TORONTO – Looking closely, you could see the entire first half of the Raptors’ season in the final two games they played before the all-star break, as unusual as they were.
With an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the last-place Pistons on Wednesday night, followed by Thursday’s hard-fought loss in Boston, this week’s back-to-back pretty much summed up the team’s experience through 36 contests.
The confounding start and a missed opportunity. Gradual, but uneven, progress. Glimpses of the team they used to be, and still believe they ought to be. Enough defensive lapses to remind you that they’ve got a ways to go. The resiliency to hang around in a game they have no business hanging around in, only to come up just short in the end. It was all there, their 2020-21 greatest hits.
They’ll go into all-star break with a record of 17-19 – a marked improvement from where they were, but still falling well short of expectations. Their 19 first-half losses match their total from all of last season. It’s been a strange few months for the Raptors, fitting for the strangest of NBA seasons.
In each of the last two games, Toronto has been without five players – including three key starters – and seven coaches, including its head coach, as Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Patrick McCaw, Malachi Flynn, Nick Nurse and several of his assistants remain in the league’s health and safety protocols.
With respect to the privacy of each individual, the team has not and will not disclose whom, or how many, have tested positive for COVID-19. What we know is that, due to positive cases and contact tracing within the organization, Sunday’s game against Chicago was postponed and Tuesday’s against Detroit was pushed back to Wednesday. Ultimately, it forced an undermanned version of this Raptors team to limp its way through an unplanned back-to-back before getting a much-needed chance to catch its breath this weekend.
“I think you just got to roll with the punches,” said Norman Powell, who scored 25 points in Toronto’s spirited 132-125 loss to the Celtics. “We are not the only team that had to deal with these protocols and figure it out. You have guys getting pulled mid-game. We saw that [with Kevin Durant] in the Nets game [last month]. We just got to figure it out and keep going with a next-man-up mentality. I think no matter who we have out here, we got people who can play our style of basketball and a team that can still put out a winning product. I think we saw that even though we didn’t get a win tonight.”
Twenty-four hours after falling to the 10-25 Pistons – who were also missing multiple rotation pieces, including their best player, Jerami Grant – the Raptors showed far more fight against a tough, rested and mostly healthy Celtics club.
Once again, their remaining two starters, Powell and Kyle Lowry, set the tone – Powell with his 21 first-half points and Lowry with his career-high and franchise record-tying 19 assists. But unlike the night before, when those two carried everyone else on their backs, others stepped up and seized the opportunity.
Acting head coach Sergio Scariolo had 11 players available, with two-way rookie Jalen Harris being sent back to the G League bubble after Wednesday’s contest, but he only used eight, and each of them contributed something. Chris Boucher scored a career-high 30 points off the bench, with Terence Davis adding a season-best 22. Stanley Johnson hit four three-pointers in the fourth quarter to keep them within striking distance.
It’s games like this that make losses like Wednesday’s – or last month’s loss to the league-worst Timberwolves – more frustrating and even harder to explain.
“I can only say that I am really, really proud of the effort our players threw on the floor tonight,” Scariolo said. “We were really a different team from yesterday. We really fought on most of the possessions, we shared the ball, 36 assists versus 17 yesterday, which I think is a number that reflects the difference in the two games.”
“They know that we can lose or win games but that’s the attitude that we got to have and that’s the attitude that made us special, successful throughout the last two years.”
You could put an asterisk next to a bunch of losses this season – games the team itself felt like it could have or even should have won if not for a few bad bounces or unfortunate breaks. They’ve dealt with injuries and underperforming rotation players. They’ve had to overcome the loss of their centres, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, who left in free agency. All the while, they’re the only team in the NBA that’s had to uproot their operations and play all of their home games in a different country. Evaluating them – who they are and how good they can be – has been a near impossible task.
Since starting 2-8, which was tied for the worst record in the NBA in early January, they’ve gone 15-10 – a winning percentage that would place them fourth in the wide-open Eastern Conference. They went 9-5 in February, with signature wins over East rivals Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Even with key players in and out of the lineup throughout the month, that was probably the best indication of what they’re capable of, and what they’ll hope to replicate when they return to the court.
“I think we are starting to hit a little stride,” said Powell. “Trying to figure it out. We had been stringing two, three wins together. We’re just waiting for that good stretch of five, six, seven wins in a row that we normally have throughout a season. I think it will be a lot better when those guys come out of protocol. They should be well rested and fresh for the second half of the season.”
They’ll happily take the week off, using it as an opportunity to heal their bodies and refresh their minds ahead of what should be a crucial stretch. With the March 25 trade deadline looming, this iteration of the team will have eight contests – beginning with their first game back against Atlanta next Thursday – to show Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster what they’re made of before some big decisions have to be made. Do they feel like they’re good enough to make a run and, if so, can they add a piece or two and maybe address their glaring need at the centre position? If they drop a few games – which might be enough to fall behind, given how tight the standings are in the East – and there’s an intriguing offer out there, could they be persuaded to move Lowry, a soon-to-be free agent and the greatest Raptor ever?
Although they could certainly use the break, there are no guarantees that they’re going to be at full strength when they come out of it. Generally, players who have contracted the virus this season have been required to quarantine for a minimum of 10-14 days, until they stop showing symptoms, clear an extensive cardiac screening and return multiple negative test results. Those in contact tracing have been away from their teams for roughly seven days, assuming they’ve tested negative throughout.
Without knowing who has tested positive and who was deemed a close contact, Siakam, Nurse and the coaches will be 13 days removed from entering the protocols when the team returns to play on March 11. The other four players – VanVleet, Anunoby, McCaw and Flynn – will have only been in the protocols for nine days. Given the unpredictability of the virus, we also can’t assume that everybody will miss the minimum amount of time, or be 100 per cent when they are able to return.
You could say the break is coming at the perfect time, but the perfect time would have been seven days earlier.
“I think around the league everybody could use this break,” Powell said. “Mentally, physically, kind of recharge and let everybody go get some rest and get ready for the second half of the season.”