If there was any shred of argument left for the Raptors to be buyers at Thursday’s trade deadline, or to at least hold, this was it. The Raptors steamrolled the Nuggets, 135-111. Denver was on a back-to-back, sure. They also entered nine games better than the Raptors in the standings, with a top-five offence and a top-five net rating. They are very good, if they’re not great.
And the Raptors got whatever they wanted against them, not only blowing them out but setting a franchise record with 24 3s in the process. With a few games to recondition themselves, the Raptors’ starters looked deadly together. Other than some VanVleet-led bench minutes that aren’t particularly fair to him and a quick and unsuccessful Aron Baynes cameo, everything worked. Powell kept putting up 20-pieces. Siakam had a second consecutive excellent game following his stir-up with Nick Nurse. Anunoby scored 23 points and flashed several fun highlights, taking bigs off the dribble and finding cutters and even unleashing a fadeaway in the post. Paul Watson Jr. helped close the game out with four 3s, and DeAndre’ Bembry had several very cool finishes.
This is who the Raptors thought they could be: five very good players, some well-fitting bench pieces, a system that maximizes that on defence and a dogged determination that makes the sum greater than its parts. It is what they believed they’d found when a 2-8 start turning into a 15-9 stretch, with wins against the very best of the Eastern Conference.
This is what could have been. Or could be, if you want to use Wednesday as the fading grip on a run to the play-in games and maybe a first-round playoff upset. You don’t have players like Kyle Lowry often. You have them once, if you’re really lucky. If there’s a chance — and the KLOE Era in Toronto has been defined by defying the odds — well, what if?
One — What if: If this will be the last hurrah for this generation of the Raptors, then it was a triumphant one that gave one last peak at how special this group is. The Raptors broke their nine-game losing streak in emphatic fashion, walloping one of the best teams in the league from start to finish while playing their most complete game of the season. Any sense of dread or finality with franchise icons moving on stopped short of the court, where the Raptors drained 24 threes while the starting five combined for 99 points even though they sat for most of the fourth quarter. It’s too little too late and won’t change much about the changes in the coming hours, but for what it was, the Raptors went out in style and with their heads held high.
There was a sadness around the whole thing, and not just because Lowry hasn’t played a game in the arena he rocked nightly for more than a year at this point and because if he’s traded the next game he plays in Toronto will be in an opposing team’s uniform.
It was sad too because, for one night in what has been largely a miserable season spoiled by relocations and injuries and illness and arguments, the Raptors looked like themselves. They moved the ball unhesitatingly. They defended as a swarm. They looked happy on the floor and they dominated one of the best teams in the Western Conference as they led early, middle and late against the Nuggets. They won easily and had fun doing it.
Lowry more than anyone else. He scored eight points, dished nine assists and was happy to be orchestrating, appreciating the success of others.
“I shot five shots and didn’t even care at all because Freddie [VanVleet] played well, Norm played well, OG [Anunoby] played well, Pascal [Siakam] played well. I mean, our starting lineup was unbelievable,” said Lowry. “…like that stuff is cool to me. If I’m the one that’s sacrificing for those guys for the team to be better that’s what matters to me. To be a plus-42 that’s a crazy number to me and I’ve seen that [former Raptor] Mark Jackson is a plus-46 [the franchise record] and I’m mad I didn’t get four more. But we got a win and that was huge. That was a real-life huge thing for our team.”
It was a throwback to last season when Toronto played the regular season at a 60-win pace and proved that superstars don’t make the team. It was a joy. It was like seeing an old friend after too long apart. Everything looked familiar and every moment light.
The biggest question beforehand wasn’t where Lowry or Powell would play next but whether or not the Lowry and Powell would even play: It’s common practice for players on the cusp of being dealt to be held out of competition to avoid the possibility of an all-but completed deal to be scuttled due to a sprained ankle or worse.
But they were in their typical place in the starting lineup and played their regular dose of minutes as the Raptors rolled from the tip. It was like for a moment time was suspended and 2020-21 had never happened — if you could get over the fact that the last game Lowry and Powell could theoretically ever play as Raptors would be 2,100 kilometres south of Toronto.
If this is Lowry’s last game as Raptor after nine seasons and 576 starts, and franchise records for assists, steals, three-pointers made, charges drawn and playoff games won, it was a signature effort in that the box score wasn’t all that remarkable. He was happy to share the stage, get everyone else what they needed and most importantly a win to improve the Raptors to 18-26 as they try to claw themselves back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The two sides traded empty possessions before Murray hit a difficult 3-point shot. Toronto got a 3-point play to convert before Lowry stretched lead back to 20 with a long jumper. Millsap missed a shot in the paint before hitting a triple following a Raptors’ layup, but Lowry matched him with a 3-pointer of his own. Porter hit a big 3-pointer off an offensive rebound by Millsap as multiple bodies hit the deck, but Anunoby answered back with one of his own.
Jokic got aggressive in the paint and drew a foul on Anunoby and hit a pair of free throws. Denver forced a miss from Anunoby but turned it over before Powell knocked down his third triple of the night. Jokic converted a layup and a steal into a quick four points, and Denver was back within 20 with 7:00 remaining. Porter got the team’s third opportunity to fall at the rim, but they sent O.G. to the line for free throws on the other end where he went 1-of-2.
A Barton turnover turned into a VanVleet triple. A pair of empty possessions was ended by Murray hitting a 3-pointer of his own, but Denver still trailed by 19 with less than 5:00 remaining in the third quarter. VanVleet hit a falling away 3-pointer over the outstretched hand of Barton as the clock was expiring, and Denver was battling just to keep in touch with Toronto with 4:02 remaining down by 20.
Following a Toronto timeout, Millsap was fouled after a VanVleet miss and was sent to the line and made 1-of-2. Empty possessions ended with a 15-footer from Boucher. The two sides traded misses for a few minutes before Porter got another offensive putback to fall. Denver was trailing 81-98 heading into the final period, and they were looking to make a fast and furious comeback over the final period.
Bembry got a shot to fall through a foul, and he was heading to the line for a 3-point play attempt that he converted. Denver was hitting 2s, but Toronto was hitting 3s as they lead 105-84. Out of a timeout, Siakam was fouled and converted both shots. Up by 23, Lowry put away a deep triple, and the game was rapidly fading. Facu hit a 3-point shot of his own. Denver was conceding defeat with the bench entering the game, and they gave up a run of triples to be trailing by 32 points before Malone called another timeout with 6:34 remaining.
The two sides traded buckets before Denver gave up an and-one to Boucher which stretched the lead to 35. Bol Bol put a pair of points on the board, but it was too little too late for the Mile High Team. Denver had won eight of their last 10, but their defensive luck had run out with the explosive performance the Raptors put up from 3-point range. Denver would ultimately fall 111-135.
The Raptors’ starting unit as a whole just clicked in this game like we’ve been looking for all season. The defense was sharp among all rotation players, but especially showed up with the starters adapting to the Nuggets’ attack. Collapsing on Jokic, they were able to limit the influence of the MVP favourite, as the big man had just (haha) 20 points and ten rebounds; Jamal Murray had 20 to co-lead the Nuggets. The Raptors were also eager to take advantage of Denver’s miscues on defense, allowing for one of their best explosions of the season on that end.
OG Anunoby had his best game since returning from the virus, scoring 23 points, including 5-for-9 from three, and grabbing six boards of his own. Norman Powell ripped off five of the team’s first eight points in the first quarter — perhaps a final tribute to First Quarter Norm — on his way to 22 points on just 12 shots in the game. Fred VanVleet chipped in 19, including a couple classic Freddy bombs when a possession looked lost.
Then, there was Kyle Lowry. Being an old-timer, I don’t have a hard time remembering what the Raptors’ offense often looked like before Lowry arrived. There’d be a toss to Chris Bosh, later Rudy Gay or DeMar DeRozan, and everyone else would just watch. Lowry’s manic presence eventually became a ball movement motor as his years with Toronto went on. Tonight was an excellent example, and maybe the last one, of that kind of influence Lowry can have.
While he took just five shots in the game, scoring eight points, Lowry posted a career-high +42 while on the floor, making all the right decisions in a red hot starting unit.
Lowry was also massive on defense, helping when necessary on Jokic in the high post position and disrupting Denver’s offense in the early part of the shot clock. His ability to get the Nuggets out of their comfort zone ensured that the Raptors’ hot shooting could give them the lead and keep it through most of the game.
And while it may not be goodbye to Lowry (a painful 24 hours await us now), there was certainly some emotion from the man in question as he left the court tonight.
Between the excellent broadcast, the shooting (a franchise record 24 made threes!), and the nostalgia at the end with Lowry and Powell — this was one of those Raptors games that gave you all the immaculate energy they used to. The only true disappointment is that this game couldn’t happen at Scotiabank Arena in front of a packed house — what would’ve been a great opportunity for Raptors fans to possibly pay off their franchise’s greatest player.
It was a glimpse at what could have been, had this season broken differently. What if the front office had retained or last fall, or done a better job replacing them? What if they had surrounded that core with better depth pieces? What if they pulled out a few of those narrow losses early in the season? What if they didn’t get hit by a COVID-19 outbreak just as they were starting to turn the corner? What if they brought this same level of effort, intensity and focus every night?
The decisions that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have to make are unlikely to be swayed by any one game, or series of games. They’re not going to become buyers simply because the team looked great against Denver, same as they weren’t going to sell just because they lost to the Cavs or Rockets. At 18-26 and with the 11th-best record in the Eastern Conference, they’ve got to take a realistic view of where they stand, where they want to go in the near and long-term future, and figure out how they’re going to get there.
Up until recently, the chances of a Lowry trade seemed slim. As of last week, the Raptors were still telling inquiring teams that they did not intend on moving their point guard ahead of the deadline, and according to sources, Lowry and his representatives fully expected him to finish the season with Toronto before hitting unrestricted free agency this summer.
While the Raptors have not been soliciting offers for Lowry, as multiple reports have indicated, they’ve become more inclined to listen over the past few days, with the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers emerging as frontrunners to land the 15-year vet if he is in fact moved.
It will hinge on a few factors. For one, what does Lowry want? He doesn’t have a no-trade clause, but with all the goodwill and mutual respect built up between player and franchise, the Raptors want to do right by him. They’re also not going to trade him just because they can, especially if he’s content playing out the season. It could be standard day-before-the-deadline posturing, but as of Wednesday night, sources confirmed that both Miami and Philly have been reluctant to push their chips in and make their best offers.
Of the two, Powell is more likely to be moved. At this point, it would be a surprise if he wasn’t. He’s expected to opt out of the final year of his current deal and become a free agent over this summer, and with his excellent season he’s probably priced himself out of being a long-term option for Toronto. With at least half of the league’s teams expressing interest in the sixth-year guard-forward, the Raptors seem determined to get an asset or two back for him rather than losing him for nothing.
There was a sense that perhaps an era was ending and it touched all facets of the night. Lowry signed some shoes for fans in Tampa’s Amalie Arena as he left the court, waved to the cameras recording his stroll to the locker room and then did a wide-ranging, 25-minute media session that bounced from his place in Toronto franchise history to his impending birthday.
“Whatever will be will be, honestly,” Lowry said. “That’s the truth: Whatever will be will be. At the end of the day, everything happens for a reason and you can’t control everything … but every decision that has happened that I’ve had a choice in doing has worked out for me very well and everything will be fine.
“At the end of the day everything will be fine, no matter what happens.”
Powell may not have been as openly emotional and he didn’t take the same walk down memory lane as Lowry did but he did mention how treasured he feels his relationship with the city and the franchise is.
“My roots are here,” he said. “I’ve given everything to the franchise. Obviously I want to stay here. I’m not out looking for other teams to go play for, and this, that and the other. I’m solely focused on this season, being with the team and hopefully being able to finish out the season with them.
“But I understand that it’s a business. We’ve seen in the past what happens, it doesn’t matter your feelings towards what you want, the organization and the people in charge that pay me to play are going to make decisions that they see fit for the direction for the franchise.”
If either or both leave — and nothing suggests it’s a sure thing any transaction is imminent — it will break up a wildly successful group and separate what has become a family.
Defensively, where the Raptors have struggled mightily to regain that form that had them temporarily among the top four seeds in the East before injuries and a COVID-19 crisis absolutely crippled them, there was a huge turnaround Wednesday night.
Much of it was due to the return of Anunoby, who was tasked with the near impossible job of finding a way to contain Nikola Jokic, a man who is getting plenty of attention as a serious threat for league MVP honours.
Anunoby didn’t just battle Jokic to a manageable 20 points, he was a full participant in the offence as well knocking down five three-pointers to match VanVleet for the game’s best and finishing with 23 points overall.
Powell, who according to the New York Times’ Marc Stein is attracting a vast array of offers from all over the league for his services, continued his red-hot scoring ways with 22 on the night, the 15th time in the past 24 games that he has reached the 20-point mark.
If there was a complaint about this Raptors effort, it came on the defensive boards where the bigger, longer Nuggets pulled down 17 offensive rebounds and turned them into second-chance points.
It was about the only area of the game that was of any concern for the Raptors who were locked in from the opening tip and didn’t let up on the Nuggets until Nurse emptied his bench with about five minutes to go in the game.
In a bit of an interesting development late in the second half, Paul Watson Jr., one of the young bench players Nurse has chosen to run with, had his best shooting game, hitting three pointers on three consecutive possessions, even if Lowry did have to basically force him to shoot the ball on the second one.
I’ve done my best to list the prospects from both teams in the order I think the Raptors might value them. That factors in age, upside, contract status, role and more. It’s imperfect, as reasonable minds can prefer one prospect to another, but I did my best.
Tyrese Maxey, Sixers
Rookie, No. 21 pick in 2020, 6-foot-2 combo-guard, 20 years old, three years of rookie-scale contract remaining before RFA (final two years are team options)
I loved Maxey entering the draft, viewing him as one of the higher-upside pieces that could potentially go outside the lottery. We didn’t go too deep on him because it seemed like there was no way he’d be around at No. 29, but he was No. 14 on both our amalgamated draft board and my Raptor-centric draft board. Though we were high on Flynn, Maxey was eight spots ahead.
Adding Maxey to a core that already has Flynn and VanVleet is a bit awkward, to be sure. The Raptors don’t hesitate to play multiple small guards together, though, and Maxey has a skill set that doesn’t overlap with the other two long-term point guards in place. He’s functionally a scoring/slashing two, and if the 3-ball comes along in time, he could play a sort of Powell-ish scoring role in second units. And while he doesn’t add a ton to the box score on defence, he was a very solid and savvy team defender in college, such that I think the Raptors would be confident in their ability to make lineups with two smaller guards work.
That Maxey’s been in and out of Philly’s rotation is the nature of being a rookie on a title hopeful. He has the highest upside of any piece potentially on the table.
Shake Milton, Sixers
Third season, No. 54 pick in 2018, 6-5 two-guard, 24 years old, two years left on four-year minimum contract before UFA (final year is a team option)
Come on, you thought I’d have one of the bigger G League success stories any lower than this? Milton is such a Raptor he even holds the record for most points scored in a combined G League-NBA single-day doubleheader, also known as the Gardiner Shuffle. It’s taken some time, but Milton has turned into a real scoring threat on a 76ers team that needs it. The dip in his 3-point shooting this year has hampered his efficiency at higher volume, but his combination to get buckets, work off the ball and be a secondary playmaker makes him a versatile weapon.
While Milton’s a bit further along developmentally than some other names here, the 76ers were smart to lock him up to a very team-friendly deal that won’t see him get expensive until 2023. Given that control and his current role on a win-now team, I think Milton is the prospect Philly would be firmest on keeping, even if Maxey has a higher ceiling.
Tyler Herro, Heat
Second season, No. 13 pick in 2019, 6-5 two-guard, 21 years old, two years of rookie-scale contract remaining before RFA (final year is a team option)
Herro is a divisive prospect. Some of that might be narrative-related. As the Heat made an unexpected run to the finals last year, Herro’s tires may have been pumped a bit too much. Statistically, he’s taken a step back this season, too. But there seems to have been an overcorrection, one of those scenarios where the hype leads to a prospect being called overrated enough that he almost becomes underrated (or, hopefully, properly rated).
Herro’s not necessarily my favourite prospect archetype given he’ll probably top out as tolerable on defence, but he’s a recent lottery pick who can really score and, if you’re the multi-step trade type, has legitimate value as a prospect around the league.
Even Herro’s offensive backstep can be explained. A shooter with a track record, Herro’s deflated 3-point percentage has at least some variance on otherwise good looks baked into it. He hasn’t become a bad shooter or less capable of getting open. Sometimes, the 3s don’t drop for an extended stretch. Inside the arc, Herro’s shown real growth, improving as a cutter and pick-and-roll player. He’s traded in some 3-point volume for more shots at the rim and floater range, and he’s improved his finishing dramatically, all while even fewer of his buckets have been assisted. That’s real growth and a good sign for his offensive versatility. Defensively, you’ll want to protect him, which is something you can do in lineups with VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam, anyway — Miami plays a lot of zone and he’s shown to be a capable team defender, just one you don’t want to leave on an island.
A Lowry-to-Miami deal should hinge on Herro’s inclusion.
Matisse Thybulle, Sixers
Second season, No. 20 pick in 2019, 6-5 wing, 24 years old, two years of rookie-scale contract remaining before RFA (final year is a team option)
I know what you’re thinking: How, exactly, are the Raptors going to score in the half court if you remove Lowry and Powell and drop Thybulle in there? It’s a concern. Thybulle averages 3.7 points, and even with a usage rate that makes Patrick McCaw look like a ball hog, Thybulle has been inefficient. He just does not have a lot of NBA-level talent outside of the transition game. Still, he’s young developmentally, and the Raptors have favoured that type before. What’s more, Thybulle has shown growth this season within 10 feet of the rim, scoring more efficiently and with more unassisted attempts. There’s a long way to go.
But man, that defence. You think the Raptors’ defence is aggressive and frenetic now? Thybulle is probably the most natural fit in Toronto’s defensive ecosystem as a rangy, switchy, 3-blocking chaos engine on that end. Factor that in with two more years of developmental time before he hits the market and it’s not hard to see a real rotation piece, even if the offence caps the upside at elite defensive specialist. And look, there’s a reason despite all these limitations, he’s played over 2,000 minutes for the 76ers these last two years.
Duncan Robinson, Heat
Third season, undrafted in 2018, 6-7 wing, 26 years old, RFA at end of season
On merit alone, Robinson would be higher here. He’s entering his prime years as one of, if not the best, shooters in the NBA. Whereas Matt Thomas is a shooting specialist, Duncaccino’s size and off-ball prowess allow him to avoid the specialist tag. There just aren’t many situations in which he can’t get that shot off, which is why he’s been able to average 9.7 attempts per-36 minutes for his career despite being a 41.7-percent shooter every team is trying to stop. It’s really, really easy to work a guy like that into your offensive system and have him create breathing room for everyone else, a major issue with the Raptors’ current construction. Size is always a little easier to manage around defensively, too.
Unfortunately, Robinson will be a 27-year-old RFA this summer, meaning acquiring him is essentially acquiring the right to pay him handsomely moving forward. That’s fine, it just dramatically lowers the value of him as a key piece of a deal.