The big four of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam were out. Gary Trent and Chris Boucher were available, but they received DNP-CDs in order to rest. Rodney Hood and Paul Watson were out with real injuries. When Yuta Watanabe played well early in the game, he left with ankle soreness. Toronto was left with just seven available players, broken down into three centers, two guards, and two wings.
The result, of course, was a rout in favour of the Chicago Bulls. That was a given. That Stanley Johnson offered 35 points, pouring in stepback jumpers, stepthrough floaters, and dunks in transition was decidedly not a given. A career 29.6 3-point shooter, he hit as many triples as the rest of the Raptors combined. Still, it’s happened before, more or less. He even hit a game winner in his last end-of-season romp. That he didn’t get the win this time around didn’t make it any less fun.
Toronto’s handful of games remaining to close the season are as much auditions for other teams as anything else for some of the players on the court. Several of the players on the court for Toronto — not least among them Johnson, Aron Baynes, and others — are unlikely to be on the roster next year. And on tryout night, Johnson was the singular star of the game, setting a career high and outscoring Zach LaVine by 11. It’s not an impossibility that this night extended Johnson’s career in the NBA after an up-and-down season. He seemed to recognize the importance after the game.
“Man, I just feel like, through my life, you just gotta be thankful for stuff,” he said. “I remember as a kid I’d I ask God ‘can you just please put me on an NBA team and if I could run the bench for 10 years, I’ll be the happiest MFer in the world.’ And then you know you get to 24 you start getting ungrateful for things. And for me it’s all about being grateful.”
The Raptors know what they have in Johnson, and even his explosive offensive performance doesn’t change the team’s evaluation of him. But quietly, Jalen Harris’ play gave the Toronto Raptors more about which to be excited than disappointed. He accelerated into straight-line drives and lofted feathery layups over his shoulder for points. He stroked triples with his attractive jumper. He didn’t explode like Johnson, but Harris is less of a sure thing. He shot 7 of 12 from the field, and he could grow into an effortless scorer in time. While Johnson stole the headlines, Harris was Toronto’s most polished scorer on the night.
“He’s a scoring guard, he’s got a little bit of handle, and combo in him,” said Nick Nurse.
Even Malachi Flynn played well, breaking out of a funk that has plagued him for the better part of a few weeks. He shot well and hit the paint more frequently than he has in past games. Though he often didn’t have a passing outlet once he got there, that doesn’t dampen the shine on the positive offensive process from Flynn. Toronto must have been happy with its rookies in this one.
Ultimately, the Raptors lost big. That’ll happen when you play much of the game with Freddie Gillespie and Aron Baynes sharing the court. That’s life. In fact, that was the whole goal of the game; in losing to the 10th seed Bulls, Toronto secured the 11th seed in the East and the seventh-best odds in the lottery. They’ll have a 7.5 percent chance at the first overall pick in the draft now and a 31.9 percent change at a pick among the top four. For our present purposes, the Raptors can’t lose their current position, which means we may well see a number of the Raptors miraculously healthy after sitting recent games.
OG Anunoby especially, at 23 years old, could add to his game with force-fed initiation reps in Toronto’s last two games. Kyle Lowry could play his final game in a Raptors jersey. There are plenty of possibilities.
At this point, the Raptors just want to leave Tampa. Fred VanVleet says he misses the grocery stores, and Lowry says he misses the … Gardiner? That’s a level of missing Toronto I’ve never reached. That’s love. It’s been a Sisyphus-long season for Toronto, and the team is happy to take wins where it can, even when they come in the form of losses to the Bulls. Thirty-five points are nothing to scoff at. That there are only two games left in the season surely helps.
Johnson provided the entertainment, and Harris and Flynn provided the tease of future success. In a season with such diminished expectations, that was enough for a worthwhile game.