We don’t really have to talk about the game, a fairly humdrum 92-73 beatdown of the Pacers by the hometown Raptors. Toronto’s squad came out fired up and once again exercised their fearsome defensive chops to great effect, holding a tired Indiana team to 49 points after three quarters and 30 percent shooting for the game. At some point, probably around the time Serge Ibaka was hitting every shot he took (he went 10-of-13 for 25 points, including 5-of-7 from 3, while adding eight rebounds), the Raps went up by 20 and it was over.
It’s true Ibaka was the offensive star of the game, but — in typical Raptors fashion — the rest of the squad also contributed. There were modest 12 and nine point games from DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who dished off eight and nine assists, respectively, to the welcome hands of teammates. And of course Jonas Valanciunas played up to his size with eight points, 12 rebounds, and a block. The bench mob came in and raced around for chunks of time — Jakob Poeltl had 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting, Pascal Siakam went for 6-4-3 and a pair of blocks, Fred VanVleet steered the ship. And hey, OG Anunoby matched minutes with All-Star Victor Oladipo and made his life miserable throughout, holding him to five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
(C.J. Miles appears to still be on his vision quest however. I know three-point shooting is a high variance skill, but the man looks a little lost out there right now. Miles went 1-for-6 on the night, missed all of three attempts, and booted in two turnovers for good measure. I don’t say this with any sense of glee or malice — so please don’t be mad Mrs. Miles! The Raptors will need C.J. to find himself though; and I really, really hope he does.)
Yes, the Pacers were on the second night of a back-to-back, and yes this is game number 79 or 80 of a very long season of basketball for both teams. On top of that, both squads are basically locked into their playoff spots already too, so there wasn’t a ton at stake — other than pride. But that’s OK. Like I said, we don’t really have to talk about the game at all.
We can talk instead about what the game means for the Raptors.
With the win, the Raptors move to 57-22 with three games left to play. A shot at a 60-win season, perhaps more remote than it was a week ago, is still on the table. What’s for certain now is their place in the Eastern Conference: first. I say again, the Raptors have clinched first place in the Eastern Conference. And before the season is even over, they’ve set a new franchise-record for total wins in a season. The sky is the limit now.
“There’s gratification, but you’re not satisfied,” said coach Dwane Casey reflecting on these specific but incomplete achievements. “We haven’t got to our ultimate goal, but it’s a feeling of gratification, the fact that where we started, you know, seven years ago, bottom of the conference so to speak, bottom of the offense, defense, and the building process. You guys have seen it from day one.”
That notion — gratifying but not satisfying — was one Casey mentioned before the game too. It’s a sentiment that could sum up this game, this week, month, season, or any number of seasons for Toronto. It’s been the quest the Raptors have found themselves on year after year, as progress has given way to failure, and roster turnover, unrest, and unease has given way to growth, confidence, and belief.
“It’s been a rollercoaster in the sense of you have your great days and you have your bad days,” said DeMar DeRozan, the team’s leading scorer and likely All-NBA member. “It’s a grind like any other grind, but as long as you stay focused and understand you are fighting for something bigger than just yourself. Through the process, you realize you are accomplishing things bigger than you can imagine.”
Which is where we are now. The Raptors are not the favourites to win the NBA title. With the recent losses to Boston and Cleveland, there are serious doubts about whether they can beat LeBron James. And it feels harder still to imagine defeating, say, the Warriors in a seven-game Finals series. But that of course is the grind DeRozan is talking about, and the understanding it will take to actually get there.
“One thing I’ve always said is you don’t talk about it,” said Kyle Lowry, offering a contradictory viewpoint as is his wont. “Just be about it. And I think that’s one thing we had to do.” Lowry, as is also his wont, is not wrong. The Raptors have assembled this team and patiently trained it to do the things it needs to do to function in this version of the NBA — more passing, more play-making, more shooting (hopefully). It can and should and maybe could succeed at the game’s highest levels, but we don’t need to even talk about that either.
“We talked about it for a little bit and then we slipped,” said Lowry. “Unless we were just about it — it comes easy when you are are about it.”