TORONTO – For the Toronto Raptors, coming to terms with a lost season has been like experiencing the stages of grief.
Denial: We’re better than our record, they’ve thought to themselves on multiple occasions.
Anger: Why can’t we catch a break?
Bargaining: What if circumstances were different?
And finally, as an emotionally draining campaign nears its end and they’ve had time to process and make peace with their reality: acceptance, and even hope.
“We’ve had pretty much every, I don’t call them hurdles, I call them cement walls put up in front of us and just when we break through one another one gets put up,” head coach Nick Nurse said ahead of Tuesday’s game. “It seems like we could never really see daylight or run for daylight this year and at times it would get frustrating. Then, at some point… it got to a point that we had to start enjoying going to practice and enjoying playing the games.”
The situation hasn’t changed much. With six games remaining, the odds are against the Raptors earning a spot in the play-in tournament, which could have given them an opportunity to extend their season. In all likelihood, they’ll miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Still, they’re not hanging their heads or feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, they’re doing their best to find joy in the process.
“Coach has been preaching every day just try to find some type of excellence, that’s been his theme the last couple weeks,” Kyle Lowry said over the weekend. “Every single day try to find some type of excellence.
“This game is a game of joy and fun, and when you’re having fun [good] things happen.”
It showed on their recent west coast road swing. There were plenty of positives to take from the trip. In the games they played, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet looked like stars. An all-time performance from Lowry helped spark an unlikely win over LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers.
Meanwhile, the young guys continued to make strides, including Malachi Flynn, who was named Eastern Conference rookie of the month for April.
They went toe to toe with four Western Conference contenders in the span of six days, despite missing key players in each contest. A 1-3 record doesn’t do them justice, but that’s how the year has gone.
“We’re the best worst team of all time,” VanVleet joked after Toronto fell to 27-39 on the campaign with a 105-100 loss to the Clippers.
Now, with their season on life support, they’ll return to Tampa and host the Washington Wizards on Thursday, a game that could end up being the source of renewed hope or the coup de grâce.
“That’s probably our last chance saloon,” said Nurse, using a British phrase he would have picked up during his time coaching in England. “I think them getting that one against us would be awful tough for us to recover from. [If] we get it, it puts us in there legitimately.”
Depending on the result of the Wizards’ game in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Washington will either hold a three- or four-game lead on Toronto for 10th place and the final spot in the East’s play-in tournament going into Thursday’s meeting.
Lose and they would be all but officially eliminated. A win would keep them alive for another day, but they’d still have work to do and need some help along the way.
It’s a game that’s likely to mean different things to two teams taking very different approaches to this race. The Wizards are all-in. They feel like they need to make the play-in to show progress and appease Bradley Beal in the hopes of keeping the all-star guard in Washington long-term. They’re one of the NBA’s hottest teams, having won 11 of their past 13 games, led by Beal and a reinvigorated Russell Westbrook.
The Raptors are in a much different place. They won a championship two years ago and finished last season with the second-best record in the NBA. This year’s drop-off comes with a series of baked-in excuses, from the move to Tampa to their mid-season COVID-19 outbreak. Their focus is on putting themselves in the best possible position for next season and beyond, which makes for a weird situation to close out 2020-21.
Mathematically they’re still alive, and it’s not that they don’t want to make the play-in, it’s just not their top priority like it is for Washington. That’s the single biggest reason why they’re resting rotation players or erring on the side of caution with minor injuries while most of the teams around them in the standings are going full bore. It’s the reason why you shouldn’t be surprised if and when they sit out a regular or two, or three, for Thursday’s game, in spite of what may or may not be on the line.
But win or lose, play-in or draft lottery, regardless of how this very difficult season ends there’s still value in closing it out on a positive note.
“We’ve been having fun these last few weeks as a team regardless of winning and losing because we’ve been playing the right way and we’ve all been getting better,” said VanVleet.
“We got knocked in the teeth pretty hard,” Nurse said. “So, what have I learned? I don’t know. I guess no matter how hard you get knocked in the teeth at some point you got to continue to get back up and then you’ve got to do this with a smile on your face. No one wants to go to work angry all the time. I don’t. I want to go and enjoy teaching and enjoy coaching, enjoy competing, and you just got to keep doing it.”