Well, well, well… if it isn’t the final game of the season.
The Toronto Raptors’ 2020-21 season didn’t go as planned for a number of reasons: COVID, injuries, and Tampa Bay, Florida, to name a few. But before it officially ends on Sunday afternoon with a matinee game against the play-in tournament bound Indiana Pacers, let’s take a moment to appreciate Raptors’ basketball while we still can. Because as brutal as this season was, the Raptors will be missed as the NBA gets set to host its first playoffs without them since 2013.
While it will be somewhat relaxing for many of us to enjoy the playoffs without the stress of rooting on our hometown team, it will also be weird to have no real stakes in the game. It might even turn out to be somewhat disappointing to no longer plan our days around the Raptors. So, for one final time on Sunday afternoon, let’s do just that, and enjoy the process.
After all, this season has been about process over results from almost the get-go. While tanking was not the prerogative until very late in the season, the Raptors did prioritize development over results in significant ways from the very first game. For example, they put the ball in Fred VanVleet’s hands from the start, playing Kyle Lowry in more of an off-ball role and giving VanVleet the keys to the offence. That was more about developing VanVleet’s playmaking skills than it was about immediately winning games, and the leap he has made in that area is significant and should bode well for next season, regardless of what happens with Lowry (you can never have too much playmaking). The same thing can be said about playing Pascal Siakam with a non-spacing big like Aron Baynes, or giving OG Anunoby more on-ball reps, or letting Chris Boucher put the ball on the floor.
But down the stretch of the season, that focus on development shifted to the Raptors’ younger players, and it is beginning to pay off in significant ways. While it is hard to judge players at the end of the season — when opponents are likely taking it easy and expecting to win against the shorthanded Raptors — it is clear that players like Malachi Flynn, Jalen Harris, Yuta Watanabe, Paul Watson and Freddie Gillespie have taken significant strides from the beginning of the season to now. If you go back and watch their first few games compared to now, they look like different players: ones who are more confident in their dribble, better three-point shooters, and with better position defensively. Even Gary Trent Jr., DeAndre Bembry, and Stanley Johnson have made subtle improvements.
So, as we get ready to watch the final game of the season, let’s enjoy the development we are seeing and let’s think back to a few short (feels long) months ago to when these players simply couldn’t do the things that they now are. It’s a different way to enjoy basketball, but it has been rewarding to witness the development of these young players and it’s exciting to think about next season when they will get to showcase these enhanced skill sets in games that matter.
Both teams are extremely banged up, but the Pacers — currently in a three-way tie for the 7th to 10th seeds in the East— have something big to play for, whereas the Raptors do not. Still, the Raptors just went toe-to-toe with the Dallas Mavericks and could add Trent and Boucher to the mix against the Pacers, so expect a competitive game that will truly test the friendship of opposing head coaches Nick Nurse and Nate Bjorkgren.
Tip-Off: 1pm EST | TV: TSN | Radio: TSN 1050
Kyle Lowry (rest), Fred VanVleet (hip), Pascal Siakam (shoulder), OG Anunoby (calf), Paul Watson (knee), Rodney Hood (hand), and Yuta Watanabe (ankle) are out. More updates to come.
PG: Malachi Flynn, De’Andre Bembry
SG: Gary Trent Jr., Jalen Harris
SF: Stanley Johnson
PF: Chris Boucher, Freddie Gillespie
C: Khem Birch, Aron Baynes
Malcolm Brogdon (hamstring), Edmond Sumner (knee), Jeremy Lamb (knee), Myles Turner (toe), and T.J. Warren are out. Aaron Holiday (toe), and Domantas Sabonis (knee) are day-to-day.
PG: T.J. McConnell
SG: Caris LeVert, Justin Holiday
SF: Oshae Brissett
PF: Doug McDermott, Kelan Martin, JaKarr Sampson
C: Goga Bitadze, Amida Brimah
The Pacers are 6-point favourites to win.