jusuf Nurkic, leading to a Siakam block and not one, but two Raps going out of bounds to save the ball.
The two were at it again moments later as Siakam deflects a sassy little touch pass from Nurkic, and Nogueira blocks the ensuing shot attempt and then quickly starts the break.
Even the Blazers' lone bucket in the Q was a great example of the Raps D, as DeRozan keeps Lillard on the baseline, Siakam's contest forces Dame into a circus shot, and if not for a bit of an odd bounce off his hands, Poeltl would have ended the possession, and the quarter perfectly.
I believe in these Raps. They may yet lose to LeBron (or even Boston, or Washington), but it's going to be a different sort of post-season, because a tough-as-nails youth movement is here.
Dan Grant on Cory Joseph’s Clutch Plays in Game 6
My favourite Raptors memory of the past year came from a moment that's a little bit forgotten, based on the excitement around the current version of the team and how ignominously last season ended.
Raptors playoff history is littered with bad decision making at the worst possible moments. With panic, even. From Chris Childs forgetting the score against the Detroit, to Jose Calderon driving wildly into the paint against the then New Jersey Nets,
to Dwane Casey sitting James Johnson against the Washington Wizards, to DeMar DeRozan's general playoff career, it seems like there are a litany of moments wherein someone on the team needed to stand up and say “enough is enough, we're not losing this game.” It never seemed to happen.
Until Game 6 against Milwaukee.
Cory Joseph is probably best-suited to be a bench player. He's a solid third guard, a streaky shooter and a pesky defender who sometimes just doesn't have it. He's not even a Raptor anymore! But against the Bucks, he did something I've never seen a Raptor do in a bigger moment. With a chance to close out the series, Toronto led by as many as 25 points midway through the third quarter; the Bucks then put together an unfathomable 34-7 run to take the lead and every Raptor fan in the world was pooping bricks.
During a timeout, Joseph, the only Raptor with an NBA championship ring on his finger and a veteran of moments larger than this one, calmed his teammates in the huddle, was inserted into the game and immediately hit a monstrously clutch three pointer from the corner, as well as a pair of three throws, that keyed a 9-0 Toronto run and an eventual three point victory.
Many remember DeRozan's crowning dunk as the defining play of that game, but for me, it was Joseph's ability to finally say “enough is e-fucking-nough. We are not losing this game.”
Daniel Reynolds on the LeBron-Tucker “Handshake”
It was a minor moment to be sure, and one that came near the end of a seemingly endless onslaught, but it’s stuck with me throughout the year. I’m referring to the play, unrecorded by most (except Arden Zwelling) when LeBron James, greatest basketball player on the planet, and P.J. Tucker helped each other off the floor. Like I said, slight, but meaningful.
In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Cavaliers, the Raptors were thoroughly outplayed. The first two games in Cleveland were lessons in abject misery, with LeBron finding new and creative ways to embarrass the Raps at every turn. Not to say we deserved it, but that’s what happens sometimes. The games in Toronto did not go much better, with Lowry’s injury, more blowouts, and finally, a merciful conclusion. There was no acknowledgement of the crowd from LeBron this time, he just moved on.
But still, he and Tucker linked arms in that moment, helped each other to their feet, and carried on with their professional mission. Tucker is gone from the Raptors now, with no return forthcoming; and LeBron is still LeBron. But I like to imagine this little slice of game history as part of something bigger and more meaningful for Toronto. It was a reminder that the Raptors still have a ways to go in competition, true, and also that true greatness can be achieved in those small moments of respect along the way.