My heart felt like a sneaker thunking around in a dryer for most of the 1st, some of the 2nd. By the half it felt stretched, thin, my pulse racing but racing away from me, like some spooked horse, getting quieter and quieter as it pounded off for greener pastures. But my heart finally broke at Fred Van Vleet, put in with the rest of the Raptors’ rookies with three minutes to go in the game.
‘Cause unlike the rest of the rookies and the relief lineup of the Bucks, all standing around with arms hanging and eyes blinking as the shot and game clocks counted down, Fred was stretching, straining, reaching for the ball held aloft in one hand by Michael Beasley. He curled low and around Beasley at the waist, trying one side then the other, his eyes never leaving the ball until it arched toward Thon Maker who sunk it like a dagger into the Raptors’ closed casket.
Van Vleet was hungry and rested and ready, Nogueira was hungry, rested and ready, Poeltl, Wright, Powell—hungry, rested and ready. These guys took some of the sting from the preceding 48 minutes because even in understanding that they were coming out for the rinse cycle of the last 3 minutes of a total wash, they came out with energy, experimentation and communication that put our pros to shame. Bebe went up for an assisted dunk! He missed it and Poeltl casually slipped the rebound in, sure, but they were trying something.
There’s a mountain of small losses in last night’s game, we all know that, but the one that seems to me the most concentrated bummer is how we have these hungry guys, ready, waiting and willing, just languishing on the bench. Norman Powell, for the four minutes in total we saw him last night, was the same guy who pushed plays and turned entire games around in last year’s playoffs. And can you imagine the physicality Bebe could play with, if he was only honed a little more on his offensive game? For a team that says it puts so much stock in its prospects and training of rookies, it really seemed a glaring opportunity missed that none of them could be moved into earlier rotations, to jiggle the reins a bit and see if Casey could force a reaction that wasn’t coming from relentlessly riding DeRozan, or subbing in Corey Joseph for JV after the half. Moves that had as much of an effect as tossing a Frisbee at a tornado.
The Raptors aren’t known for being a particularly nimble team in their plays, and don’t always have the creativity on court that comes in watching more finely tuned teams when they get pressed. Our dudes don’t much tend to make things look easy, as much as they make it look like running uphill, through a swamp, on a moonless night.
Green guys can be a liability but why not try to harness a little of their energy and unpredictability, take a page out of (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) Kidd’s book and let Van Vleet’s tenacity, or Bebe’s upbeat endurance, crackle through the rest of the team on contact like the chain reaction he got when he used Thon Maker to juice up his already charged Bucks.
Because it’s wasteful, what’s happening. Watching these guys wither on the bench when all it can take to get on a run sometimes is a slight shift in feeling. It was clear to anyone watching that the rudder of the Raptors had torn off sometime in the first few turnovers of last night’s game, and that neither Lowry nor DeRozan knew how, or wanted, to give any direction. Their frustration was palpable but with Kyle reverting into some shadow version of his Rockets’ past and DeMar looking lost even in the middle of his teammates, it gets more and more obvious there’s a problem with channeling their anger into something that turns games around. And maybe that’s straight-up not their job, maybe they aren’t going to get good at it and it should fall to somebody else we haven’t had a chance of seeing shake things up yet.
Shy of Casey warging into someone’s body there was nothing he could do either, save for scream himself hoarse on the sidelines while his ghost ship of lost guys sailed into a Bermuda triangle of rotational issues. At that point why wouldn’t you try something a little desperate, a little wild, to shore up your crumpling starters and sharpen those toothless plays? Frankly I would be happy if I never saw another pick and roll again.
There’s enough analytical and gut-based speculation on whether or not Toronto still stands a chance in this series to last you ‘til Saturday, so I’ll spare you my own two cents. But whatever happens it’s the last three minutes of last night’s game, those hungry rookies with their whole hearts practically sprouting legs and putting on shorts to finish what was already a smoking crater of a loss that will stick with me going into next season. If we’re already ripping off our own best potential, then what is the point of meticulously building a team over all these years? Put plainly: Let them play, what the hell else do we have to lose?