With the Raptors’ playoff hopes in the rearview mirror, it’s officially Tank Season; unfortunately, this declaration comes a bit too late. Instead of making a decisive, concerted effort early in the season to flail spectacularly throughout the year and secure the best possible draft lottery odds, the team finds itself in an uncertain position. With just four games left in the schedule, odds are, the season ends unceremoniously and Raptors management lands itself a middling lottery pick.
Truth be told though, the Raptors’ roster this season was likely too good to have had any chance of tanking properly, save for the options of trading away, or consistently resting, our best players throughout the year. There are a handful of teams in the league that lack so much talent, it would’ve proven difficult to out-tank them.
And so, the Raptors find themselves in the exact purgatory that many hoped to avoid post-Kawhi Leonard’s departure. Uncertainty is in the air heading into the offseason, specifically surrounding the futures of Masai Ujiri and Kyle Lowry and whether they will be returning. With concerns like these, the result of tonight’s game pales in comparison.
After two days of rest, the Raptors will be taking on the Los Angeles Clippers, who just lost to the New York Knicks on Sunday night. Unlike our favourite team currently stationed in Tampa, the Clippers are gearing up for the playoffs and hoping to retain their slight lead in the standings over the Denver Nuggets. I anticipate the Clippers will try to win this game playing their typical lineup, while the Raptors will prioritize resting key players with an emphasis on developing their younger guys.
Here are tonight’s game details:
Where to Watch
Sportsnet, 7:30 PM EST
Toronto – Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., Stanley Johnson, Yuta Watanabe, Khem Birch
Los Angeles – Reggie Jackson, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac
Toronto – Kyle Lowry (rest – out), Fred VanVleet (hip – out), OG Anunoby (calf – out), Pascal Siakam (shoulder – out), Paul Watson Jr. (knee – out), Rodney Hood (hand – out), Chris Boucher (knee – questionable)
Los Angeles – Amir Coffey (health and safety protocols – out), Serge Ibaka (back – out)
Players to Monitor
Jalen Harris has been rounding out his game, showing his propensity for scoring at multiple levels while making the occasional smart pass and hustling for rebounds. I expect Harris to see a comparatively high usage rate throughout the rest of the season as the coaching staff starts to think about next year’s potential rotation. At the other guard spot, I suspect Nick Nurse will be primarily slotting in Malachi Flynn, further gauging his ability to run a competent offense. Of course, perfection is not to be expected, but look out for encouraging signs, such as how he navigates the pick-and-roll and moves off-ball to maintain offensive fluidity.
As well, Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie will be attempting to convince management that they’re a real solution at the centre spot for the foreseeable future. As long as these players keep up their hustle and continue to display their athleticism and proper positioning, they could remain important pieces on the roster moving forward. Alternatively, Gary Trent Jr. can hopefully string together a hot streak after going cold as of late, and continue to expand his game. We know Trent is a relentless gunner with a ceiling of incredible shooting prowess, though he needs to continue working on getting into the paint and passing when appropriate.
The global pandemic has put a damper on happiness, affecting practically the entire general population. Many people have suffered from heightened levels of mental unrest since March 2020, and that prevailing affliction is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. In previous years, I’ve had the privilege of prioritizing the Raptors’ postseason over most everything in my life. This year, however, many basketball fans have likely put their intense allegiances on the back burner, in favour of worrying about more concrete issues, like the wellbeing and survival of loved ones.
As more and more fans lack the mental bandwidth to take on the stress of cheering for a potential contender while COVID-19 continues to ravage Ontario, I would like to posit that the Raptors’ season has worked out well, all things considered. Since the team is in Tampa, Raptor fans wouldn’t have been able to attend playoff games anyway. I suggest taking this time to take a step back and enjoy the NBA playoffs, devoid of any real stress. It’s been several years since Raptor fans have been able to view the postseason from an outside perspective, so that will prove to be a refreshing and entertaining distraction from reality.
What If? What’s Next?
With tonight’s game falling just one day short of Kawhi Leonard’s “The Shot” anniversary, I’m finding it difficult to avoid thinking about what could have been, had Kawhi stayed on the Raptors. In my opinion, it’s perfectly natural to be sentimental during tonight’s game, especially considering this matchup may be the last between Kawhi’s Clippers and Lowry’s Raptors. Between the incredibly joyous highs of the Raptors’ championship season, and the intense fan animosity towards the Clippers last year, the current iteration of these two teams are intertwined in a way that will always spur an emotional response for Torontonian basketball fans.
Uncertainty clouds the Raptors’ upcoming offseason, with the contracts of both Masai Ujiri and Kyle Lowry coming to an end. It remains to be seen whether management will part ways with either or both franchise icons, but tonight, I’m living in the moment. I suggest you do the same.