I thought I was ready.
Ahead of Game 6, I mentally prepared myself for the idea that the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors could be eliminated and this incredible season would be over. When the Raptors defeated the Boston Celtics in Game 6 and gave us another 48 hours and a Game 7 to enjoy, I spent the time telling myself all the things I needed to hear, should the Raptors lose: they won a title, they defended it brilliantly, they’re a great group of guys to root for and watch, they have a great coach and great management and Kyle Lowry is the Greatest Raptor of All Time... I thought I’d mentally softened the blow. I thought I was ready for the 2019-20 season to end.
And now that it’s over, it’s become very clear: I was not. I am not. I feel a sense of loss right now that I’ve never felt at the end of a basketball game, or season, before. I really loved this team and not having them to root for anymore has left me with a heavy heart.
Still: we soldier on. We’ll have plenty of eulogies and what’s-next-for-the-Raptors pieces over the coming days and weeks, but for now, let’s focus the thoughts on last night’s Game 7.
First though, one final note about policing. This was the primary message from the players coming into the Bubble, so it’s fitting we end it here, but the continued use of police force against minorities and people of color has to change. 30 people were killed after police used force in Canada in the first half of 2020, which is the full-year average for such deaths over the past decade. We’re calling more attention to this issue than ever, but it keeps happening. If police are still perpetrating unnecessary violence on people when everyone has a camera and they’re under such intense scrutiny, the system is broken. Heck, if a prominent and wealthy Black man can be assaulted by a cop in front of thousands of people with TV cameras all around him, and the police department still stands behind their clearly-at-fault cop, then the system is beyond repair and it needs to be removed and replaced with something else.
There’s still so much work to do. Please join me in continuing to learn about this issue, and making your voice heard with your elected officials.
Thank you for sticking with us and reading these messages every game. And some additional thanks: to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, for challenging the Raptors media to do their part to share the players’ messages; to Vivek Jacob and Blake Murphy for developing and organizing the group messaging idea; and for everyone who joined in. We donated $2,000 to two organizations focused on improving diversity in Canadian journalism and that will only make the coverage of the Raptors, and reporting in general, better in the future.
On to the thoughts.
1. What a Shitty Way to Lose
For a team that did the little things right all year, to give up an offensive rebound on a missed free throw (and foul the rebounder to boot) was pretty disheartening way to end the season.
I guess it wasn’t surprising, given how unfocused the Raptors seemed all night, how tired they obviously were, that a mental mistake would be the thing to cost them. Still... Norman Powell just gave up inside position to Jayson Tatum at the three point line, and Tatum had the angle on that one all the way. Pascal Siakam successfully blocked out Jaylen Brown, but made no attempt at the ball. (Marcus Smart successfully held off both Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby on the the side. More on Smart below!)
For everything Norman Powell gave us in Game 6, and all year long, that one mental mistake is a really tough one to see him make.
Beyond that error, the Raptors really did beat themselves in this one. I mean no disrespect to Boston, who played unbelievable defense and who capitalized on a ton of opportunities. But man, the Raptors shot themselves in the foot so many times their shoes must’ve been Swiss cheese by the end. That rebound, obviously. So many bad (and live ball!) turnovers. A bunch of blown fast breaks.
They were exhausted, and it showed.
2. Tactical Error Butterfly Effect
Let’s talk about the timeout situation. Down two, with 40 seconds to go, the Raptors do a solid job defending Kemba Walker and he dumps a pass to Grant Williams, and Kyle Lowry fouls him with 35 seconds on the clock. The Raptors have two timeouts, and Nick Nurse opts to use one in challenging the foul call, as it’s Lowry’s sixth personal.
I understand what Nurse was thinking; if there’s any chance of it being overturned and Lowry staying in the game, you have to take it. The rest will do the guys good, anyway.
Thing is... there was no chance of that being overturned. And using the timeout there, before Williams shot the free throws, had a cascading effect on the ensuing plays
With only one timeout left, Nurse wasn’t able to substitute offense for defense. Ideally, he would have subbed Marc Gasol in before Williams’ free throws, and had both Gasol and Serge Ibaka in there to secure the board. Then he could have called one timeout after William’s free throws to get his offensive players back in, and still have one TO in his pocket. Instead, with only one TO, he didn’t want to call timeout immediately after... and the Raptors gave up the board.
With only one timeout left the Raptors simply “played on” after Tatum went 1-for-2, when it might have made more sense to call for time. Either way though, down three with 34 seconds to go, the Raptors should have gone quickly to give themselves as much time as possible, and if the Celtics stuffed their initial attack, then they should have called time to set up a good shot. But wary of using his last one, Nurse didn’t call it even as VanVleet and Ibaka flubbed their pick-and-roll attempt... and the Nurse ended up leaving that timeout on the table, essentially, calling it when down five eight seconds to go.
So by using the first timeout on the challenge, the Raptors essentially wasted both their remaining timeouts.
Perhaps the players weren’t the only ones who were tired.
3. That FVV Heave Was Inevitable
With Lowry fouled out of the game, and Siakam a total clusterfuck on offense, of course the most important offensive play of the season came down to the ball being in Fred VanVleet’s hands. And in that scenario... I don’t think a single Raptors fan was surprised that VanVleet was unable to generate a quality look.
As much as we all love VanVleet, I think we’ve all come to understand that’s he’s not a good shot creator, for himself or for others. He works best off-ball, with guys like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam or Kawhi Leonard initiating the action. And, although he’s improved over the past two seasons, VanVleet still seems really shaky as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations. He doesn’t use screens well, leaving too much space between him and the screener; he routinely misses the screen-setter on rolls; and in fact he frequently runs into the screen setter on rolls.
VanVleet’s probably the best shooter on the team other than Matt Thomas, and he’s a sensational defender, especially at his size. But his playmaking needs serious work. Anyone paying him big money to be their lead guard this offseason might end up with buyer’s remorse.
4. Come Back Better
It was really tough to watch Pascal Siakam on offense last night, phew. Not that it was much better in game 1 through 6, or at all in the Bubble, really, but last night was really bad. He was hesitant, even when he had weaker defenders on him, he flubbed multiple drive-and-kick passes, and at one point in the fourth quarter he simply dribbled the ball out of bounds.
Heck, he even gave up a late blow-by to Tatum, in an otherwise excellent defensive game.
I’m not sure why Siakam struggled so much in the Bubble. Was it rust from the time off? The time away from family? Was he mentally drained by being isolated, and by everything else going in the world? Or did defenses just figure him out? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure. But I’m confident he’ll come back next season and be better. The guy obviously works hard at his game, and I’m sure he’ll continue to do so in the offseason. And his struggles here might have helped Nick Nurse, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster identify the ways they need to improve the team around him.
5. Give it up for Marcus Smart
Jayson Tatum was spectacular last night, and I take nothing away from him. But Marcus Smart’s fingerprints were all over this series.
He may not have much class, may flail and flop more than anyone else in the league, but he is a damn fine defender. Which, honestly, just makes the flopping that much more egregious. He doesn’t need to flop! He’s not Patrick Beverley. He’s actually a legitimately good defender, both on the ball and as a help defender.
He was such a difference maker all series. He hit five threes in Game 1, and followed that up in a much-tighter Game 2 by hitting five threes in the fourth quarter to help seal a Celtics win. He stymied Pascal Siakam repeatedly in the two games, gave both Lowry and VanVleet fits whenever he guarded either one, and successfully guarded Serge Ibaka at times too. He was straight cash money from the corners in Game 6.
Last night, with the Raptors up seven in the second quarter, he sparked a 15-2 run almost entirely on his own. First, he stole a VanVleet pass, and threw a perfect alley-oop to Tatum. Then he drew an offensive foul on Ibaka, and hit a floater the other way. A couple plays later, he outran two Raptors to pick up a deflected Lowry pass, and scored a layup, and then after helping blow up a Lowry-Gasol pick-and-roll, he probed into the lane and found Jaylen Brown open in the corner for three. He then picked up another assist on a Brown jumper, and again successfully denied a Lowry attack on the other end before a Kemba Walker J sealed the run.
So along with one steal, one charge drawn and his overall his stellar D, Smart either scored or assisted on 11 of those 15 points during that run.
And in the fourth quarter, he had what may have been a game-saving block on Norman Powell’s possibly ill-advised fast break attempt.
He’s easy to hate, but Smart was a huge difference maker last night and all series.
What’s next? I guess I have to erase my whiteboard, finally, after 15 months!
Well, not yet, I suppose. The Raptors are still the reigning champs for a few more weeks. We’ll have another champion soon, but for now, please join me in being grateful for everything that the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors, the defending NBA Champions, gave us in this crazy, extended NBA season.