Toronto Raptors games have turned a tanking contest. That, at least, is a game they can win.
The Raptors sat Kyle Lowry against the Oklahoma City Thunder with an infected toe that Nick Nurse said before the game would take 7-10 days to heal. The Thunder were missing a variety of players — virtually all of their best ones. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Mike Muscala, and Darius Bazley are out with injury. Al Horford is shut down for the season due to making the team too good to lose every game, otherwise known in the injury report as “rest.”
Despite having the four or five most talented players in the game, Toronto still lost 113-103. The Raptors played Aron Baynes for long stretches alongside their stars. He started the game and played 21 minutes, clogging the lane on every drive, and ambling at random while attempting to defender every Thunder drive. He finished with zero points, zero defensive rebounds, and zero blocks. As far as defensive rebounds go, Baynes was far from the only guilty party there; Toronto finished with only 28, allowing 19 offensive to the Thunder. Baynes’ counterpart, Moses Malone, finished with seven offensive rebounds of his own. Baynes also led the Raptors in plus-minus on the night, at plus-six, which is comical but also revealing of some of Toronto’s deeper issues.
The Raptors are not deep. They started the game without DeAndre’ Bembry or Paul Watson, who are out in the health and safety program. They’ve been there since March 26, and best wishes of course for their quick and full recoveries. The Raptors traded away Matt Thomas and Terence Davis at the trade deadline for draft picks, and they have not filled those empty roster spots. Furthermore, Rodney Hood and Stanley Johnson left the game with injury, not to return. Johnson is likely fine, but Hood will receive an MRI on his hip, and the way Nick Nurse described it after the game, the team seems to be bracing itself for bad news there.
With so many absences, the Raptors were without a cadre of bench wings. Johnson was able to play 18 minutes, to be fair, and he had a few nifty, euro-stepping drives through the lane. The Raptors even dusted off Yuta Watanabe for seven minutes, but he wasn’t able to make an impact.
Thus Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam were forced to play between 36 and 38 minutes each shortly after their return from the health and safety protocol. Conditioning has been an issue, as all three cooled down from the field late.
“We’re all hitting the same conditioning wall at the same time,” said VanVleet after the game. “So there are spurts where we play high-level basketball and there are spurts where we suck. It’s like we’re fighting uphill.”
Nurse described games the same way.
“It just seems to be a chore to get us through these games physically at the moment, and I think we’re paying for it in a lot of areas: Rebounding, execution on offence, shot-making, etcetera.”
There were of course some positives. There always are. Gary Trent Jr. had a career-high 31 points, many of which came on Norman Powell’s old pet plays. His shooting stroke was smooth, and he showed surprising bounce off the dribble. VanVleet finished with five steals and four blocks, as he seemed to be one of Toronto’s only active defenders.
“He can’t do it by himself, right? He can’t be the only one down there digging around and playing,” said Nurse.
But in general, the team was a whole pile of bad vibes.
Whether the team is intentionally tanking — they aren’t, to be clear, and on the court these guys are doing their best to win — or simply disastrous roster construction combined with poor injury luck, the Raptors just lost to a team that is actively trying its damndest not to win. The situation seems to be costing the Raptors emotionally at least as much as it costs them physically. In speaking with media, the usually eloquent VanVleet was dejected and brief. That’s not to criticize him; he was of course polite and kind with media members, but he simply didn’t have much to say.
That affects different guys in different ways. For a newcomer like Trent, he hasn’t been in Tampa Bay long enough to be shell shocked like his new teammates. So he sees his role as “coming into a situation like this, coming in, being an energy giver, not a taker.”
VanVleet said that the team isn’t pointing fingers. They’re past that. The will to show up and play seems to be taking such a mental toll on the Raptors that the game itself is secondary. It’s not easy to recover from COVID, for those player(s) who did have it, while being asked to play for virtually entire games. And it’s surely emotionally draining to see your teammates in COVID protocol so shortly after you leave it. To know what they’re going through.
All this to say, we are watching Toronto’s will broken on live television. Call it tanking if you must. The high draft pick better be worth it. Because this season keeps getting worse and worse.