The Raptors are struggling on and off the court in Tampa Bay

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Late in the third quarter of the Raptors’ humiliating loss to the Boston Celtics, Grant Williams stepped to the free throw line. The fans, a few thousand sprawled across a yawning 20000-person Amalie Arena that is the Raptors’ comically unwelcoming home, started chanting “we want Tacko.” 

As in Tacko Fall, the tallest player in the NBA and a recipient of more online memes than NBA minutes. And, more importantly, a Celtic. 

Both the moment and the night only served to emphasize that the Raptors don’t have a home. Not really. Not one with fans — or even piped-in fake crowd noises — to support the team, to make the marathon of the NBA season less hostile, less stressful, if even for half the games. The Raptors were airlifted away from their lives to come play basketball in Tampa Bay, a place with no semblance of connection to their families or friends or usual basketball haunts. If the rest of the NBA is running a clean horse race, the Raptors are running a desert dash like Hidalgo, with no rest at home or away. The deck is rigged.

It shows. Through six games, the Raptors are playing with all the misery of those who work a job for money and nothing else. No pride. No joy in playing basketball. No pleasure in the company of teammates. The most emotion the Raptors have shown in games has been outrage at referees. 

“There is a long list of excuses to be honest with you,” admitted Fred VanVleet after the game when I asked him about the team’s off-court struggles. “You can’t lock into that way of thinking. Like I said, we’re not moving, we’re going to be here in Tampa. It’s not our home, fans are going to cheer for that other team, and that’s the reality of the situation. So you can sit around and cry about it, or figure out a way to work through it.”

Translation: you’re right, and it isn’t fun, but there’s not much we can do to change that.

The fact of the matter is that the Raptors don’t want to be here. And don’t expect that to change when the Raptors get to go on the road, either.

“I mean, I literally haven’t left the hotel on our road trips yet,” said Nick Nurse. “It’s like, you go to a city and you stay in the hotel. It’s not like we’re going out and doing a heck of a lot of bonding.”

Nurse has been open with media about the team’s on-court struggles. Shockingly so, for an NBA head coach. One might even say he’s leaning into the tough love.

I’m disappointed in Matt. I’m disappointed in Terence. They’ve made way too many mistakes defensively,” he said before the Raptors’ indifferent performance. 

And he was no less critical after the game.

“If you want to be honest about it, [Malachi Flynn] didn’t really do much out there, really, right? And if you want to be honest about it, Norm hasn’t played very well this year. And [Terence Davis] hasn’t played very well. And Matt didn’t play well.”

No amount of hard coaching, or public call-outs, or one-game suspensions, can make a group of adults want to be somewhere and do something in which they seem to have little interest. One might even say that criticism makes basketball less fun. Nurse is leaning into basketball fixes, but what if the basketball problems have deeper causes?

As a matter of fact, the Raptors had every reason to care coming into the Celtics game. They faced the rival Celtics for the first time since being eliminated at their hands in a grueling seven-game series. Entering the game, the Raptors were 1-4, with their only win against the New York Knicks. They have been questioned and criticized and written off, which in past years has been Toronto’s sweet spot.

Yet the Tampa Raptors could not be motivated to do as much as pretend for most of the game.

Blame is not to be equally shared. Fred VanVleet played one of the best games of his career, hitting everything he threw at the rim. He finished with 35 points. Chris Boucher played excellent defense. Kyle Lowry was, as always, effective. Pascal Siakam finally scored semi-efficiently, reached the free throw line, and dunked the basketball.

Those few successes don’t absolve the team of its struggles. These Raptors have the talent, the cohesion, and the experience to be a wonderful basketball team. Perhaps adding a more effective center would help, as would finishing shots around the rim. But this team doesn’t need on-court fixes, it needs deeper ones. The on-court struggles are a symptom, not a cause, of the real issue.

NBA players do not forget their abilities. Pascal Siakam has a long history as an offensive and defensive star. He spent much of the night having Celtics blow past his ostensible defense and even committed a turnover in the post when a rookie pulled out the chair. Aron Baynes has been a successful journeyman center for a long time, but he missed a variety of uncontested layups against Boston. Norman Powell was one of the most efficient scorers in the league last year and has been perhaps the least effective player in the league this campaign. These are players with histories. Resumes. They don’t all fall off the map at the same time. Occam’s razor would indicate that the simplest answer lies outside of lines on the basketball court.

Lowry, for one, was not willing to admit that the Raptors’ situation has resulted in their struggles.

Our job had to relocate,” he said when I asked him if the move could have sparked the poor play. “We relocated in a bubble, and we were fine. We relocated to Tampa, and guys go figure it out. We’re grown men. This is what we do; we get paid to play basketball, and if we have to relocate, we relocate.”

But my job is fun. I wake up, I’m alive, I have a beautiful family, kids, and I get to go play basketball for a living. That’s fun in general.”

As always, Lowry showed perspective. Perhaps not unrelated: he has played consistently well in Tampa, one of a short list of Raptors, along with VanVleet and Boucher. But even if Lowry has the impressive ability to remain thankful for his life and find fun wherever it may hide, many of his teammates have not shown such an ability. It’s hard to blame them, but it does result in losing basketball.

We’ll hear talk, if the losing continues, of players-only meetings. We’ll hear about the need for being tougher, and late-night workouts, and why the Raptors have never been more motivated. We’ll hear, with each loss, about why the players have increasingly more reasons to win. But they don’t. They are in the middle of hectic lives, facing personal struggles that no other NBA teams need face. 

I do worry about guys’ mental health as a brother and a teammate and a friend,” said VanVleet. “It’s not an easy situation. I don’t want to discard that. But at the same time it’s a situation we’re in, and the season is not gonna stop. We can hang our hats on that. We’ve gotta find a way to get through it. It’s definitely different from being in Toronto, obviously, but here we are.”

They may need to find a way to get through it, but it’s clear that they don’t want to be in Tampa. And neither, it appeared on Monday night, does Tampa want them. Their reporters ask mostly about the weather in post-game pressers. Tampa fans were more boisterous cheering for Tacko Fall than for any actual Raptor or their play on the court. The Raptors face barriers on and off the court. The team may have salvaged the season with a move to Tampa Bay, but for what result? The Raptors and Tampa is a match made in monetary heaven — in that the season can actually happen — but performance hell. And until that paradox can be resolved, expect the Raptors to keep losing.

Who can blame them?

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