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Tank Watch: The Raptors made moves to lose, and yet they won

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The Raptors had a fun-filled week seeing their end-of-the-bench roster make strides and get some wins as well. Nevertheless we have to ask: is Toronto trying to win or lose?

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

A winning week for the Raptors? No way!

After going 3-1 over the past seven days, Toronto put together the first winning run they’ve had since they were in the thick of playoff race back in February. After some extremely bad luck and interesting personnel moves since the trade deadline, the Raptors now find themselves in a three-way race for the last play-in spot.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls are reeling, and Zach LaVine’s health situation may make it hard for them to get their spot back. As you’ll recall, the Bulls went all-in on making the playoffs and have no interest in tanking since their pick is going to the Orlando Magic. Also, there’s a third team to consider here: the Washington Wizards. They’re a weird beast, as they have top-level talent in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, but have also been drifting along. The Wizards organization is thirsty for any post-season play, though, even a fake playoff run to appease Beal. We’ll see this coming week which team comes out ahead.

Teams that are in the mix for either the East’s last play-in spot and the 7-10 lottery spot’s strength of schedule for the remainder of the season.

As for the Raptors, well, their actions say one thing, but the results say another. It’s worth noting first that they just played through a soft stretch of schedule. How soft was it? Toronto’s win against the Spurs ended up being huge, as it was their first victory against a team over .500 since defeating the Denver Nuggets on March 24. Throughout the past week, however, the Raptors have been resting key players — and if that’s not to tank, then what are they doing?

The answer may be as plain as what coach Nick Nurse said last week — the Raptors are developing their players. For Malachi Flynn to get his reps, at least one of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has to take the day off. We will never know what Paul Watson Jr, Yuta Watanabe, and Freddie Gillespie can do without an extended look — and that would mean freeing up frontcourt minutes pegged for Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Win or lose, that’s at least a solid idea for the future.

The Last Week and the Next Week

The Raptors seemed to have well-executed tank plan to start the week, as they made a fake rally against the Atlanta Hawks, who were without Trae Young, Danilo Gallinari, John Collins, and Raptor-killer Tony Snell, and lost. On the next night, presumably the Raptors thought that Siakam’s struggles on a back-to-back would be enough to against the Spurs. Didn’t happen — instead their jumbo lineup gave Siakam enough juice to carry the team to a rare SEGABABA win.

The Raptors tried to tank against the Orlando Magic last Friday by sitting Lowry, Siakam, Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr, but no one is going to beat the current Magic in a race to the bottom. Of course, I can’t complain watching Paul Watson Jr. and Yuta Watanabe reach some career-high milestones in the process. Even with that bizarre injury-reporting fine levied on them, the Raptors doubled down against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Both teams were trying hard, but still: it was a magnificent tank war, as neither team could pull away until Toronto put together a stronger second half.

Looking ahead after playing nine games in fourteen days, the Raptors have a relatively light week, with only three games on the schedule. However, all three contests will be tough — it’s the Nets tomorrow night, then a Saturday matinee against the suddenly-powerhouse Knicks, and then a showdown with the spunky Cavaliers. If Toronto truly wants to keep their play-in hopes alive, they probably need to go 2-1 over this next stretch before heading out west in May.

That said, what’s happening elsewhere will be just as important — you better believe we’ll all be watching the Wizards and Bulls too. This week the Wizards play three winnable games and have a potential toss-up against the Warriors. The Bulls, meanwhile, have it tough, with games against the Celtics and the Heat sandwiching their games against the Cavs and the Hornets. If the Wizards want to secure the last play-in spot, this could be a good week for them.

For right now, the Raptors are a half-game back of both the Bulls and Wizards, which means they’ll have their work cut out for them either way.

Suspicious Tank Moves of the Week

DNP - Fine

Kyle Lowry hasn’t played all week, and the Raptors held out Siakam, Anunoby, Trent Jr, and DeAndre’ Bembry against the Magic. Trent Jr. and Bembry missed at least two games last week. The tank move worked against the shorthanded Atlanta Hawks, but even the remaining active Raptors were too good against the Spurs and the Magic. These DNPs caught the attention of Darth Adam Silver, and the Raptors got fined $25,000.

While the fine was for some weird snafu with the timing of the injury reporting — e.g. apparently the Raptors didn’t get it in in time? — Adam Silver and the NBA need to get off their hypocritical high-horse and police the rest of the league fair and square. We did not hear the league fine Oklahoma City Thunder for sitting Al Horford and Mike Muscala, or for the games missed by George Hill for a hang nail injury.

What Are You Doing, Chris?

Despite DeMar DeRozan’s late-game scoring spurt, it felt like the Raptors were en route to a comfortable win against the Spurs last Wednesday until Chris Boucher started making some baffling decisions.

With less than 90 seconds to go, Boucher lost the ball on his cut to the basket. Moments later, he got the ball in transition and tried to do too much instead of giving the ball to Flynn or Siakam on the run. Boucher abruptly lost the ball again, with San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray forcing a jump ball — that Boucher, at 6’10” with condor arms, somehow lost. A few plays later, Boucher fouled Derrick White while he was shooting a three-pointer — a huge no-no for teams with a narrow lead. The Raptors won the game, but man, Boucher really tried his best to have them lose it.

Suicide Squad

The Raptors’ starters were down early against the Magic, and their offense stunk. To improve — hah — the situation, Nurse fielded a lineup of Stanley Johnson-Yuta Watanabe-Rodney Hood-DeAndre’ Bembry-Freddie Gillespie, which is no one’s idea of a skilled offensive lineup. In this configuration, Toronto plays Johnson and Bembry as the lead ball-handlers, so there’s a good chance that things could go wrong — and that’s just the beginning of the problems.

In any case, Watanabe bailed this lineup out against the Magic, but we can’t say the same against the Thunder. It was a disaster as expected, with Bembry and Johnson taking turns to try and give the game away (they were not — and, somehow, did not!).

Draft Tidbits

The Play-in Tournament and the Lottery

Suppose the season ended today and the Raptors made the play-in tournament as the 10th seed in the East. Do the Raptors miss out on #FadeForCade? Most likely. However, the Raptors are still be ranked around 10th from the bottom.

Given the play-in tournament format, the Raptors would have to play the Indiana Pacers (the current ninth seed in the East) in a winner-takes-all contest. Losing against the Pacers would mean the Raptors get to keep their 10th lottery spot. It may not be much, but that 10th spot could still get the Raptors a three percent chance to move way up in the lottery — and 13.9 percent to shift up to one of the top four spots during the lottery draw. That’s not bad. The team would still have either a high-end of the top-four pick or a selection in the 10-12 range.

Now, should the Raptors defeat the Pacers, they move on to another elimination game. They would have to face the loser of the 7-8 bracket — for now, the Miami Heat or the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets are reeling (though LaMelo Ball could be back soon), so it’s likely they could lose this matchup. Should the Raptors win that game and clinch the final playoff spot in the East, they’d shift back to around the 15th pick in the draft. That’s still not bad, but that spot is fixed. Hopefully, at least one of Kai Jones, Usman Garuba, Ziaire Williams, etc. would still be available by that time.

The fun part is if the Raptors lose against the Hornets. The Hornets would keep their last playoff slot, while Toronto would go back to the 10th lottery spot, despite the Pacers exiting much earlier. Got that all straight? Yes, there are a lot of permutations here.

Mid-1st Round Prospects

Rank Tankathon ESPN Bleacher report ND.Net Athletic BasketballNews SB Nation NBA Draftroom CBS USA Today
Rank Tankathon ESPN Bleacher report ND.Net Athletic BasketballNews SB Nation NBA Draftroom CBS USA Today
13 James Bouknight Cameron Thomas Isaiah Jackson Josh Giddey Jaden Springer Kai Jones Franz Wagner Davion Mitchell Tre Mann Davion Mitchell
14 Davion Mitchell Josh Giddey Corey Kispert Johnny Juzang Ziaire Williams Moses Moody James Bouknight Jared Butler Cam Thomas Josh Giddey
15 Isaiah jackson Aleperen Sengun Usman Garuba Franz Wagner Josh Giddey Jared Butler Sharife Cooper James Bouknight Franz Wagner James Bouknight
16 Usman Garuba Kai Jones Tre Mann Usman Garuba Chris Duarte Tre Mann Davion Mitchell Cam Thomas Chris Duarte Sharife Cooper
17 Ziaire Williams James Bouknight Jaden Springer James bouknight Tre Mann Ziaire Williams Josh Giddey Ziaire Williams Ayo Dosunmu Usman Garuba
The Raptors would get the 15th pick should they make the playoffs, and here’s a snap shot of who could be available at that range.

The late lottery/mid-first round range is still not bad, but Toronto could be counting on some bad GMs to screw up their selections. For my money, I’ll say this: Usman Garuba, Kai Jones, Davion Mitchell, Josh Giddey, and Ziaire Williams might be worth the pick at the 15th spot from the list above.

Will the Raptors be in position to get any of those players? We’ll get a firmer understanding by next week.