TORONTO – If you’re having trouble figuring out the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors, don’t sweat it. Even the folks who get paid handsomely to evaluate this team – including its own coaches and front office execs – have to be scratching their heads at times.
How can a club that played poorly enough to drop an extremely winnable game against the NBA-worst Minnesota Timberwolves over the weekend turn around and defeat the two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his second-seeded Milwaukee Bucks just a couple days later?
It makes little sense, but then again what about this season makes sense?
“It’s the world we’re living in, man, just the time that we’re in,” said Fred VanVleet, following Toronto’s 124-113 bounce-back win on Tuesday. “You gotta look around and try to make the most out of each day and just be positive but it’s tough, it’s tough. There are good days and bad days, I keep saying that. Today was a good day for us, not that it makes our situation any better, but we’re not the only team that’s going through some of the things we’re going through.”
More than a third of the way into the shortened 72-game season, the Raptors have been a mixed bag, but even fleeting moments of joy – VanVleet’s 54-point game against Orlando, Kyle Lowry’s various franchise milestones, an upset win in Brooklyn, among others – seem difficult to fully appreciate under the circumstances.
The league is attempting to power through the campaign while navigating the complicated realities of a global pandemic. Strict COVID-19 protocols have altered what day-to-day life looks like for players and staff, and teams have had to adjust to regular status changes and game postponements. Toronto isn’t the only team that is dealing with it – although it is the lone organization that’s had to move its operations across the continent – but some have dealt with it better than others.
Now standing at 13-15 on the season, the Raptors have underwhelmed, but a quick look around the association – particularly in their own conference – reinforces that they’re not alone.
The Miami Heat, who came out of the East last year, are looking up at Toronto with a disappointing record of 11-16. At 14-13, the Boston Celtics are hovering around .500 and recently lost games to the lowly Pistons and Wizards. The Brooklyn Nets still haven’t begun to sniff their potential after adding James Harden to a talented lineup that already included Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, while the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers are just 5-6 against winning teams.
Then there are the Bucks, who after dropping Tuesday’s contest, have now lost four straight games. The list of teams that are thriving in this very strange situation is brief and pretty much limited to the Western Conference.
“You can find some joy, not joy, relief in the fact that as good as we know we are we’re not the only team that’s been up and down, so a lot of it has to do with just the environment,” VanVleet said. “I don’t wanna sit here and cry about it all night but with the testing, the inconsistency, not being able to team bond, not being able to really do anything in the outside world, travel, no fans, it’s a lot that’s going into this season and I just think it’s a drain mentally, physically, and otherwise. There’s teams that are getting through it, for sure. There’s teams that are exceeding in that, that are consistent in that, so credit to them, but I’m not blaming anybody that’s struggling with this because it’s definitely not easy.”
“It’s been crazy,” said Pascal Siakam. “It’s been a crazy year, a lot of things happening. And you’ve gotta give credit to all the teams, too. Teams go out there every single night to try to win games and they don’t really care what your record is or what you did in the past. I think at the end of the day, it’s just about basketball. We can all talk about what’s happening, ’cause it is happening, it’s a weird year, and this is crazy, but at the same time we can also give credit to all the teams just going out there every single night trying to win games no matter who is in front of them.”
The Raptors aspire to be one of those teams, and Tuesday’s win is both an encouraging step in that direction and a reminder of what’s made their season so confounding to this point.
To borrow a phrase from former Toronto head coach Dwane Casey, they “told on themselves” with the way they played against Milwaukee. They showed what they’re capable of – making big plays on both ends of the floor and finding a way to close out an impressive victory over a very good opponent.
VanVleet scored 33 points and steadied the ship after Lowry had to leave the game with an ankle injury early in the second half. OG Anunoby returned from the calf strain that cost him the previous 10 contests and picked up where he left off – scoring 13 points in 27 minutes, including a spinning layup in the fourth quarter, and chasing around Antetokounmpo all night. Siakam chipped in with a double-double of 23 points and 13 rebounds, and Chris Boucher had another strong showing off the bench. Nick Nurse started his small-ball lineup, but despite giving up size, they held their own in the paint and on the boards. There was a lot to like.
Then there was the obvious question, if they can play with that level of energy and focus one night, where was that on Sunday when they gifted Minnesota its seventh win of the season in one of their most embarrassing efforts to date? Until they find some semblance of consistency, making sense of them should continue to be a challenge.
“We’ve played well multiple times this year, and then we don’t play well, so it’s just a matter of stringing it together,” VanVleet said. “That’ll be the validation, when we get on a consistent run. I think, from my standpoint, I know how good we can be and that’s why the losses are frustrating. But like I said, it is what it is, can’t dwell on it, you gotta move on. We’re gonna go out and try to get another one [against Milwaukee] on Thursday but, again, who knows what will happen, what that day will look like, so, just gotta take it one day at a time.”