Raptors lose to Pacers in final game of season

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Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 125-113 loss to the Indiana Pacers to close the 2020-21 season.

One — Final: The Raptors ended the year with six players available, making it abundantly clear as to their desire to end this dreaded season as quickly as possible. It was the same story as much of the season — they competed, suffered a few stretches of inconsistency, didn’t quite have enough talent which left obvious weaknesses on the floor, and they never closed the gap in the end. The best way to celebrate this season in Tampa is to forget it and to enjoy the summertime.

Two — Circumstance: Having only six guys made for an adventurous game, especially since half the bodies available were centers. Just by virtue of what he had available, the Raptors were pressed into playing some of their oddest lineups of the year including having three centers on at once. At one point Aron Baynes was legitimately coming around curls trying to get to his shot as the de facto small forward of the group, and it was a fitting way to end a whacky and ridiculous season. Baynes, to his credit, hit three triples and finished with his second double-double of the season.

Three — Cameo: The best part of the game was in the third quarter when Fred VanVleet joined the broadcast, furthering the comparisons to Drake, who would usually do the same back when the world was normal and when Scotiabank Arena was packed to the brim. This is the second gig that VanVleet has picked up since being rested for the year, adding the broadcast microphone to his collection of coaching polos. VanVleet was open and insightful as always, lending an honest and interesting voice to the team as he has done all season. He followed that by hosting a year-end media session which ran close to half an hour, and his openness is something to be appreciated. Win or lose, VanVleet was there to speak for the team in a way that was transparent and true. 

Four — Coach: Just because he wore the headset, it doesn’t mean VanVleet shirked on his coaching duties. VanVleet revealed on the broadcast that he urged his protege Malachi Flynn to change his approach during halftime, telling him to get off-ball instead of grappling with the pesky T.J. McConnell. The adjustment worked brilliantly, with Flynn scoring seven points on 1-of-8 shooting in the first half, to dropping 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting in the second. Flynn has to become more consistent as a point guard, and he will need work on his reads, but it’s very promising that he’s shown so many flashes.

Five — Improve: McConnell was a good player to study for Flynn, not necessarily because their games are all that similar, but because McConnell excels at the little things. McConnell competes at an extremely high level, often picking up players full court, he gets into the ball, and while McConnell is stronger than Flynn, these are all things that Flynn is capable of replicating. Offensively, McConnell is adept at playing on the catch, getting downhill off the high screen, and then keeping his dribble alive through the paint if the first read isn’t there, being patient with his offense. Flynn has more quickness and more range on his jumper to work with, but to become a starting level player, he will need to mature and hone the subtle floor general aspect of the position.

Six — Expand: Khem Birch has been the one veteran to consistently play down the stretch. There was something to prove in how he could expand his game, in how he started taking more threes or handling the ball, but that’s all gravy. The main point is that Birch showed his fit with the Raptors’ starters, excelling as a reliable finisher in pick-and-rolls, while guarding at a high level, and that’s why the Raptors should look to re-sign him. Birch said in his season-ending presser that he values fit more than the money above all else, and his fit with this team is clear, especially at a position of need. 

Seven — Decisions: There’s a case to be made for a lot of these third stringers to be retained. Stanley Johnson had his career night with 35 points, DeAndre’ Bembry has stepped up as a playmaker, and even Baynes showed flashes of life. The toughest part is parsing out what truly matters at the end of the season because the Raptors wouldn’t be looking to re-sign them based on a one-off statline from a meaningless game. The chance to prove themselves was earlier in the season — how did Johnson, Baynes, and Bembry fit with the starters? And when COVID ruined the season, did any of them step up to bridge the gap? The answer to both questions is that they didn’t really mesh. Johnson had some moments defensively, Bembry is useful as a Swiss army knife, and Baynes might just be too old at 34. Bembry should probably return since he’s on an affordable deal for next season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Raptors moved on from all three. 

Eight — Keepers: It’s a shame that Jalen Harris and Yuta Watanabe couldn’t suit up for the last game of the year. Harris was in a walking boot after putting up 31 points on his hometown Mavericks, and Watanabe remained out due to a re-aggravation of his ankle injury. There’s some upside with these two, and for that reason, the Raptors will likely retain them. Harris needs a new deal, and Watanabe is unguaranteed next season. Both of them should be back, at least for training camp of next year. Freddie Gillespie should be in the mix too, even though he was mostly quiet in the last few weeks of the year. 

Nine — Uncertainty: The biggest question is at the top with Masai Ujiri. Will the Raptors come to terms with their president? General manager Bobby Webster said on the radio that Ujiri’s future is a “non-issue” for the team, and VanVleet said there was no dip in commitment from Ujiri this season, while also calling him the second-greatest Raptor behind Kyle Lowry. To be honest, there won’t be an answer until there is a final decision, and it is perhaps the most sensitive point of the summer for Raptors fans. Ujiri will likely speak to wrap the season, so maybe an answer can be found at that time? 

Ten — Gratitude: I wanted to take this last note to say my thanks for the readers who have continued to show support for this column, which is now on in its sixth season. It came a long way from being a Word screenshot to now being featured on a platform of this level, but the feeling is still the same on my end. My goal is to give you something different than the tired recap, in a consumable and hopefully insightful way. It’s been hard to find ten talking points at times this season (this 10th “thing” is case in point) but I truly appreciate everyone for following along through the good and the bad. I look forward to a much happier and much more successful Year 7. Enjoy the summer, everyone!

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