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The Raptors culture is exactly why 2020 was still a success

The Raptors were always going to have a hard time repeating as champions. Thanks to their team unity — it almost worked.

The 2019-20 Toronto Raptors were always going to have to work together in their attempt to win it all again. Every basketball team has to do that, of course, but not every team comes by it as honestly as this version of the Raptors did; and not many teams can do it at such a high level, night in and night out, through a pandemic and suspended season and then in a bizarre Bubble setup with playoff basketball carrying on into mid-September. Through all that, it was always going to be Toronto’s teamwork that carried them.

It couldn’t carry them all the way back to the Finals and an NBA title though. Despite an undefeatable never-say-die attitude, the Raptors did finally run out of energy. The Celtics put an end to their magical run last week on Friday night in a Game 7 that went down to the last couple of plays in the final minute. There really was no other way the Raptors were going to lose. It’s easy to note now that Boston had some of the more talented players in the series, a higher collective upside, a brighter future and all that. But Toronto wasn’t going to just quit. They’d come too far over the past year, and the six preceding seasons, just to give up. That’s how strong the superstructure of this Raptors squad really was, built up brick by brick and beam by beam, to imbue them with the strength to keep going.

If this sounds overly dramatic, a widening shift in perspective is useful. The Raptors of 2020 were a product of the years before, when the start of the so-called “We the North” era led to a steady climb out of the NBA’s forgettable middle ground. Remember: the Raptors of the years before that were nothing, even when they tried their hardest to matter. It sounds stark to put that decade (circa 2003 to 2013) in those terms, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Despite logging a couple of playoff appearances, few alive are clinging to their memories of, say, the 2008 Raptors and wishing they’d come back. We’ve moved on to something more concrete now.

The process of building that foundation is mostly attributable to its two most prominent and longest tenured figures: point guard Kyle Lowry on the court, and team president Masai Ujiri off it. Both men emerged as if from nowhere to gradually solidify their place in both Toronto and professional basketball lore for all time. In that framing, their work in 2020 stands as a culmination, a testament to what can be done with sustained effort and belief, along with an eventual and expanding confidence. For Ujiri’s part, that meant chipping away at the problem from every angle — culturally, financially, structurally — in search of a competitive solution. For Lowry, it meant bringing an almost reckless energy to even the most hopeless of situations, and making sure to be ready if and when everything broke the right way.

That spirit paid off with the ultimate prize in 2019 but, if we’re being honest, was due for some sort of setback in 2020. This sentiment, however, is also what made the past Raptors season the most satisfying one to date. Yes, they won that 2019 NBA championship, but after losing Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green), the Raptors were not supposed to come anywhere close to another one. Some talking heads even had them out of the playoff picture entirely. Now, it’s assuming a lot — especially after a second-round defeat — to say Toronto was within range of repeating; the Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, or Los Angeles Lakers (featuring old friend and tormentor LeBron James) would likely have had something to say about that. But it didn’t feel impossible for the Raptors to go all the way again, which in and of itself represents a huge shift in how we see this franchise and how they see themselves.

In running down Toronto’s roster and reflecting on the various happenings of the past 465 days — the length of time between their 2019 title win and their eventual 2020 defeat — the mind fills with memories. Led by their second-year head coach Nick Nurse, the season got underway as a success thanks to the teams’ returning core members. But then injuries to Lowry and Serge Ibaka saw them face their first challenge. How would they respond as a group? That was when Toronto’s undervalued bench exploded, when we (including Nurse) began to realize what we had with this iteration of the squad. Suddenly, names like Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were on the tips of our tongues. Everything was in play after that — even after more injuries struck to Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, and Marc Gasol. The Raptors just kept on winning anyway.

A stunning bench-led win over the Lakers in Los Angeles gave way to a stirring home victory against the Sixers. Joel Embiid was held to zero points in that one after venerable Gasol’s defensive clinic, while Siakam did the clutch scoring. Then there was that 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks, one Lowry decided to spearhead with the help of a deep-bench full-court press with about 14 minutes to go. A road victory in OKC kicked off a 15-game win streak, which included a pair of raucous games against the Indiana Pacers, and seemed like it could go on forever. The season shutdown interrupted the Raptors in the midst of another 4-game run, but they just kept at it once all the action moved to the Orlando Bubble, winning 11 of their final 12 regular season games — including another silly victory over the Sixers led by rarely used Stanley Johnson. (It perhaps should have been a warning sign that only Boston was able to beat them during that stretch though.) In all, it looked like the Raptors were still having fun together, even in this new setting.

It’s hard not to admit the Bubble changed things, made playing and watching basketball feel like an alien experience. It clearly affected Siakam, turning what had been an exciting All-Star season into a referendum on his future. It also highlighted the Raptors’ strengths — their team unity and defensive approach — and their weaknesses — an inability to manufacture points in a tight half-court setting. The Raptors sailed through their 8-game restarted regular season with ease, operating as a well-oiled machine juiced back to life. Their first round playoff series against the Nets was also relatively easy. In all, it looked like the Raptors hadn’t missed a beat as a team, like they were just getting stronger as they went along. Yes, they eventually found themselves with no place else left to go — but try not to think of if that way. Think instead about how far they made it together.

Whatever the future holds for the Raptors, this group of players, this team, will likely not be together in the same way again. And eventually, whether we want to admit it or not, their leader in Lowry will move on too. (Hopefully he’ll retire a Raptor, but who knows.) Eventually Ujiri will leave too, in some way or another, closing the book on a generation of basketball in Toronto. We don’t yet know what the Raptors will look like next year, and we certainly can’t say what form they’ll take next. (We don’t even know what the NBA will look like for next season.) Maybe Siakam will evolve again to become the team’s centrepiece, maybe some other star will arrive, maybe it will all fall apart in time. If there’s comfort to be found in that unknown for Toronto, it can be located in what we know for sure.

This is a team now, and it always will be. Even after these particular Raptors are gone.


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