Our esteemed champion and leader of this free website, Blake Murphy, was on CBC’s Metro Morning this week to discuss the Raptors progression from slept-on to long-deservingly league-lauded. The big questions got asked—what does this mean for the playoffs? Do the Raptors have a better chance now, compared to post-seasons prior? Is there a secret weapon?—and while an arbiter of many a precise take, Blake’s no seer. He was right when he equated the team’s success to hard work, perseverance, depth of skill across the roster and adaptive coaching, but he missed one big thing. The Toronto Raptors do have a secret weapon. The greater thing at work with this team, that’s been at work with this team all season and is continually evolving from game to game, is chemistry.
Team chemistry on the Raptors is what makes them so fun to watch. Other times it’s what can make it so difficult. Chemistry, in this sense, is an added element and very much alive, unpredictable and changing because it boils down to what’s going on with each and every player, how they’re performing, and how that performance is gelling when they hit the floor and—probably more importantly—off of it. In practice, travel together, communication and support of one another, the Raptors are shoring up or making changes to their chemistry daily.
Toronto is rarely capable of pulling off a neat win. Some teams can do it, blow by an opponent and be up twenty points with nothing to worry about. It’s never this breezy for the Raptors, there is always the chance that something could shift and they’ll find themselves down the same number of points, just as fast. But the wins are big and usually larger in bravado, in the sense that each player is taking it personally. The team will be struggling throughout the first half, playing flat, and then like the sun’s suddenly come up and burnt off the fog, someone will pull a huge play out of their back pocket. Case in point DeRozan, devouring the distance from one end of the court to the other and delivering a catastrophic dunk on the Pistons this past Wednesday to prematurely end the life of one Anthony Tolliver. Other times it’s reversed, as in the sudden, at this point something that should be trademarked to the Raptors, third quarter slump. The team who went into the locker room charged up and in control at the half with a commanding lead gets body-snatched and substituted for one instead just coming out of hypersleep. They seem sluggish, confused, nothing is connecting, and the points tick up so that a commanding lead is swallowed with such mute dread it can feel a bit like watching a huge snake eating you from the legs up. Times slows as you watch what seems like it was preventable, but all that solidity you felt very recently is disappearing before your very eyes. Then all of a sudden someone, say Lowry, connects a fast pass to Wright, who swings it out to VanVleet, who lobs it to Miles in the wings with an open three or else flips it to DeMar, who drives, who dunks, and suddenly there’s a marked spark in the air—something is charging—and with two minutes left on the clock the Raptors come back to life. The kind of full team chemistry Toronto shares is rare and skittish and moody and honestly magic, and it is further strengthened by the individual ties that bind it.
The most obvious example comes through in the relationship between DeRozan and Lowry, both on and off the court. Best friends who almost weren’t, who hardly knew each other during their first years in the franchise together, a fact that makes the relationship seem all that more precious because it really almost wasn’t. Lowry was considered a liability when he got to Toronto, and there’s no way to chart the evolution of his game and his attitude as a player without seeing the influence of DeRozan’s relentless work ethic spreading all through it. DeRozan admits he’ll never stop working on his game, but it was largely one-dimensional at one point and similarly, it’s hard to imagine the grit and tenacity of Lowry, some of his intensity, not catching on DeMar’s game and being that conduit for improvement.
Watching them off the court, Kyle always goading DeMar or creeping up behind him during the post-games or the way they riff in the locker room can make you catch your breath just as much as it does watching them on it. Their understanding of each other as teammates is intuitive, a rare and special thing in a league where so many players can get shuffled around in their prime years to watch how their game has evolved in support of the other, their individual development intertwined. When DeRozan began working on his three-point game Lowry started to set him up for shots instead of opting to take them himself. When Lowry seemed to have a harder time getting the hang of increased ball movement in the first part of this season, there was a sense that DeRozan was there to help him get the hang of being a better distributor. Though they’ve both taken an offensive step back this season to equally weight ball time across the team, it’s their confidence and intuition that works like a force field around everyone else, particularly the bench, when they’re put in the mix with them. When DeRozan drove in overtime against the Pistons this week and, without hesitation, kicked it out to VanVleet who made the huge winning shot, the entire sequence was infused with so much confidence and trust, was such a selfless play, that it was impossible not to see the whole team swell with it. Lowry and DeRozan’s relationship, in essence, has set the groundwork for the whole franchise’s chemistry.
Not solely because, but certainly due to the great influence of this relationship there’s a message that gets repeated throughout the Raptors organization—family first. Reciprocity and support is in the culture of the team and goes from the top down. Where it might have once been considered a bonus if players on a professional sports team liked one another, and were involved in each other’s lives, it is what is genuinely happening here.
The beauty of the Raptors bench is based in the same synergism. All that talent and unbridled energy, thanks to the channeling powers of chemistry, have a place to be put to work. C.J. Miles was the initial positive-force pastoralist for the bench, leading them early on in the season to be the dynamic and reliable closers we know them to be. His reliability and deep basketball IQ polished off some of the rougher edged players while he seemed to symbiotically hit his stride a little faster with the excitement and experimentation of that lineup around him. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, for a lot of reasons ranging from their confident style of play to their Google Home commercials, are another link in the overall chain of the team that are hard not to watch, mostly because they always seem to be having so much fun. And while they were slow to come to a place where they were getting one another, watching Serge Ibaka and JV on the court is showing some glimmers of potential, perhaps not as potent as dearly departed Bismack Biyombo, or Amir Johnson and JV were, but there are tremors of something new starting.
A lot of examination and discussion goes into stats, into elements like defensive versatility and offensive prowess. All of these things are important when considering the possible trajectory of a team. How far a team can go often comes down to what it can pull out in the clutch and living in this are the individual strengths and talents of each player. Teams can be carried by a handful of players, other times it’s an individual the whole franchise is built around. The rest of the lineup, all the plays, like struts and supports surrounding a principal piece. But teams like that aren’t built to last, if anything, they’re built to win titles. One and done. Like a comet, they’re a bit breathtaking to watch and then they’re finished. We should thank our lucky All-Stars the Raptors aren’t built like that.
The careful, very slow and almost painstaking way Toronto has been put together—if you want to keep using analogies—is more prophetic than pandemonium. It’s impossible to watch and not get the sense that each player was considered carefully for what they could contribute on the court, but also how they might fit into the larger dynamic of the team’s chemistry. Like working out a recipe, you need to perfect all the ingredients, and sometimes it can come down to the most individual measures of spice. The Raptors secret weapon is that they’ve not only perfected the recipe for enduring team chemistry, but that they’ve pioneered a new one, wholly their own.