Well, it’s over.
With the Indiana Pacers’ win over the Cleveland Cavaliers last night, the Tampa Raptors season is over. Sure, there are still four games left in the schedule, including tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, but there’s no value to those games other than getting Malachi Flynn, Jalen Harris, Freddie Gillespie, and the team’s less inexperienced crew, more reps to build on for next season.
For some, it’s been a confusing stretch of games since the trade deadline, but the Toronto Raptors have made it clear that making the play-in tournament was not their top priority. If key players sitting for important games was not a clue enough, consider this: When was the last time we saw Nick Nurse run a tight rotation, and when was the last time we saw him working the refs hard enough to earn a technical foul?
We’re not saying that Nurse gave up coaching to win because the Raptors still performed fairly well despite being shorthanded every game. And yet, if this was earlier in the season, Nurse was handling every game like it was a must-win playoff contest.
Priorities change — now let’s review how.
Last Week and Next Week
The Raptors played three games over the past week and earned three losses, which is great for the tank propaganda. They entered the week with the fanbase on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the team’s direction: Are the Raptors tanking or going for the play-ins?
Their Tuesday game against the Los Angeles Clippers confirmed the direction many had already suspected — Kyle Lowry was a “late scratch” due to “back soreness,” joining OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr, and Chris Boucher on the injury list. The Clippers barely managed to survive against the shorthanded Raptors, who ran out of gas late in the game.
Thursday was the last straw for the Tank-deniers — a loss against the Wizards would put the Raptors way too far from the play-in range. Raptors-Wizards was competitive, and it came down to the last possession in overtime. But Pascal Siakam’s desperation three was way off and that was that.
Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers were in a slump, with a scandal surrounding Nick Nurse’s former chief-of-staff and now head coach Nate Bjorkgren. They managed to avoid going winless by beating the Atlanta Hawks, but the two losses against the Wizards were enough to flip their play-in standings momentarily.
Not that it mattered, really. The Raptors lost to the Memphis Grizzlies last Saturday and, coupled with the win by Indiana, mathematically eliminated Toronto from the play-in games. Consider this something of a post-mortem.
Suspicious Tank Moves of the Week
Crunch Time Stanley Johnson Pick-and-Pop
With the season on the line, coach Nurse called for a timeout. The Raptors were up 108-107 with 1:44 left. Gary Trent Jr, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam all have made multiple baskets in the quarter so far, but they’re starting to look gassed. The Wizards are also on a 6-0 run. It’s crunch time, and they have to dig deep and come up with a nice set play.
Nurse came up with an extreme out-of-the-box play in which they ran a Siakam/Stanley Johnson pick-and-pop. Siakam drew both defenders on his drive and kicked out to a wide-open Johnson for a top-of-the-key three-pointer, which he missed despite not having anyone within 10 feet. Johnson was the only Raptor on the floor that hasn’t scored in the quarter, let alone the entire game. We likely have to remove Fred VanVleet from the play, as he appeared shaken up from the pick that Robin Lopez set just on the previous play. And I get that Nurse wanted Siakam to attack Davis Bertans every chance he got. But did Johnson have to be the shooter in that scenario?
Pascal Siakam For the Win
Despite Siakam playing one of the best games of his career, his performance against the Wizards still drew the ire of a specific section of the Raptors fanbase. The haters may have forgotten the late turnover and the missed free throws late in the regulation, as he feasted on the Wizards late in the fourth quarter and in overtime. However, it was his desperation heave that made his haters flip the table.
The Wizards were up 131-129 with 3.9 seconds left. It looked like Nurse wanted the Raptors to run the same play that got Fred VanVleet the game-tying three-pointer to send the game into overtime. That play is designed for Siakam to bring the ball down on a sprint and hit the shooter who would set up on the opposite side of the above-the-break three-point area as he draws both defenders to himself.
VanVleet to save the season, NAILS. Headed to OT in Tampa. pic.twitter.com/MCLA81ZOhj— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) May 7, 2021
The question here is, did Nurse flip VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr.’s roles on this play, or did VanVleet make that call? VanVleet clearly said something to Siakam and Trent Jr. after Matthew Garrison’s free-throw, and Siakam looked momentarily confused. Of course, the Wizards won’t fall for the same play, and their trap busted whatever the Raptors were trying to execute, leading to the ending we all saw.
With four games left, the Raptors are pretty much guaranteed the seventh seed unless Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris turn into Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum down the stretch. The seventh-worst record has a 31.9 percent chance of landing a top-four pick, and 7.5 percent for number one overall.
We looked at 10+ mock drafts to get a feel of the consensus top 15 prospects at this point. It’s not surprising at the top — Cade Cunningham leads the pack, and the first tier remains consistent, with Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green, and Jonathan Kuminga rounding out the top five. With almost 32 percent, imagine if the Raptors can add any of these players to the team!
Consensus Mock Draft
With the Raptors projected with the 7th best lottery odds, there are plenty of options. Keon Johnson, Scottie Barnes, Davion Mitchell, Moses Moody, and Franz Wagner are all decent options. However, there is not much of a talent gap between this group and the next, which includes Jalen Johnson, Kai Jones, James Bouknight, and Josh Giddey.
Speaking of Giddey, the Raptors are taking a closer look at him, with the NBL season winding down. He’s shot up the mock drafts, going from the early 2nd/late 1st round range to the late lottery range. He’s a dynamic point guard who brings size to the position. It’s a move away from the Raptors’ affinity for undersized guards — and we have to wonder if the Raptors need another point guard. Still, Giddey is arguably the third or fourth-best point guard in this draft, behind Jalen Suggs and Cade Cunningham.
Two scouts from the Toronto @Raptors will come out of a fortnight's quarantine to watch @Adelaide36ers @NBA draft-bound rookie @joshgiddey in Sydney and Wollongong on Sunday and Tuesday. @BasketballAus. #NBL21 #NBA https://t.co/VxKoIHHIEP— Matt Logue (@mattlogue7) May 8, 2021
It’s unlikely we’ll see any of the core Raptors back this season, even if they are not as banged up as advertised. With nothing to play for, it’s time to move on from this cursed season and set our sights on the next. In that spirit, let’s all have fun watching the future big three in Malachi Flynn, Jalen Harris, and Freddie Gillespie.
And yes, this is the final Tank Watch of the season. While it’s been fun, let’s hope we don’t have to do it again any time soon.