Embodied in Paul Watson Jr. and Yuta Watanabe, the Raptors are having fun again

6 mins read
Graphic by Alex Tansley

Sahal and Zarar on Rap Up.

The storm swirled slow to start. The zombie Toronto Raptors even lost the first half against the zombie-r Orlando Magic. Though he recorded his first career start against the Magic, Paul Watson Jr. didn’t score a basket until hitting hit a transition triple in the second quarter. At that point, he was only biding his time. Though quiet, he looked comfortable.

Then in the third quarter, he drove for a layup but came up limping, shook it off on the next possession with a triple. Then a corner triple in transition, followed by one from the other corner. The top of the key next, then another from 30 feet. By the time the lava had cooled and hardened, he’d hit six triples in as many minutes. The game was over, the deficit too large for even a real NBA team to overcome, let alone the Magic.

For good measure Watson Jr. entered the game with two minutes left and the Magic already tucked into bed, lullaby snug. He caught the ball on the left wing. He dropped into triple threat, but all 3400 people in Amalie Arena including the 100 Raptor fans knew what was going to happen next. The ball barely touched the net on the shot, as Watson Jr.’s cherry on top gave him an even 30 points in the game. It was his career high by a Tampa mile. He didn’t crack a smile the whole time.

In his manically stoic outburst, Watson Jr. offered Toronto a moment. Such are the building blocks of fandom, of sports. Only last season, moments for the Raptors were as populous as buffalo on the great plains. But as with the buffalo then and with moments now, circumstances beyond the Raptors’ control led to their demise. It has been a struggle for the Raptors to find joy, so what would once have been a ho hum evening is now a cause for celebration.

You wouldn’t have known it if you judged the game entirely on the Raptor creating the moment. Watson Jr. himself was emotionless up and down the court, focused only on his next jumper.

“Yeah,” said Nick Nurse after the game, “he was pretty focused.”

For all Watson Jr.’s calm, Toronto’s bench was carnival madness. The usual starters, instead in street clothes, whooped and hollered, struck poses in celebration, and showed all the emotion that Watson Jr. lacked. They had plenty about which to be excited. If Watson Jr.’s moment hadn’t happened, Toronto had one waiting in the wings; Yuta Watanabe played the best game of his career, too, as he finished with 21 points and was decisive, hitting triples of his own, and even whistling into the defense for gentle two-handed slams.

“I’m really mad at him,” joked Watanabe after the game. “That was supposed to be my night.”

It’s not like Watanabe stole the show in terms of celebration, though. Though he smiled here and there during he game, he was, like his teammate, acting like he’d been there before. Watson Jr. seemed jealous of his calm after the game.

When it comes to demeanor, he’s a lot like me,” said Watson Jr. “Honestly, I’m a really quiet guy and I never thought I could be beat when it came to that until I met Yuta.”

That the Raptors treated a fun explosion as little more than a fun explosion is perhaps the best cause for celebration, in terms of predicting the rest of the season. You’d thing a team starved for fun and wins would latch onto both like a Jack Russell, not letting go until death or season’s end do them part. Of course, the Raptors did celebrate, but they waited until the proper moment after the game. And they aren’t letting the moment linger.

After games, Nurse doesn’t usually enter the locker room until all his guys are already there. On this night, Nurse heard a roar building inside the locker room while he was outside. He walked in to find Watson Jr. finally smiling, his teammates mobbing him. Their moment had come.

But they won’t enjoy it too much. Watson Jr. said that he will celebrate when it’s time, but not during a game. So I asked him how he’ll celebrate, and he said by watching YouTube videos when he gets home. Then back to work the next day. Talk about understating a moment. Such is the way of the season, and for a Raptors team looking to make the play-in tournament despite a cavalcade of injuries, Watson Jr.’s is the best demeanor for which they could hope.

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