Though the stakes for the team were non-existent, and with nothing to look forward to after this Sunday, the Raptors gave the Mavericks absolute hell tonight before finally succumbing to another defeat. While they never lead in this game and fell behind by as many as 19 points, Toronto kept on trying to get themselves back into this one — and once again, it almost worked. At the final buzzer, it still wasn’t enough, the Raptors lost 114-110. But hoo boy, even with just seven players, they sure did try.
Now, a shorthanded team meant some funky lineups for the Raptors. And while that’s been something of the norm this season — with Toronto setting a new franchise record for different starting crews — this game was something beyond even that. Given extremely limited options, coach Nick Nurse opted to start both Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie. And with even fewer options after that, Nurse winged some minutes with Aron Baynes playing with one or the other of Toronto’s newest frontcourt players. That was the kind of night it was.
Suffice it to say, that the Raptors were in this game at all, it was largely due to the play of their backcourt. From the jump, it was clear Malachi Flynn was ready with seven points, three assists, and two rebounds, and a heady open court steal in the first frame. He’d go on to close with 26 points, six rebounds, five assists — and a clutch steal on Luka Doncic to keep the Raptors fighting hard. Flynn was helped by hometown hero and fellow rookie Jalen Harris who showed some more moves — and then some — for five opening points on his way to a new career-high of 31. By the second quarter, with Stanley Johnson dealing with foul trouble and DeAndre Bembry’ the only other initiator, Toronto was going to get by on Flynn and Harris or not at all.
That second quarter saw the Mavericks shoot 53 percent on 15 attempts from three — which was enough to put them into a 16-3 run to take control of the game in the first half. Much like in the first, and as that shooting line suggests, the game featured some half-hearted up-and-down action. At times it all felt a touch surreal, to suddenly see, for example, Flynn or Harris — G League players just two months ago — switched onto All-Star (and one-time MVP candidate) Doncic, the latter’s season still in the balance. The Mavericks’ star did his thing for another triple-double and didn’t seem to be too fussed about it, but Toronto’s rookies carried on anyway. Anyway, here’s one highlight that will tide us over until the end of the season, the summer, and on into October.
While Dallas managed their largest lead in the game in the third quarter, that’s when things got interesting. Despite the ease in which the Mavs were dominating, the Raptors didn’t quit. Instead, their defensive efforts snapped into place and the shots they’d been missing started going in. It helped that Harris was absolutely cooking in the third, going off for 12 more points. Stanley Johnson also hit a three (his first points of the game) and good ol’ Baynes tried his hand at receiving passes from Flynn or Harris — and it worked. He pitched in with six of his 13 points (including a pair of threes) for one of his better outings in months (the entire season?). Sure, Gillespie had a rough quarter (thanks to some bizarre foul calls, including a flagrant), and Birch was quiet, but Toronto went on a 17-8 run to close the frame and kept things rolling in the fourth.
Emboldened by the team’s efforts in the third, Johnson came all the way alive late, putting in ten points in the fourth while doing everything possible to stop Doncic. The Mavericks’ maestro still had eight points and an assist in those final 12 minutes, but the Raptors got Dallas’ lead down to measly two points on more than one occasion. If not for the exhausting pressure Doncic puts on teams, it felt distinctly possible the Raptors’ young guns, shorthanded though they were, would overcome. It especially felt doable after Flynn jumped on a lazy dribble by Luka and drove in for a lay-up with less than a minute to go. The game was mostly a contest of free throws after that — but again, Toronto tried.
The jokes here are obvious: the Raptors spent all season playing from behind. They were undermanned all season and stuck in a home that was not their home. We lost count of how many games they almost won over the past 71. The unlimited belief we had in the team has been, if not dispelled, then at least put in the freezer for a time. That the Raptors could still do something wacky like finish this season with a record ten different players having 30-plus point games is fitting. Toronto wasn’t what it was supposed to be this season. Yet everyone on the squad did their best to set it all right.