This era of the Toronto Raptors is ending with a whimper.
Toronto entered the game against the Houston Rockets with the casual confidence of a team hungover from celebrating a win, not one whose players were talking about “soul searching” only the night before. Their offensive choices were lazy, trying to end the losing streak with each single selfish jumper. The defense was manic, perhaps best exemplified as Chris Boucher and Paul Watson both closed out to the corner, and Boucher bumped Watson into the shooter to offer him free throws.
“I just think we don’t have the energy, maybe, or the juices to do it as much as we need to,” said Nick Nurse after the game.
But the reality is that this is a team without soul at the moment. It has been sucked by relocation, diced by travel, and ground by illness. Players’ individual souls are tender and bruised, and soon, insult will be added to the injury of this season.
Toronto will almost certainly trade Norman Powell. That was always a possibility this season. His offensive game has popped this season as his pull-up shooting, foul-drawing, and passing have taken huge leaps. Powell is an uber-efficient secondary or tertiary scorer, and contending teams can always use a sparkplug scorer off the bench. Toronto is no longer a contending team. Powell can fetch Toronto a first-round pick at the least, as it is a seller’s market, after all. But as a result of the losing, Kyle Lowry is probably out the door too, even as insider reporters like Michael Grange insist the team isn’t looking to deal him. And that may well not have been the case if the Raptors had survived the first half of the season. They could have stood pat, let the team make another prideful playoff push, and given Lowry a proper sendoff before free agency. Who knows, maybe they could have even re-signed him if there was a realistic path to contention in the near future.
As it is, Toronto no longer deserves Lowry. A consummate professional, he insists that watching players like VanVleet grow before his eyes is all the joy he needs. But Lowry deserves a winning situation, and Toronto is very much not that at the moment. Against Houston, they showed that they do not believe they can win. They caved in almost every way against a far inferior team. So Lowry will probably be traded before the week is done, and Toronto’s winngest era in franchise history — Lowry’s era — will end. It’s up to the remainder of the players what the next era will hold.
“She’s melting,” the Rockets announcers announced gleefully as the last moments ticked off the clock. They were referring to Houston’s 20-game losing streak, but they could just as easily have been talking about the Raptors themselves.
At the end of the game, as Toronto tried halfheartedly for a last-ditch comeback, Siakam poked the ball away from John Wall. Watson picked it up and tried to throw a hit-ahead pass to Siakam, but he threw the ball diagonally across the court. Siakam gathered it and drove on the other end through traffic, but he missed the layup. What should have been easy was made difficult, and the Rockets converted an uncontested one the other way. It was an allegorical moment for the game.
Toronto’s game against the Rockets thus circled the drain in the second half, slurping and sloshing underneath the crushing weight of missed floaters, clunked pull-up threes, and awkward closeouts. The Raptors scored 13 points in a must-win fourth quarter. Any possible scritch-scratch of a spark flickered and vanished immediately; a second-half Siakam block led only moments later to a deep Christian Wood buzzer-beating triple as he faded away from his defender. Fred VanVleet alone had heart for Toronto. He scored 27 points on only 17 shots. He hit hero triples from far behind the line. He created on offense when all else failed. He played defense with intensity when his teammates loafed. He played like a winner. But he was outvoted by his teammates’ ennui and outmanned by the Rockets’ energy.
“I’m always proud of Freddy,” said Kyle Lowry. “I’m proud of him every day, every game. He plays hard every single night you can play. When you got a guy who plays hard every single night, you gotta be proud of someone like that, no matter what the outcome [is]. Win, lose or draw.”
Unfortunately for VanVleet and the Raptors, seemingly all the Rockets had heart, soul, spark; however you want to describe it, they had it. It only took losing 20 straight games to acquire such a quality. Perhaps that’s what it will take for Toronto to regain a confident sense of self.
Or perhaps it will take an actual return to Toronto. It’s no surprise that the Rehomed Raptors are soulless. Toronto’s decrepit play cannot be explained by basketball strategy alone; there’s too much talent on the team for this. Unfortunately, the cozy confines of Scotiabank and a return home to Toronto aren’t available solutions, so the team will settle instead for trading away some vital and long-tenured players later in the week. Whatever Toronto did against Houston is not sustainable going forward. As a result, the past near-decade of Toronto basketball — the We The North era, the winningest basketball in franchise history — is a relic of a bygone time. We saw the high water two seasons ago and watched the tide drift away before our eyes against Houston.
Now they’ll struggle in constant isolation for the remainder of the season and then lick their wounds in hope they’ll heal in time for whatever’s coming next to begin.