Like it or not, the Raptors are in this year’s playoffs with the expressed purpose of getting kicked in the dick.
After soaring up the standings, finishing with 48 wins, and being hot sexy picks to take down the Sixers in round one, it’s easy to forget that this was not a season built around grand ambitions in Toronto. Just cause you get to the station of schedule doesn’t mean it your train is gonna leave any earlier.
Throughout the year there’s been a quiet understanding between the front office, coaches, players and fans that 2021-22 was going to be a fact finding endeavor more than anything else — a year to get a look at a youth movement, some vets moving into new, bigger roles, and a novel play style, just to see what sticks to the wall.
As it happens, enough stuck to turn the Raptors into something of a wunderkind, a group good enough to trade punches with some of the best squads in the league before even fully understanding themselves as a team, kind of like a three-year old with an inate knack for shredding the first time they strap on a pair of skis.
Thing is, that kid is gonna fall and eat shit sooner than later.
Throughout their series with the Sixers, the Raptors have found themselves out over top of their own skis, operating a pace to which they’re not yet acclimatized. The planks finally crossed over one another when Joel Embiid canned his new signature shot at the end of OT in Game 3. All that’s left now is to bring the yard sale to completion. The hope is that the next time they hop off the lift atop the mountain, they’ll be more attuned to what it takes to navigate the terrain.
The perception of these Raptors is warped — not just by this season’s overachievement, but by what the franchise and its best players have accomplished in the not so distant past. Truth is, the Raptors’ state of affairs is eons removed from what it was in 2019, even if title-or-bust brain worms have drilled into a section of the fanbase’s subsconcious.
Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet struggled big time in Game 3. VanVleet hit just two of his ten three point tries, continuing a troubling trend that not-coincidentally aligns with his first signs of knee trouble around the All-Star break. Siakam went scorless in the second half against an in-tune Sixers defense, undercutting a brilliant defensive show of his own over 48 minutes of action, and drumming up all the tired and utterly boring talk about whether or not he can be The Guy™, whatever the fuck that even means.
Because of their proximity to the title team and the contracts they’ve since earned — not to mention the goalpost moving of a fan base that’s grown increasing entitled — it’s easy to fall into the trap of grading them on the same curve as later era Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, as they reached the tail end of their run of getting smacked by the Cavs every spring in increasingly humiliating ways.
Truth is, to properly contexualize the play of Siakam and VanVleet, you need to dial your frame of reference back about five years before the founding of LeBronto. What Toronto’s two best players are going through right now is far more in line with the tone and tenor of the 2013-14 season than any other year since the Raptors became a relevant team.
Both Siakam and VanVleet are about to complete their age-27 seasons — the exact same juncture Lowry found himself at when he helped turn the franchise around for good. That year ended with Lowry in a heap, freshly stuffed by Paul Pierce at the buzzer in Game 7 of the first round — a series in which he shot 40 percent from the floor, albeit while still driving winning more than anyone on his team. Lowry followed that up with a back-pain addled no-show in the 2015 sweep against the Wizards, and a post-season slump so deep in the early days of the 2016 playoffs that it inspired his famed solo post-game shooting session in an empty Air Canada Centre. Those shortcomings, along with the sweeps at the hands of LeBron, were formative moments for Lowry, growing pains that informed his and the front office’s off-seasons, and ultimately made the pay-off of Lowry’s Game 6 outburst to shutdown Oracle Arena in 2019 all the more satisfying. Toronto went to the 2014 playoffs to get punched in the mouth, and were better for it. Who even thinks about the Pierce anymore?
Ultimately, Game 3 against Philly stands a chance of serving the same purpose for Siakam and VanVleet as all those many failures did for Lowry. To jump to shoo Toronto’s two All-Stars out of town is to dismiss the patient, slow-burning model that resulted in the Raptors winning a championship just three years ago; the sort of plan that’s a necessity in a city that doesn’t attract star free agents who can change your life over night.
Much like the flameouts between 2014 and 2018, we’re learning in real time what the strengths and limations of the team’s most front-facing players are — important info to have on hand as Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster head into the summer. Maybe Siakam and VanVleet aren’t the types of players who can carry a team to a title on their backs. Fine. There are maybe eight players alive who can. If fact finding was the Raptors’ mission this year, they’ve gotten some important answers about their two foundational pillars — answers, mind you, that most level-headed evaluators of Siakam and VanVleet were already pretty close to having before the season began.
More of the facts uncovered throughout the year and in a week’s worth of playoff games have given the front office plenty to work with as they plot the track forward. If the answer to Siakam and VanVleet’s mild overextension against Philly is to reorient the team dynamics around them, the powers that be have plenty of maneuverability — more than they ever had during the growth phase of the Lowry-DeRozan-Dwane Casey teams.
As much as I’d like to do some Terrence Ross propaganda in this spot, the Raptors of yore never had a young player behind their two main dudes who was even in the stratosphere of what today’s team has in Scottie Barnes. Siakam and VanVleet are more suited for complementary roles next to a star? Cool. Based on the returns of his debut year, Barnes figures to be that guy or something close to it before his rookie contract is even up, leaving the Raptors in a position countless teams with burgeoning superstars over the last decade would have killed to find themselves in: decked out with a readymade supporting cast to support their most prized player. Give Anthony Davis running mates as good as Siakam, VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. early in his career, and we’re probably living under the rule of a Pelicans dynasty.
If there’s a bummer about Toronto’s first taste of the post-season in the post-Lowry era aside from the losses themselves, it’s that Barnes hasn’t gotten to soak in more playoff reps. Before going down in Game 1, he’d been Toronto’s best player. Though in a way, the comfort he showed under the theatre lighting of whatever the Sixers arena is called is sort of all anyone needed to see to feel good about the track he’s on. Barnes probably won’t step into next season as a 27-percent usage guy, but the luxury of having Siakam and VanVleet in support is that he doesn’t have to. They can ease him into the burden that comes with top billing, with the possibility very much on the table that he snatches it quickly anyway.
Not seeing Barnes play the whole first round doesn’t erase the reps his other would-be fututre teammates have gotten against Philly, either. We know OG is a playoff stud, his steady work in an opportunistic off-ball roll against the Sixers only further entrenches him into the future plans. If at worst he’s a more chiseled version of the Siakam who won Most Improved Player and scored at a rate akin to Scottie Pippen in the 2019 playoffs, you’re cooking with fire.
And then there’s the Raptor about whom we knew the least about coming into the series, whose returns have been arguably the most promising, and whose few failings have been the most important kicks in the teeth endured by anyone on the team: Precious Achiuwa.
Achiuwa’s been thrown to the wolves in this series, if wolves were 7-foot-3, 300-pound MVP candidates. And it’s all been with the intent of seeing what he’s got, and how viable he can be as the long-term answer to Toronto’s short-term questions in the middle of the floor. Scaling up his minutes load by nearly eight a game compared to the regular season, I’m not sure how you couldn’t be impressed by the results. His 12 points and five boards on 53.6 / 57.1 / 50 percent shooting are one thing; his knack for switching onto anyone, anywhere, anytime, be it James Harden or Joel Embiid is something only a handful of guys league-wide can claim. All throughout Game 3 you saw concrete examples of his meteoric in-season growth — the calm ease he showed flashing to the nail against the zone and attacking, the audacity to single out Embiid for an ISO and blow by him for a bucket, the silky touch on his two made triples, and the composure to grab and put back an offensive rebound in crunch time. Show any of those instances to someone back in November and you’d knock ‘em on their ass by revealing they came from just five months in the future. If the Raptors’ hallowed Vision 6’9 is going to work, Achiuwa’s abilty to straddle the line between switchable, triple-bombing wing and fundamentally sound big man just might be the key.
Of course the duffed free throws at the end of Game 3 are what’ll linger in the minds of those who watched the game, with Achiuwa himself the one who’ll dwell on them longest. Those misses, catastrophic to the hopes of the series going long as they were, are what Achiuwa’s getting 31 minutes a night of playoff action for. Complete basketball players aren’t built in a day. You’d much rather Achiuwa endure that kind of nut punch now under the relatively low stakes of a found money season, than further down the Raptors’ arc of growth. With an inciting trauma thrusting him into the off-season, it’ll be shocking if Achiuwa doesn’t come back a changed man at the stripe, especially when you bake in his rapid growth shooting from much further away than 15 feet.
A sweep at the hands of Philly will sting for a minute, with the biggest shame being the puniness of the sample. But in just three losses, Toronto’s achieved the goal of asking and answering tough questions about the constitution of this team, and what might need shaking up going into 2022-23. Thankfully, the answer there is: probably not much.
No title worth celebrating is won without some anguish on the road between where you started and where you end up. The Raptors are almost surely going to lose this series to the Sixers, whether it be by comfortable ass-whooping or another heartbreaker of a finish. And guess what — it’ll probably happen again next year, and the year after that.
For a young team with plenty of runway to work with, that’s kind of the whole point.