Toronto’s bench beats Denver easily, though dark cloud of Griffin accusation still looms

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Success manifests in more ways than you’d expect. For the Toronto Raptors, the on-court product has never been better. Take, for example, that the Raptors’ win earlier this week over the Philadelphia 76ers gave the team its highest winning percentage of all time. The season after Kawhi Leonard departed the team. Or, take that the Toronto Raptors walloped the Denver Nuggets 117-109 in a game where the Raptors rested four of five starters and the Nuggets played its best available units, at least for a little time together in the first half.

The successes were many. Matt Thomas remained hot from deep, and he flashed great passing chops as well. Terence Davis finally broke out, showing the uber confidence that made him such a rookie sensation earlier in the year. He had a pair of one-dribble triples that showed the upside he can offer Toronto’s half-court offense when he’s on. Paul Watson Jr. showed his size, strength, handle, and particularly his shooting upside that should make him a rotation player in the NBA for a long time to come. His alley-oop dunk was added for emphasis. Stanley Johnson was even a huge positive running the point and bulldozing his way to the rim in transition, and when he started hitting triples, the Nuggets were dead in the water.

Before the Lowry-DeRozan era, this feel-good game would have classified as one of the best in regular season history. Now, this was perhaps one of a dozen heartwarming contests just this season. This was the last game of the season, and Toronto ended it on a high note. Two-way player Watson scored 22 points. That’s fun.

The Raptors seem to be a feel-good story every time they hit the court. At the same time, it’s important to temper proclamations of the Raptors’ greatness within the bounds of basketball. Off the court, the Raptors are not in an ideal moment. Davis gained some notoriety in recent weeks as he questioned the value of masks and vaccines in fighting viruses. While that has perhaps blown over, last night Audrey Griffin’s ongoing accusations of Adrian Griffin gained much more media attention after Griffin’s first ever win as a head coach.

When asked about the Griffin allegations before the Nuggets game, Nurse was succinct. He said that Griffin denies the allegations, and Nurse “stands with him, and so does the organization.”

That’s a reasonable response, but it doesn’t jive with Toronto’s self-promoted label as both a franchise and a family. Toronto represents itself as a leading voice promoting Black Lives Matter. Griffin’s former wife, Audrey, counts. It would be inconvenient for Toronto to distance from its lead assistant until facts are discovered, but inconvenience is often the price of sacrifice. In fact, sacrifice doesn’t count for anything without the actual sacrifice. 

Last year, Toronto released Kay Felder when he was arrested on domestic abuse charges. That was no-cost, as he was not important in Toronto’s future plans. Griffin is of course different because he’s a vital member of Toronto’s coaching team. Furthermore, the situation is quite different because he and Audrey are currently in a legal dispute over alimony payments; his guilt, unlike Felder’s, is unproven. But Toronto maintaining unflinching support of Griffin, at least until the reality of the situation is decided, is not consistent with the team’s previous declarations. Particularly because Audrey Griffin has stated on twitter that she has gone to the Raptors organization to discuss Adrian Griffin’s “continued abuse,” so the team cannot plead innocence.

So take joy in Toronto’s continued improvement. In the final game of the unending 2019-20 season, it is joyous that the Raptors dismantled a strong Nuggets team without four starters. As has been the case in the bubble, Boucher and Thomas were fantastic. Paul Watson, Malcolm Miller, Stanley Johnson, and other deep bench players were manifestations of joy on the court. It’s only right to find happiness in that as a fan.

But the Raptors have, for now, ceded their right to spread that joy outside of basketball. The Raptors are, for the moment, not bigger than basketball. That’s okay. The basketball is pretty darn good on its own. 

That isn’t to say the Raptors are irredeemable. Far from it. There are many ways that the Griffin situation could resolve positively, at least for the Raptors’ image. So far, they have not handled it with an eye to image. Instead they’ve handled it with an eye to business and competition. That’s the onus of being a basketball team, but it is also a reminder that a basketball team is just that. Being a leader in social justice only goes so far, and the demarcated line seems to be when it conflicts with winning basketball games. 

Any taint — and it’s really just a change of perception of the team rather than taint — does not spread to individual Raptors. Watson, Johnson, Davis, Davis, Thomas, and company had exciting and ground-breaking games against the Nuggets, full stop. They can and should be celebrated for their accomplishments. This has been, probably, the most fun regular season in Raptors history. This win against the Nuggets is just one of a long line of shake-your-head-wonderful moments. But we shouldn’t try to make the Raptors organization into anything more or less than it is: at heart, a sports franchise.

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