Raptors’ intentions for remainder of season now crystal clear

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The people that run the Toronto Raptors should just come out and say it.

I mean, it’s not that hard to figure out what they’re thinking, but they should put words on it anyway.

They should explain what they want out of the never-ending weirdness of the 2020-21 season.

They should make clear what their opinion of the play-in tournament is, and how little they seem to value it.

The players and the coaching staff clearly feel differently. Everything they’ve done recently has shown that they’re in it to win.

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They proved it again against the Washington Wizards in a game they had to take to keep any realistic hopes of a post-season appearance alive.

They proved it by leading the game nearly wire-to-wire, stumbling slightly in the fourth only to have Fred VanVleet force overtime with a contested 28-footer with 1.3 seconds to play.

And they proved it in extra time as they flew around, hit the floor, got up and hit the floor again. It wasn’t enough. Pascal Siakam missed a fading pull-up three at the horn that would have given Toronto the win and put a worthy exclamation point on a night in which Siakam tied a career-high with 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting.

It went long and the Raptors fell 131-129, dropping them to 27-40 with five games left to play and four games behind the Wizards for the final spot in the play-in tournament.

Gary Trent Jr. contributed 25 points and VanVleet 22, while Toronto held Bradley Beal (28 points) and Russell Westbrook (13 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists) below their season scoring averages.

There was plenty to like, but how upset – really – were the people that sign the cheques about Toronto’s seven-year post-season streak almost certainly coming to an end?

We can make assumptions, but that’s all. It’s been crickets all season, for the most part.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri should make himself available alongside general manager Bobby Webster to express to a fanbase that has carried the franchise through highs and lows, thick and thin, what the medium-to-long-term goals for the team are.

They don’t have to say “we’re tanking.” But they can tip their hand: talk about development, growth, the future. They can wink.

They could have traded their franchise icon, Kyle Lowry, at the trade deadline.

At the very least they should relieve head coach Nick Nurse of the nightly obligation of trying to explain how a team that won an NBA championship two years ago and had the second-best record in the league last season is doing everything in its power to take the 2020-21 season off.

Instead, all he can do is praise a group that has played hard, played well, but all too often has been limited by having multiple key players sit out for the most flimsy of excuses. It made sense at one point when the Raptors were coming off a 1-13 March. But given how competitive they’ve been regardless of the circumstances, pulling the rug out from under them over and over again doesn’t seem right.

“I hate to sound like a broken vinyl record. We are [playing well],” Nurse said. “We were trying to execute the game plans and we’ve done an excellent job of that … tonight, again, [we had] 43 minutes of executing what we’re trying to do. I guess what I keep saying is that we’re doing what we’re trying to do, man. We put a game plan out there, we want to know if you can execute it and can we play offence with some composure and I thought we did that all night …. I’m not frustrated at all and I’m very proud of the guys, actually.”

He should be. Siakam, in particular, is finishing the season on a high after a slow start and plenty of ups and downs along the way. He’ll be a better and stronger player for the experience, but he won’t have a chance to redeem himself in the post-season after his disappointing playoff performance last season.

“Obviously we’ve been through a lot. It’s been a crazy year,” said Siakam. “As for me, my mentality is just that eventually the storm ends, so just got to continue to keep pushing to get better, continue to work on my game. Learn things that I think are going to get me to the next level. I think that’s my focus. Try to win every game we go out there, give it everything we’ve got. Do everything that you can to help the team win. Again, just live with the results.”

But it’s hard to achieve those results as a team without key players being made made available to play.

If there was ever an all-hands-on-deck game, Thursday night’s was it. Toronto trailed the Wizards by three games for 10th place – the final spot available in the play-in tournament, a new format where teams 7-10 in the conference standings compete for the 7th and 8th seeds.

Nurse called it his club’s “Last Chance Saloon” – win and Toronto would be two games out of 10th with five to play. Given Toronto already had the tiebreaker, all it needed to do was finish with an identical record to the Wizards. The odds would still be long-ish, but go 4-1 or 3-2 down the stretch and the Raptors might find themselves in the post-season.

And once there? Anything could happen. This version of the Raptors might be a lot of things, but they’re not bad. They wouldn’t be an easy out in an unpredictable Eastern Conference.

“I tend to think if we do get 10th, then there’s not gonna be a whole lot of teams that wanna see us,” said Nurse.

Lose and the Raptors would be down four games and need to run the table and simultaneously hope the Wizards collapse.

Exciting stuff.

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And then at about 5 p.m. ET, the Raptors announced that Lowry wouldn’t play due to rest. Granted, Lowry is 35 years old and it’s been a long season, but rest from what?

He hasn’t played basketball since he put up 37 points and dished 11 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday in one of the better games of his career.

It’s a clear pattern. Lowry has played just nine of 22 games since Ujiri opted not to trade him before the March 25 deadline. He did have an infected toe at one point, but that was a ruse that couldn’t be used forever.

“Let’s put it this way, I’m very well rested,” Lowry joked after being given four games off last month. “I’m very healthy and I’m very, very, very well rested.”

It’s clear the Raptors would rather avoid the play-in tournament, and worse, the possibility that they win two games and earn the 8th seed. That would take them out of the draft lottery, and the possibility of moving up to get a top-four pick or even the first-overall selection.

But that’s not Nurse’s place to say.

Is it awkward, I asked him before game, having to dance around why your franchise icon is being rested before the most important game of the season?

“… You know me, I never get too awkward in these situations,” Nure said. “I just kinda wanna know who’s playing at some point before the ball goes up, and then we give the opportunity to these other guys, and we roll with it, and do the best we can.”

This isn’t on Nurse or on the players who did play or on Lowry.

Whoever the Raptors have put on the floor have played hard and played well.

The showdown with the Wizards was no exception. Even without Lowry and OG Anunoby (calf), the Raptors led after every quarter and were in good control in the fourth until a spurt by Beal and Westbrook put them on their back foot, but VanVleet’s triple bailed them out.

That proved to be the peak moment as the Raptors couldn’t get on track in the extra period. On one possession they missed four consecutive shots, three of them from beyond the arc, all of them open. Robin Lopez put the Wizards up four with 8.6 seconds left as he made his 11th and 12th free-throws of the night on his way to 24 points off the bench, which was more than all of the Raptors’ reserves contributed. A three-point play by Siakam cut the lead to one, but the Wizards made their free-throws and Toronto’s night was done, its playoff hopes likely with it.

Still, it was great entertainment. Basketball played with passion always is.

But to what purpose? The people that run the Raptors presumably know what the plan is, but the rest of us can only guess.