It’s been a tumultuous couple of months for the Raptors. Throughout all of March, the team managed to win just a single game. Since the start of April, however, fans have seen a different side to this Raptors squad. With each game’s active roster reduced to whoever happens not to be resting that night, Toronto’s newer additions have stepped up nicely and put their various skill sets on display.
Khem Birch has shown off his offensive versatility, displaying creativity in the pick-and-roll, throwing a few dazzling passes, and even knocking down some shots from long range. I’m pleased with what I’ve seen so far, but at this point, I suppose any centre who can even just catch the ball when it’s passed to him will suffice. Gary Trent Jr. has had multiple moments of note, including a career-high in points and a game-winning buzzer-beater. His confidence is infectious, and his scoring arsenal is varied. On top of his obvious bucket-getting prowess, Gary’s quite the nifty passer. His well-rounded game is going to be valuable for the Raptors moving forward. Yuta Watanabe has put together a fantastic season, especially of late, earning himself a standard NBA contract in the process, while Freddie Gillespie played his way into a second 10-day contract. Malachi Flynn, Chris Boucher and Paul Watson Jr. have all shined as well. I could go on.
This Raptors team is talented — that much has become obvious, after winning six of their last 10 games, including their most recent three games in a row. Whether that talent can properly bolster a team ravaged by COVID-19, various other injuries, and Tampa-related malaise, is yet to be seen. The Raptors are teetering on the edge of qualifying for the NBA’s play-in tournament. With just 14 games left in the regular season, the Raptors are not going to suddenly decide on a philosophy — e.g. to tank or to try. At this point, we can assume the team is operating under the mindset of “whatever happens, happens”. No matter how the rest of the season unfolds, at the very least, Toronto fans will get to learn more about the team’s most unproven guys.
Tonight, the hobbled Brooklyn Nets travel to Tampa to face off against a confident, seemingly reinvigorated Raptors team. Here are the game details:
Where to Watch
TSN, 7:00 PM ET
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch
Brooklyn — Kyrie Irving, Landry Shamet, Joe Harris, Jeff Green, DeAndre Jordan
Toronto — Paul Watson Jr. (knee - out) Jalen Harris (hip - out), Rodney Hood (knee - out)
Brooklyn — Reggie Perry (health and safety protocols - out), Tyler Johnson (knee - out), James Harden (hamstring - out), Kevin Durant (thigh - out), Spencer Dinwiddie (knee - out), Nicolas Claxton (health and safety protocols - out), Chris Chiozza (hand - out)
The Nets are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference, all but guaranteed home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. At this point in the season, health is Brooklyn’s priority. With the playoffs looming and various injuries piling up — Kevin Durant, James Harden, and other notable players are unlikely to suit up tonight — I suspect the Nets organization views this game’s outcome as inconsequential. Brooklyn will be facing off against the Raptors in the last of a three-game road trip, the second night of a back-to-back.
As previously mentioned, the Raptors have started to rely more heavily on their younger and less proven players, taking note of their strengths and weaknesses on the floor (while perhaps giving their workhorse veterans a chance to rest). If the Raptors are going to compete with the Nets for Eastern Conference supremacy in the coming years, this game could be a very early indicator as to how each team’s depth stacks up.
As Raptors fans, we’ve been recently privileged with several years of bliss; playoff contention was practically guaranteed, and the roster was filled with likeable, talented stars who (mostly) loved playing for Toronto. However, now that contention may not be a viable option, Raptors fans have been left in a state of uncertainty. Of course, it’s not up to the fans to decide how the season unfolds. Conversations about whether the team should be tanking are moot — the players aren’t going to stop trying to win, so the results should just be accepted as they come in, one way or the other.
There are many reasons why qualifying for the play-in tournament would be exciting. First, we would get to see how the Raptors’ fresh faces handle pressure, all the while learning lessons which would prove useful in a future playoff series. Second, playoff basketball is a different beast than the regular season, and we’ve seen how well this team can play when everything is clicking. However, making the tourney also has its drawbacks: obtaining a worse draft pick this year could prove detrimental to the team’s future chances of success, and the added injury potential awaiting in the playoffs may not be worth the likely first-round drubbing ahead.
Amidst a global pandemic, romanticizing the past has become commonplace, so I thought it would be appropriate to reminisce about the recent history between the Raptors and the Nets. Remember 2014? Just over seven years ago today, Masai Ujiri yelled obscenities towards Brooklyn in front of a Raptors crowd starving for the playoffs after a drought. At the time, these two teams were conference rivals, and that playoff series felt like the most important event in the world to me, an 18-year-old Raptors obsessive with nothing else major going on in his life.
Fast forward to 2021, and this game between the Raptors and Nets is practically meaningless. Sure, the Nets may have the best roster in the league and are amongst the favourites to win the title, while Toronto is on the brink of a rebuild with an uncertain future. But you know what? At least the Raptors won a championship, and the same can’t be said about Brooklyn. So, while Lowry may have been viciously blocked to lose that 2014 series, I think it’s safe to say the Raptors got the last laugh.