The past couple of seasons of Toronto Raptors basketball have been a tale of two King Leonidases (Leonidi?) from the movie 300. Last season was when his bravado at the hot gates peaked, when he and his men held their ground, demanded that their adversaries come to take their weapons, and laughed at the arrows that rained down upon them.
This season, however, the adversity and the odds finally got the better of Toronto. Their game against the Wizards last night was like the final arrow that felled the Spartan king. Of course, the Spartans then got a top draft pick a reloaded for the next year, so we can only hope we continue to follow that pattern with the Raptors.
Here’s what we learned from the last stand.
1) We needed this
When Pascal Siakam’s last-second desperation shot against the Washington Wizards ricocheted off the backboard and fell to the hardwood, I was surprised to feel a sense of relief. Sure, there was a bit of disappointment with the fact that the seemingly sudden possibility of the play-in game had faded once again, but I think it’s time that this season was put to bed.
Even with a win in last night’s game, the Raptors still needed to take care of business down the stretch and have a few things break the right way to sneak into that 10-spot. Though I have been an ardent Raptors optimist throughout the process — I genuinely believe they’re a top-four team in the East if they’re healthy, in Toronto, and have Khem Birch — the organization clearly wasn’t willing to sell out and risk player health for the shot to play a game to have a shot at playing a game to give them a shot at the Philadelphia 76ers (the play-in sounds less exciting when it’s spelled out, eh?)
Every game I watch of the Raptors, I want them to win. Whether or not losing is the best option for the future, my short-term, passion-driven brain makes the calls. If I see a red Raptors jersey (or purple, or black and gold, or sometimes blue… do teams even have colours anymore?), I want the players wearing it to come out victorious. At least now, without the dangling rotten carrot of the play-in game, I can halt the frustration of all the player rest, tank-or-no-tank mode, and just let this season slip away.
2) The west coast trip was a reminder
Last season, the Raptors embarked on a similar west coast trip to the one that they wrapped up this week. To me, that trip was the signal that the 2019-20 season was going to be special after an intriguing start. They beat the Los Angeles Lakers with a thin roster and gave the Los Angeles Clippers all that they could handle the next night in a loss. They bookended those games with wins over the New Orleans Pelicans (where Siakam posted the career-high that he tied last night) and the Portland Trail Blazers.
The end results were not nearly as positive, but the Raptors did go west and prove that they could hang with the best, full roster or not. It did feel just the tiniest bit like last season, particularly when Siakam and Kyle Lowry lit the floor on fire against the Lakers in a win over a presumptive title favourite. Siakam was ridiculously good (and has been for a few games) and Lowry had an excellent spite game.
The west coast trip supplied a few things: the last gasp of a team that has been close to suffocation for some time, a presumably final great moment of the season in the Lakers win, and a reminder that we aren’t crazy. The Raptors team that we thought they were still exists. At a certain point, there was just too much stopping them from getting there.
But hoo boy do I have high expectations for the revenge-tour, well-rested, Toronto-energized, fresh-out-of-the-lab Raptors.
3) The fake comeback defined the season
It felt like it happened 100 times — the Raptors were getting blown out until their luck briefly turned and they got the game to a point where it conceivably could be flipped into a win. Frankly, if it were last season, it almost felt like a given that it would turn into a win. But these comebacks would fizzle out as quickly as they started.
It was funny, then, that the season itself took on the shape of the fake comeback, with the Raptors playing themselves out of a coveted spot until a few breaks put them right in striking distance. As I have with every fake comeback in the games, I bought all the way in on the season. I could hear Matt Devlin say, “Now, if they could just get it down to two games back of the Wizards, they’re right there…” Leo Rautins or Jack Armstrong would then echo “Yep, just one game at a time.”
Obviously, it came crumbling down, but it was funny to see those same signs and feel those same feelings that we have experienced so many times mid-game, just on a larger scale.
Frankly, I think, that when we look back on this season, that is the thing we’ll remember most in a basketball sense. Obviously, there’s the Tampa thing, and the COVID thing, but as far as the actual sport goes, that was the defining identity of the Raptors. Capable of briefly making you believe, but just not quite having it.