Amid every talent and trait that one would associate with athletic success, FC Barcelona’s youth academy, Le Masia de Can Planes, one of the most successful athletic academies in the world, believes resiliency is the most reliable predictor of future success in their young athletes. It is a powerful mental trait, and those that possess it are able to persevere through adversity and turmoil. Rarely does a professional sports team glide through a season unscathed. The collective response to adversity can often be the difference between a championship and a disappointing finish.
This Toronto Raptors season has been characterized by resiliency. Two starters, including a contender for best player in the world, departed for Los Angeles. Others stepped up to fill the void. They lost four of five games, appearing to some as if their shine was wearing off. A 26-7 stretch to follow that made the losses just a blip on an otherwise stellar season. Every time a player got healthy another would go down as if they were spokes on a wheel. As one rises, others would fall in a perpetual cycle. No matter. Hobbled iterations of the team would get creative and find a way to win.
The Raptors at the time resembled Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, except without the Oscar-worthy grunts.
But now, between the injuries and recent performances, the Raptors just got mauled by the grizzly. How they respond could very well determine the outcome of their season.
The Raptors are on a three-game losing streak, their worst stretch since that 1-4 slide in December. This one kicked off with a loss to Milwaukee where the offense never really got going, followed by an injury riddled lineup dropping games to both Charlotte and Denver.
The injuries to Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet appear to be relatively short term, and Marc Gasol has shown signs of a return, but a bounce-back from this skid is essential regardless of their health.
The importance of the two-seed in the Eastern Conference is no secret to those invested in the Raptors. The stakes, however, have gotten higher. The 6-seed is once again up in the air, with recent slides by Miami and Philadelphia making it very realistic that those teams could end up in that position. A first-round match-up with Indiana is a challenge. One with Philadelphia or Miami is a nightmare scenario. The Raptors cannot take that chance.
Even if they do win those match-ups, the increased strain from a competitive first-round series makes a sustained playoff run more difficult. Moreover, the Raptors would undoubtedly be gambling underdogs against both the Celtics and the Bucks if they are on the road. The odds would be stacked against them.
Contrast that with a breezy first round series against Orlando or Brooklyn, and then home court against the Celtics. The big question in round one would be whether the Raptors sweep their opponents or if they allow them the steal game one in Toronto for the sake of tradition. A series against the Celtics is difficult no matter the circumstance, but the advantage of the Toronto faithful for an extra game is worth the push. It’s the difference between taking a cannonball into the pool and dipping a toe, testing the temperature, then slowly wading in at your own pace.
The Celtics, however, will not cede any ground in this race willingly. The Raptors have to take it.
The standings are important, but so is the general psyche of the team. Even amid the injuries, Toronto has possessed a certain aura this season. Down two or three rotation players, the Raptors played like 12-point favourites. They have had a mental edge all year.
Facing other opponents, NBA teams worry about Giannis’ impact, or devastating duos like LeBron and AD, or Kawhi and PG. When facing the Raptors, teams worried about playing the Raptors. It was unimportant who was in the lineup. It became apparent early in the season that these guys were going to bring the fight to you, from top to bottom. The confidence could not be contained.
A journeyman wing battled centres with decent success and would proudly declare his diminutive height after doing so. A lanky former G Leaguer would try and block or dunk on anyone. An undrafted rookie told the world that an All-Star “can’t guard me.” They take their cues from a fearless, snarling 6’ point guard who will gladly take a game to the mud. His heir apparent, another 6’ point guard, does not scare easily either. The mentality was contagious and spread through the whole team.
They believed they would beat anyone, no matter the state of the roster. It is imperative that they maintain that level of confidence and brazen attitude. Piling up losses is no way to enter the playoffs, and for the Raptors to be in the right frame of mind, they need to right the ship, and remind the NBA that they’re in for a tough night when Toronto is on the schedule.
They need to be the hard-chargin’, scarf-sportin’ band of competitors that they have shown the capability of being.
Even if you are skeptical about momentum, team psyche, and the importance of finishing strong (which, I assure you, are all absolutely a thing and those who say otherwise have little experience in competition), there is a rather compelling statistical case.
Championship teams simply do not limp into the postseason. The Toronto Raptors have 22 games remaining. In the past seven years, title winners have amassed a combined record of 114-32, a 78 percent winning percentage. Of that group, the only team to even veer close to .500 was the 2017-18 Warriors, who still finished at 12-10. That team was one of the few teams talented enough to defy tradition. All the others have been dominant as they geared up for the postseason. Toronto is certainly not the Durant-era Warriors. They do not have the high-end talent to flip the switch. It has to be now.
I was initially dubious of Toronto’s title ceiling but have since moved firmly into the “if things break right” camp. To put themselves in the position to capitalize, however, they must bounce back from this slide and get back to their winning ways.
The Raptors have taken punches throughout the entire season that would knock out a lesser competitor. Instead of wilting, they have gotten stronger as the season has gone on. Now, they have been knocked to the mat, and their season hinges on their response.