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Three Lessons from the past week of Raptors Basketball

This week, we look at some big picture lessons about the Toronto Raptors and the Bubble playoffs.

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors - Game Two Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Nets stink. The Raptors are going to beat them in four games, even though they have to brave the harsh conditions of a Bubble road game, a.k.a. the basketball at centre court doesn’t have a dinosaur claw through it and the TV screens are wearing different shirts.

Lots of smarter people than I — including the HQ team — can help you analyze why the Raptors are better than Brooklyn in a bunch of ways. So, instead of focusing on that, Three Lessons goes big picture.

I may have cheated on the whole “from the past week” part of my Three Lessons, but this is my first piece since the restart, so I’m granting myself a pass.

We start with the Toronto Raptors, a real team’s team.

1. A Distinct Sense of Togetherness

Even prior to the NBA Bubble, the Toronto Raptors were a united front this season. Players, coaches, and management always spoke as if they were on the same page. Members of the organization were accountable, and there was seldom a whisper of dissent within. It showed up on the court too. The Raptors often moved as if they were body parts operated by the same brain, especially on defense.

Since the team has arrived in Orlando, the campus-like atmosphere has seemingly only reinforced and strengthened those bonds. Media members gushed about the Raptors’ decorations in the hotel, as the team brought pieces of Toronto to Florida and displayed them proudly. They have been steadfast in their commitment to social justice, with each player displaying a message on their jersey. The team bus has “Black Lives Matter” painted across the side. In that sense, the Raptors are as one.

If you watched the Raptors’ top players go absolutely bonkers for their role players in their penultimate regular season win against the Philadelphia 76ers, you would have no doubt that these are players that genuinely want their teammates to succeed. If you watched them share in the joy of their families introducing them, you could have mistaken the Raptors for a family in their own right.

They act like a family from the top to the bottom. At the top is the leader, Masai Ujiri.

Recently, the video of Masai Ujiri’s confrontation with the security guard after the Raptors won the NBA championship at Oracle Arena surfaced, exposing the security officer as the clear aggressor, marking him as a liar and an entirely emotionally bankrupt person. The Raptors, of course, have stayed united. Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell both voiced their support in press conferences, and the team is unequivocally behind Ujiri.

Now, what this all means on the basketball side of things remains to be seen. Teams that hate each other have won titles. That said, intangible things such as the unity of this team can absolutely translate into on-court success. It will have to. We dive into why with Lesson 2.

2. The Raptors Have No Choice But To Be An Outlier

As Raptors fans gauged their team’s potential for a title run, the conversation has always turned to Pascal Siakam’s playoff ceiling. After all, it has been proven by all but one team in the modern era that you need a top 10 player to hoist the Larry OB. Ideally, you would have a top-5 player. The question has been constantly asked whether Siakam, in his first season as Toronto’s number one option, has the potential to be that player for the Raptors.

Although his consistent year-to-year improvement has been amazing, it has become clear that Siakam is not quite that guy yet. Frankly, we kind of knew that all along. As a result, the Raptors will have to follow in the footsteps of the ’04 Pistons and win on the strength of their team as opposed to that of the individual.

The reason that they are still taken so seriously across the NBA is that they are uniquely positioned to do so. The Raptors have four players — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Pascal Siakam — who can be relied on to create a shot in crunch time. This allows the Raptors to hunt match-ups and ride the hot hand without force-feeding their star. Amid the swath of injuries this season, each of those players gained valuable reps as the lead creator and can be ready to step up in a give moment.

Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, and Marc Gasol all fit seamlessly around those players. All seven of them defend like hell. Nick Nurse, likely the Coach of the Year, is pulling the strings.

Precedent certainly places doubt on the Raptors’ chances, but, in a weird year, it makes sense that a weird team emerges victorious. Perhaps, the 2020 Bubble Raptors will replace the 2004 Pistons as the example that every fan and radio host uses to justify why their mediocre team will win a title, as we once tried to do with our beloved Raptors.

3. A Different Feel

As Bubble basketball began, those committed to the sport adjusted to the new look of an NBA game. The league has done a wonderful job of making it feel normal. The artificial murmur of the crowd combined with the fans on screen prevent the feeling that we are watching players in an empty gym.

It was working, and the on-court product was top notch. Then the playoffs hit.

For Toronto, a city whose people have spent the past seven years building and maintaining a reputation of the best home crowd in the NBA playoffs, Game 1 just felt different. Gone are the sweeping shots of the raucous Scotiabank Arena crowd. Gone are the pans across Jurassic Park, a now iconic centre of Raptors fandom.

The NBA playoffs have had a palpable cultural impact in southern Ontario, bringing a diverse crowd together under the We The North flag. Every year, the energy and spirit of the Raptors playoff run wrests the heart of the city increasingly further from the Toronto Maple Leafs. It creates a moment that all, from the diehards to the latest of bandwagon jumpers, shared in.

It simply will not have that cultural impact this year, a product of the different circumstances. It is clear that this postseason will be about the basketball.

This is not to disparage the NBA for the design of the bubble, because, thus far it’s been excellent and necessary. Nor is it an attempt to encourage folks to abandon their hard work in containing COVID-19 in order to enjoy the Raptors a little more. Please don’t do that!

If anything, the lack of the usual festivities have made me appreciative of the efforts of Raptors fandom. It truly is something special, and I cannot wait for the moment that we are at it again. For now, however, we diehards will root like hell for our team and enjoy the most likeable squad the franchise has ever put forth whether or not fans congregate in Jurassic Park (once again, please don’t do that anytime soon!).