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3 Lessons: On the skeleton crew, Jack Armstrong’s heat check, and the schedule

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There was not a lot of real Raptors basketball to learn from this week considering the circumstances, but there were lessons nonetheless.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

It was a stupid week in the midst of a stupid season as the Toronto Raptors were hit hard by the COVID-19 virus. Thankfully, the team pulled out a win on Friday against Houston before the pandemic breeze that hit the Raptors turned into a tornado.

After that, the Raptors were forced to play without three of their four best players on the roster. The result was exactly what one might expect. Thank goodness for the All-Star break.

1) The Skeleton Crew doesn’t hit the same this season

Perhaps the defining trait of last season’s Toronto Raptors team was their resiliency. They were consistently plagued by injury, seemingly with two key players getting hurt every time one got healthy. But what those injuries provided was just the right amount of adversity for that gritty squad to overcome it.

This season, the team has just been beaten down beyond the point of healthy challenge. Although this was the first time the Raptors have had to sit players and coaches due to COVID-19 protocol, no team in the NBA has felt the effects of the pandemic more than Toronto. They are uprooted, in a home that isn’t theirs. The Amalie Arena, their current waystation, feels more like a home arena when there are no fans than it does when they chant for Boston’s Tacko Fall.

And yet, they have endured. After a 2-8 start, the team has scrapped and clawed their way back into the thick of the Eastern Conference. When the skeleton crew Raptors were forced to reanimate because of the league’s health and safety protocols, however, the magic of last year just was not there. While a win or two over the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons would have been invigorating to the fanbase, there was just too much piled upon the team, missing three of their four best players and the head coach whose guile has gotten the team out of many a jam.

Even though the team was close in the Celtics game, they simply did not have the juice to get over the hump. I’ll always remember the when the shorthanded Raptors took down the fully-loaded Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center last season. I will actively try and forget when the shorthanded Raptors got their lunch eaten by the Detroit Pistons.

2) Jack Armstrong senses the moment

Last night against the Boston Celtics, Norman Powell displayed a clear awareness for what his team needed that night. He came up with the notch turned up to 11 and attacked. Although the Raptors came up short, his effort was inspiring, and no one knocked his shot selection as it was out of necessity. Jack Armstrong, Toronto’s colour commentator, showed a similar in-game awareness.

Like Powell, Armstrong did not hit every shot, but no one can say that he wasn’t gunning. He got warmed up by claiming that he wanted to throw his green tea, Jack’s elixir of life, through his screen at Payton Pritchard, a fledgling Raptors killer. He then broke out his best Sherlock Holmesian (which, as you know if your familiar with Jack’s acumen for accents, not that great) to say “Elementary, my dear Watson,” when Paul Watson Jr. drained a three.

From that point, it was official. Jack Armstrong was heat-checking. When Chris Boucher flicked in a finger roll, Armstrong voice raised to a pitch that only dogs can hear and called it the “little jelly-roll.” For the moments after the play, Jack went on to blurt out “iiiiiicccceeeee” intermittently for the next few minutes in reference to the Iceman, George Gervin, who made the finger roll famous.

He did it all — noted that Matt Damon was pretty good in Good Will Hunting, compared Lowry’s deep pass to Terence Davis to Donovan McNabb airing it out to his receiver… Howard Carmichael?? He then audibled to adjust the receiver to Terrell Owens, who actually was a teammate of McNabb, although that relationship did not end wonderfully.

Intoxicated by a year of COVID brain, Celtic green, and a feel of St. Patrick’s day, I think Matt and Jack were moments away from abandoning the game altogether and singing the Dropkick Murphy’s for the second half of the broadcast.

This Jack performance was exactly what Torontonians needed, frankly. I was not in the mood for pinpoint basketball analysis given the state of the roster, and instead, welcomed Armstrong’s ability to put a smile on my face.

3) The schedule gives Toronto a chance

Although it has been noted that the Raptors still have to play the Titans of the Western Conference in the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, the games that fill in the cracks between those matchups are not nearly as frightening. Particularly, of the eight games before the trade deadline, the Raptors are favoured to win six of them — they play the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Utah Jazz, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, and Denver Nuggets. There are no gimmes this season, but the Raptors we saw before the pandemic reared its ugly head again would comfortably win those games.

Health of the players who could potentially have contracted COVID-19 will be pivotal of course, but if the Raptors are able to take care of business in this stretch, then they will sit at 23-21, likely allowing them to hover just above the play-in game threshold.

If the team can get to that point, and the inevitable trade offers for Kyle Lowry are on the tepid side, it could very well give Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster the push they need to roll the dice and test their luck with this team in the playoffs.

Conversely, if the team sputters in this stretch, it could be time for the team to officially declare it the season from hell, do right by Lowry by giving him a real shot in the playoffs, reload, and lick their wounds as they gear up for a season back in Toronto. The time before the trade deadline could very much be a swing point in the future of the team, but the schedule at least gives the team a chance to stay in it.

At the end of the day, the biggest concern is that all the members of the organization who had a brush with COVID-19 are healthy and safe. After that, we can worry about basketball.