This was without a doubt the strangest NBA season in forever. Yes, there have been strikes and lockouts, or the threat of same, over the years in professional basketball. But never has a season started, stopped, and restarted, only to jump ahead quickly to the next year. The flow of the whole enterprise was just off — for the Raptors, for the entire league, and for everyone else.
And yet we still had enough memorable moments — games, plays, one-offs, what-have-you — to make a top ten list involving Toronto. As we arrive now at the final day of 2020, this most cruel year, we can look back and smile at the reprieve the Raptors brought us over the past 365 days. Things may not get better in 2021, but we can hope for it all over again.
10. Re-signing Fred and OG (and Bobby?)
Not exactly an explosive moment — except for how team president Masai Ujiri chose to address the status of GM Bobby Webster — but noteworthy all the same. Keep in mind here: the Raptors were for many, many years a poorly run organization. Signing quality free agents was a challenge, and keeping talented players was always difficult. That Toronto seldom developed their rookies into players worthy of bigger contracts was no surprise at the time; and it often didn’t come as a shock when those that did develop sought to play elsewhere.
Which made the easy re-signing of Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, two players who have grown within the Toronto system and been part of the team’s climb to a championship (albeit in different ways), something of an achievement. There were more thrilling Raptors moments in 2020, but Toronto just taking care of business off-the-court feels good too. (And as for Webster, well, Masai said a deal to bring back the team’s wunderkind is “pretty much done” so we’ll take him at his word. Onward!)
9. First Series Win via Sweep
It’s easy to laugh here for a few reasons. It’s not the first time the Raptors have been involved in a sweep in the playoffs. Over their history, they’ve been dumped out of the post-season on four different occassions via a sweep — vs. the Knicks way back in the day, in a stunner against Washington, and, of course, at the hands of LeBron twice.
It’s also striking (or laughable) that for all of their various tries in the playoffs — even on their way to a title — the Raptors have never quite had an easy time in a series. Yes, they beat up the Magic in five games in 2019; and there was that weird 6-gamer in 2018 against the Wizards; but most of the time, the Raptors are pushed needlessly hard in the post-season and take too much time to find their footing. It has proven frustrating over the years.
Yes, the Brooklyn Nets of 2020 in the Orlando Bubble were not much of a team. They tried hard but were always going to fold under the Raptors’ superior talent at every position. It’s not something to get too excited about, is perhaps the point to make here. Still, like no. 10 above, it just felt good to see the Raptors come in and play like the better team for four games. That’s all that was needed.
8. First Bubble Win vs. the Lakers
Obviously, the Raptors’ first win against LeBron’s Lakers last season was the more memorable moment — but it happened in 2019. This one gets the nod more for symbolic reasons than anything else. The fun and exciting Raptors season was put on hold after a March 9th game in Utah; we waited for many long months in a time of suspension when it wasn’t clear how life would continue, let alone basketball. Then, finally, we arrived in the controversial Bubble and the Raptors had to take on the league-leading Lakers (who were favoured and did indeed go on to win the title) once again.
And with all of that going on, the world in chaos, the league relocated to a hotel complex, uncertainty reigning supreme — the Raptors came out and walloped Los Angeles. Yes, it didn’t “mean” anything in the bigger picture. But watching the indefatigable Kyle Lowry hang 33 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists on the King after an unwanted four-and-a-half months off is not something to just forget.
7. Lowry Takes Charge of the All-Star Game
Speaking of the majesty of Kyle Lowry, let’s recall that 2020 is the year he took not one but two charges in the NBA All-Star Game. Some people called him crazy and reckless; we here in Toronto just smiled in satisfication and nodded along — that’s our Kyle Lowry.
Lowry out here drawing charges in the All-Star game pic.twitter.com/UgdD3noPnW— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 17, 2020
(Lowry also gets infinity bonus points on the play above because he drew the charge against his former teammate and leading bucket-getter in the march to the 2019 NBA title: Kawhi Leonard. That’s poetry!)
6. Bubble Comeback vs. Philadelphia
This was a nothing game. The Raptors’ playoff position was secure, their opponent was decided, there was no reason to care in this, the team’s penultimate contest in the Bubble. All of which is to say: it made it easy to accept Toronto’s situation when they found themselves down ten against the hated 76ers with just five minutes to go and deep bench players out there on the court for both sides. The Raptors just had to count down the seconds and not get anyone hurt.
Except — ah, except the Raptors decided to go for it in those final five minutes. What followed was some of the silliest and most inspiring basketball of the year. The Raptors ran out a lineup featuring Matt Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, lightly used rookies Dewan Hernandez and Paul Watson, and the immortal Stanley Johnson at point guard. There is no unverse in which this should have worked — even against the Sixers’ forgotten reserves. And yet, there was Rondae making a three, Dewan putting in a career-high six points, Watson going off from everywhere, and lovable, hard-working Stanley, who spent most of the year in way over his head, making the game winning play: there he is recoving a blocked shot and making the go-ahead bucket. Go ahead and smile Stanley!
5. Scarfs and Serge’s Walk-Off
Serge Ibaka is gone from the Raptors, but he still casts a long shadow in Toronto. First, we must acknowledge he was critical to the 2019 title win, which makes him a legend here forever. Second, Serge also managed to generate many more off-the-court moments we’ll be able to cherish forever in this city. In those early months of 2020, we were gifted with two such all-time classics.
First, his two-man routine with OG Anunoby about, what else: scarfs.
And second, my personal favourite, the time when Ibaka’s fashion sense was questioned by his teammates during a fun-loving photo shoot and interview for SLAM Magazine (also a classic). There’s just nothing quite like Diva Serge storming off the floor while declaring “I do art!”
Serge Ibaka walking off the set because his teammates refuse to acknowledge that he does art only to return when they admit to him doing art is, well, incredible. pic.twitter.com/YelO55LzxI— sasha (@sashakalra) March 18, 2020
4. Three Wild Wins vs. Indiana
In retrospect, it doesn’t quite make sense that the Raptors’ most memorable series of regular season games came against the Indiana Pacers. The teams played four times in 2019-20 and each contest was more exciting and/or bizarre than the last. After losing to Indiana in OT in 2019, the Raptors went on to face the Pacers three more times (all in February), winning each contest. This kind of thing happens all the time — but how they won is the story here.
In the first game, the Raptors were down 11 with under three minutes to go. The score was 116-105 and it looked like Toronto had no more moves to make. Somehow though, the Raps were led by Lowry, Pascal Siakam and a game-winning three from Ibaka, to reclaim the lead via an 11-0 run. The final score: 119-118 for Toronto. They held the Pacers to just two points in those final three minutes. Next up two nights later, the Raptors went into Indiana for another hard-fought battle, one in which it looked like the Pacers were due to eventually claw their way back into for the W. Instead, the starters all scored in double figures, with 17 big points off the bench from rookie Terence Davis, for another wild Toronto victory.
And in the third match: Toronto would go on to win 127-81. Sure!
3. The 15-Game Win Streak
It’s worth mentioning that two of the above Indiana wins came during Toronto’s franchise-record 15-game winning streak. Remember that? Remember when no one could best the Raptors? During that run, which stretched from January 15th to February 10th, the Raptors beat the following teams: the Thunder (in OKC), Washington, Minnesota (twice; and once with Rondae at centre), Atlanta (twice; and once with Norm going off), Philly (Embiid too shook to show), New York, San Antonio, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Indiana (see above), and Brooklyn (in a close one).
The Raptors eventually did run out of gas, dropping a game to the Nets to end the streak at the aforementioned 15. But don’t worry, they got another one going almost immediately afterwards, carrying it into the Bubble for a total of seven wins in a row. What a team.
2. Game 6 vs. Boston
There was always a sizable chance the 2019-20 Raptors would not repeat as champions. Sometimes, yes, it did feel like they could eke out enough wins to get back to the Finals and do the impossible; at other times, it for sure felt like the hole created by the absence of Kawhi would just be too big to overcome. In spirit, we came to a compromise. What Raptors fans really wanted was a hard fought series, one in which we could say Toronto gave it all they had. If they came up short, so be it.
The series against the Boston Celtics was exactly that. And Game 6 was the absolute apex of that above sentiment. The Raptors would force a Game 7 against Boston in the Bubble by playing absolutely insane never-say-die basketball on and on for two overtime periods on their way to the 125-122 win. Still, to watch Game 6 it was clear to see how and why the Celtics would eventually win the series. It sucks to admit that, but it did always feel like the Raptors were scrambling just to hold on (especially after the massive letdown in Game 5).
That fact does not discount the emotions in play when the Raptors decided to keep going punch for punch with Boston down the stretch. It does not undo the joy of seeing Norman Powell finally come alive with 23 points and a breathtaking and-one bucket over Marcus Smart. And it certainly does not erase the extreme pleasure of watching Kyle Lowry claw his way to 33 points in a series of “now watch this” shots over the Celtics’ intense defense.
Yes, the Raptors lost the series against Boston, but we’ll always have Game 6.
1. The OG Game Winner
No play or moment in 2020 summarized the Raptors’ year like OG Anunoby’s game winner in Game 3 vs. Boston.
The Raptors were down 2-0 in the series and looked done. Boston had matched and surpassed everything they’d tried to do to that point, in many ways confirming the narrative of the series. The Raptors had had their chances, but it was becoming clear the Celtics maybe just had more high-end talent. As a result, the series was hard to watch at times; and in truth it was maybe even understandable if the Raptors had just folded, lost, and gone home. They didn’t really have anything left to prove after overachieving the entire season. The year had been hard enough on everyone.
But once more I must say: except. Except the Raptors didn’t do that. Instead, with only 0.5 seconds on the clock and the seemingly insurmountable height of Tacko Fall in front of him, Lowry did what he does best. He made something out of nothing for Toronto, lofting the perfect pass to OG, who did what he does best, by calmly catching and shooting it. And so it went in the air, from one side of the court to the other, and then back towards the net, the entire season on the line, an 0-3 hole just impossible to even consider in however long it took the ball to complete its arc and go in.
This year was dark and a single shot going in during one random playoff basketball game doesn’t correct any of that. People died, we were let down again and again by our leaders, there’s now perhaps light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still very much underground. Maybe it’s a little cheap to link this one Raptors’ play, Kyle Lowry’s Hail Mary pass and OG’s absurd heave, to the tenor of an entire calendar year — especially one as brutal as this.
But I can’t help it: the Raptors didn’t quit, and neither should we. Here’s to a better 2021.