Last Thursday, it was announced that Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell would be sitting out indefinitely as a result of injuries that they sustained the night before against the Detroit Pistons. Upon hearing the news, Raptors fans reacted like nine-year-olds finding out Santa wasn’t real, not wanting to believe their ears initially before breaking down in a mess of tears and sniffles.
In fairness, the reaction is justified as the Raptors had finally gotten healthy from the last swath of injuries and was really starting to gel. Powell was playing maybe the most consistent basketball of his career. Siakam was back on track after his first real slump of the season. Gasol was even scoring buckets in the paint. And then, suddenly, they were gone, and we don’t know when they’re coming back.
Since the injuries, the Raptors have defeated the Washington Wizards in a game that they almost let slip away from them, came back from a 30-point deficit to beat the Luka-less Dallas Mavericks in the biggest comeback in franchise history, and lost in overtime to a similarly depleted yet hot-shooting Indiana Pacers roster. The Dallas win will get the majority of the shine, and rightfully so, but the fact that the Raptors have continued to find ways to win, even with the injuries, really speaks to the team’s infrastructure and culture. Another thing that the Dallas win did was remind us of the pure, unadulterated joy of the skeleton crew Raptors.
We’ve seen the skeleton crew Raptors before. Our first glimpse came on the Western Conference road trip that the team embarked on early in the season. In the first game of that road trip against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Raptors lost Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. What followed was one of the more memorable stretches that the Raptors had, starting with a shocking win over the Los Angeles Lakers, and an eventual seven game win streak. Ibaka then returned on the seventh game of the streak, and Lowry the game after.
Obviously, these two iterations of shorthanded Raptors are different by virtue of who is injured, but the themes remain. Those that are healthy step up in some tangible way and try to fill the roles vacated by those injured. The bench pieces with typically inconsistent roles suddenly became essential to the success of the team. Of course, this would not be possible without a star to lead the way. Last time a meteor attempted to wipe out the Dinos, it was Pascal Siakam who emerged to save the day. This version has turned to Kyle Lowry as the saviour.
It is thrilling and borderline cathartic to watch Lowry own this moment. This season, Lowry has been discussed as a trade piece to a contender by the Wojnarowskis of the world and even by blasphemous Raptors fans who do not worship at the altar of KLOE. His play has been inconsistent, with his thumb injury making it more difficult for him to establish a rhythm.
It was not long ago, however, that Lowry was the most important player on the Toronto Raptors. I’m certain he was aware of the lowering of expectations that came with the injuries. It’s not in Lowry’s competitive and endearingly petty nature to roll over in this scenario. He had 26 points against the Wizards, before becoming engulfed entirely in flames against the Mavericks as he led the comeback. Lowry could not miss in the fourth, pouring in 20 of his 32 points in that quarter. In the Pacers game, he was once again the pulse of the team, scoring 30 points and adding nine assists.
Along with Lowry’s success, another exciting facet is that the team gets to take on his persona as the scrappy underdog. With the injuries, the weight of expectations has been lifted from the team, and fans can watch without stress. Any loss is easy to write off to the injuries, but victories, especially those involving record-setting comebacks, provide simply joy.
In fact, the role of the underdog is well-suited to the bulk of this Raptors roster. The foundation of this team is of players who outperform expectations. From the undrafted guards like Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis II, to guys fighting for a role on an NBA team in Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Malcolm Miller, the Raptors are built on overlooked players. These are the guys who you can send to on a full-court press for an entire quarter, and they will give every ounce of themselves in the execution.
The lengthening of the bench has been the catalyst to some of the more exciting stretches of play for the Raptors. Sure, lineups with Hollis-Jefferson, Boucher, Davis and Miller can lead to some clunky offense, but the way that they fly around on the court more than makes up for it. These guys are hyper-active and compensate for their lack of offensive polish with hustle plays that make them easy to root for.
Speaking of the bizarre lineups and the full-court press, the lack of pressure has given head coach Nick Nurse the freedom to be experimental with lineups and strategies. Nurse can, at times, seem like he is absolutely dying to get completely wacko with the Raptors. Although he can still get pretty creative with the full complement of Raptors, the current makeup of the team creates the ideal laboratory for Nurse’s experiments. It is a fun subplot to watch Nurse try and find the strangest way to deploy a successful basketball team in this time.
Finally, there is the chemistry and camaraderie that has emerged when the team has been depleted. This aspect of basketball, and sports in general, is often overlooked and undervalued, but it is something that I am personally obsessed with and pay attention to before any involvement of analytics. When a team is depleted like this, they need to rally around each other and look internally for leadership and belief.
The Raptors certainly did so in the first version of the skeleton crew squad and are doing the same now. I mean, just watch this clip:
In the comeback against the Mavericks, the starters who watched their team battle back from the bench turned into fans and were rooting for the team every step of the way. Obviously, these guys are aware of the cameras on them at every moment and the impact that bad body language can have. Their reactions, however, appear real, and their excitement for their teammates’ success unfabricated. Watching Lowry mention each member of the comeback by name in his postgame press conference further cemented the feeling that this team is here to win, regardless of who gets the credit.
The Raptors are obviously best when they are at full strength, and that unfortunately means that not every player that Raptors fans are developing relationships with will get the same opportunities when that happens. We can hope, however, that the Raptors maintain this level of energy and team unity when the team is full again. In the meantime, we need worry less about how the Raptors stack up against playoff competition, or what the ceiling of this team is. For now, revel in the pure delight that comes with the skeleton crew Raptors.