Some other ways to consume your RR content, first. We have quick reaction grades from Manny Rao. We have the Rap Up with Sahal Abdi and Oren Weisfeld.
At a certain point, losses — or wins — stop mattering. The Toronto Raptors organization doesn’t seem to be sweating the difference these days, so why should we? Ultimately, if the Raptors make the playoffs, it will be behind incredible play from their core, including young and developing players, like OG Anunoby and Malachi Flynn. If they don’t make the playoffs, they’ll earn the reward of a high draft pick in a strong draft. Both are wins in terms of team outlook next season. The result of that for our purposes? I was going to lavish praise on Khem Birch no matter what after the Cleveland Cavaliers game. Win-win circumstances deserve positivity.
So let’s lavish some praise on some deserving Raptors. The Raptors faced a championship-favourite Brooklyn Nets with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and they went punch for punch for 40 minutes. The concept of moral victories are far in Toronto’s rearview, but the Raptors did play some good ball. Just not for long enough.
“We did a great job on Durant, a great job on Irving and those guys just made the plays,” said Nick Nurse. “Kind of what we wanted to do, but I thought — we ended up with 103, we probably had the shots to score about 125 tonight, to be honest with you. We didn’t finish enough layups or make enough three-balls.”
As far as prediction goes — and as previously stated, the results of this season no longer matter, so prediction for the long-term is the only matter of import for the remaining games — there’s more value in process than results. And Toronto’s process was fantastic; Nurse was correct that the team should have scored more points based on the quality of their looks.
Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam finished shooting a combined 6 of 33. That’s not good. But Siakam was spry and bouncy, and the shots he missed were bunnies at the rim or open triples. Given that he’s been on a hot streak for the majority of April, it’s more important that he continued to create the same quality of looks than that he missed them.
VanVleet’s performance hurt. He stopped the ball, turned it over, and settled for difficult, contested looks. Media asked him after the game how his body felt, and he succinctly replied, “like shit.” VanVleet has played hurt so often in the past that I asked him if he’d ever change his game to protect his body. He seemed to at least consider the idea.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m certainly not trying to hurt myself,” he said. “But, yeah, I could change the way I play for sure, it’s what got me this far so it’d be something to revisit in the off-season and add more mids, floaters, runners and stuff in the paint. I’m gonna be who I’m gonna be and we’ll revisit that as a franchise this summer, I’ll talk to Nick, I’ll talk to management and see if there’s any suggestions on me switching my playstyle, but I don’t plan on changing any time soon. It’s got me to this point, and I definitely can get better, there’s a lot of room for improvement, and I plan to keep getting better each day and each year.”
Healthy VanVleet has burst and speed and shotmaking and everything good in the bag. He closed out a championship, and for much of the season, he was Toronto’s best player. Don’t worry too much about a single poor performance when he’s a proven commodity.
That was the bad. See how easy it was to shrug that off? Now let’s get into the good.
OG Anunoby — and this is burying the lede — played one of the most impressive games of his career. He has had bigger numbers, as he finished with only 21 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals against the Nets. But many of his shots were created against a set defense. At one point he crossed over Kevin “I hate the Raptors” Durant and finished with a dunk. He drove and dumped bounce passes to Khem Birch at the dunker spot for easy points. (His six aforementioned assists are a tied career high.) He tossed in a one-legged fadeaway from the post. He hit open triples. He attacked in transition and weaved through multiple defenders. He finished minus-two in a 13-point loss, and he looked every bit a player ripe for shedding a cocoon and soon evolving into something new.
Only a week ago I wrote about Anunoby’s breakout season, and this game indicated that I far undershot the mark on his developmental curve.
“He’s doing good, starting the drive, getting by his initial defender,” said Nurse. “He’s doing good at getting on balance and using his body down there. He’s fairly crafty… Then also he’s got his skills developing too, as you see with the turnaround and the fadeaway and he had a jump, a right handed jump hook once too. So, yeah, he’s coming along really nicely as a player.”
Anunoby wasn’t alone in playing well. Khem Birch was unbelievable on the defensive end, walling off the paint, and he finished with 14 rebounds, 9 of them (!) offensive. Kyle Lowry was as engaged and single-minded as he’s been all season, finishing with an efficient 24 points. Malachi Flynn scored 13 points off the bench and at times propped up the team’s entire offense.
Unless Anunoby plays as he did against the Nets forever — which is a leap, but not a crazy one — or Siakam becomes a consistent knockdown shooter from deep, the Raptors probably don’t have a player on the roster who is or can become the primary option on a championship team. They do have a roster readymade for an incoming such player to lift the team to great heights. Between Siakam, Lowry, Anunoby, or VanVleet, the Raptors have an ideal group of second bananas on a championship squad. It happened before, and now that the Raptors are playing good basketball again, it seems like a possibility in the future, too. It’s been a long season of painful basketball. The Raptors have made many mistakes, some their own fault, and some uncontrollable. But now that the Raptors are finally playing good basketball, with so many players across the roster showing signs of fulfilling their potentials, enjoy it. The team winning or losing no longer matters.