Picture this with me: it’s a long west coast road trip, and the Toronto Raptors are already hip deep in flights, time zone changes, and hotels. The exhausted Raptors have a back to back against the teams from Los Angeles, and they open with a stunning win over the Lakers. Pascal Siakam stars while driving to the rim on a short-handed Raptors team missing one of its star point guards. The next night a Clippers’ team awaits that is a championship favourite. Toronto plays ahead for much of the game, defends well, but ultimately ends up falling behind late due to an offensive drought. Siakam plays well again but is inefficient from the field.
Open your eyes. (Did I ask you to close your eyes? I can’t remember. These 10 pm start times are getting to me.) Are you picturing this year’s trip that culminated in Toronto’s 105-100 loss? Or Toronto’s 2019 west coast road trip? Because — surprise surprise — they’re not so different!
What’s old is new again. The circularity of time isn’t just a True Detective trope; it’s also true in Raptors’ land. Of course, in the time in between the two road trips, Toronto looked like a real playoff threat, came back rusty from an extended (!) break, lost to the hated Boston Celtics in the bubble playoffs, started out the season in a funk, fought back to the fourth seed, was forced to play games while players and staff had COVID, sunk to the bottom of the East, and has only recently started playing winning basketball again.
It’s been a long few year and a half.
And at the end of the tunnel, the Raptors are right back where they started. In November of 2019, the Raptors returned home from their trip for a seven-game winning streak, which wasn’t even the longest of their season. Toronto’s longest winning streak this year has been a meagre four, which they’ve accomplished twice. They’ve certainly been less consistent this season, but their highs — the water mark placed here, now, with their win over LeBron James and his defending champion Tune Squad — have been practically as high, all things considered.
“We’re the best worst team of all time,” joked Fred VanVleet after the game. “So that’s part of where we’re at right now. We need to get some more wins out of this situation, but we’re playing damn good basketball.”
The Raptors remain an exceptional basketball team even after this 1-3 road trip. Perhaps because of it. It doesn’t seem like much, but the Raptors competed for all 48 minutes against the second, third, fourth, and sixth seeds in the west.
“Played pretty good, not a lot to show for it,” said Nick Nurse. “I think we played all, 15 of 16, pretty good quarters.”
They wouldn’t have done that at any other point in the season, not against this competition. But there’s not enough time left in the year for it to matter. They could possibly ride out the season in vengeance mode, qualify for the play-in tournament, and make the playoffs only to get waxed by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. That would be a noble end to an ignoble season. But however this season ends, it’s a lost one.
Next year looms bright. VanVleet played like a star, finishing with 27 points and 13 assists. He hit deep pull-up triples in transition, attacked the rim for and-1s, and defended Kawhi Leonard like a pro, limiting him — with help from the system — to 13 points on 6 shots. That shot attempt total was the lowest since January 25, 2016 for Leonard. Not coincidentally, Leonard’s game against Toronto last year also resulted in his season-low for shot attempts, with 11.
Siakam was inefficient, but he was spectacular for stretches on both ends. Khem Birch was great. Freddie Gillespie showed improved footwork on both ends. Jalen Harris got some run and hit three triples. If all of this sounds repetitive, it’s because it is. I wrote the same thing here after the Denver Nuggets game. And here after the Brooklyn Nets game. Which brings us, like the Raptors, full circle back to the start.
This year is lost. It’s for building, and the Raptors are doing that. The losses are frustrating, but the high water mark is already above Toronto’s heads for the season, barring any fireworks to come. Even if they do offer more positives in the remaining handful of games, they’ll be fleeting. It’s a different kind of perspective for the Raptors right now, but I suppose we ought to be thankful that fans haven’t looked at a Raptors’ season in this way for a long time.
The future will be different. If Toronto can hang with the Clippers, Nuggets, and Jazz with partial rotations, then things bode well for next year. Toronto hasn’t had its full rotation of VanVleet-Kyle Lowry-OG Anunoby-Siakam-Birch with Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., Paul Watson, Yuta Watanabe, Chris Boucher, and Freddie Gillespie off the bench for one single solitary second this year. Everyone is improving in bits and pieces, pods, isolated. It’s fitting, in a way, for what this year has been for so many of us.
On that note, next year will be better for the Raptors as it will be for the rest of us. Next year in Toronto. Next year in health. The rest of the season is just a means of conveyance towards that impossible, undeniable dream.