Another week of Toronto Raptors basketball brought about another week of pain and frustration. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned thus far is that it is way harder to write about this team when they’re the most depressing professional sports team in North America than when they’re the adorable, overachieving, scarf-sportin’, band of gritty underdogs.
But the Raptors are now apparently whole again, with at least some potential to rediscover that magic, however fleeting that might be. To quote Thin Lizzy: the boys are back in town.
That kicks off our first lesson.
1) Even losing is better when the team is back
I can say that the past five games in which the Raptors were missing Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby made for my least favourite stretch of basketball in my time as a Raptors fan. As soon as Tony Snell forcibly removed any happiness that we might have over that little run, it began to get ugly.
It was not that it was excruciatingly painful watching all the losing (although it was), it was that it lacked any moments, any snippets of excitement that we could latch on to that kept us hanging on for the next game. The Norm Powell stuff was cool, but even that felt inconsequential as it became clearer that our boys were simply overmatched. Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons offered a reprieve.
Don’t get me wrong. That game sucked. The Raptors got manhandled on the inside, giving up rebounds like a sixth-grader playing in the driveway with his dad. Jack Armstrong uttered the words “lid on the basket” which stung like a squirt of Purell seeping into a cut, as the Raptors missed shot after shot in the third quarter. All of this against the hapless Detroit Pistons.
But I was engaged. I wanted to watch the Raptors, simply because this game actually felt meaningful with Siakam and VanVleet back in the lineup. The five games prior felt as if they didn’t get us anywhere closer to understanding this whacked-out season for the team or having a feel for what the team should do going forward. That said, the losses still count, most of them coming against teams Toronto should certainly have beaten.
Nonetheless, I still am looking forward to the Utah game, with the slight tinge of hope, that, perhaps our small lineup can stymie the Jazz, as the Houston Rockets have done in the playoffs in years prior.
2) The margin for error is microscopic
I think anyone who writes about the Raptors in some capacity has stressed this. I’ve personally said it a few times. But it has never been more glaring than it is right now, evident on a couple levels. The Raptors will have to be close to perfect the rest of the season, and they can seldom afford to lose any of their key players to injury.
Matchup-wise, the COVID-19 outbreak could not have come at a worse time. The Raptors had a schedule as soft as Chairman Ultra during the stretch, but given the circumstances, they were still overwhelmed by their opponents. If they could have taken a few of those losses against the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers, for example, they would not have been so damaging. Games against teams of that caliber could easily be losses with the team at full strength, so it would be easier to stomach a loss when they were severely hampered.
Instead, they came against teams like the Detroit Pistons (twice), Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, and the Chicago Bulls. Even as the Raptors sputtered to a 2-8 start, there is no world that this team goes 0-5 against this group otherwise. Those were games on the schedule that the team needed to be wins.
Additionally, it has become clear how necessary that health is for this team, particularly amongst the key players. They have really only been successful playing one style — starting small with their five best guys. When they are forced out of that setup, everything gets thrown out of whack. Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes get asked to do too much, the depth suffers, and they don’t have a go-to closing group.
So, basically, for any real shot at avoiding the play-in games, the Raptors are going to have to beat all the bad teams and steal some games against the best of the West, who are heavily featured in the schedule going forward. From what we now know of the team, they’ll need their top guys to stay healthy. Or they’ll just trade Norm and Kyle and put up a hell of a fight in the play-in and first round as we look forward to next year.
3) The Raptors have not rolled over yet
I’ll start this with a disclaimer. I have a tendency to buy way too much into clichéd statements about sports. If a player comes out before the season and claims he is in the best shape of his life and has worked on his game over the summer, I’ll walk away convinced that a breakout year is coming. On one hand, anyone can say whatever they want to the media, truth or lies, so we shouldn’t take these quotes seriously. On the other, I tend not to find coaches and athletes to be quite so Machiavellian, so I think there is often weight behind what they are saying.
For example, when Fred VanVleet said he likes the team’s chances against any team over a seven-game series in the Bubble last year, I know he felt like the Raptors could beat anyone. Of course, I felt like that too. Now, coach Nick Nurse has come out and said that he thinks the team deserves a chance to compete and see what they can do.
Nurse doesn’t have to say this. He could say that the front office will have to “evaluate everything” leading up to the deadline, or that they “have to do what’s best for the team going forward.” No one would really blame him considering the circumstance. But Nurse thinks this team has a shot to go on a little run, and that is likely echoed by the competitive SOBs in the locker room.
The coach is always brutally honest, perhaps to a fault at times. Players like VanVleet tend not to sugar coat anything either, so if they feel like their season is not over quite yet, I’m inclined to believe them. To quote Thin Lizzy a second time: if the boys wanna fight, you better let ‘em.
Now, this is the last 3 Lessons before the trade deadline, so all of this may be rendered moot by next Friday. For now, however, I’m more than happy to give the team a chance.
It starts with, gulp, the Jazz, the best (regular season) team in basketball right now.