Albert Camus made one of the finest literary achievements of his day in observing that the doomed man is free. In L’Étranger, Meursault was wracked by indifference in all things, up to and including the death of his mother. But he eventually found purpose and even a sense of passion after being sentenced to death. Upon finally seeing the prison chaplain, he chases him out of his cell shouting that only he, Merseault, has any certainty. He learned a fact in finally having his fate revealed to him: there is only one certainty to which humanity can aspire.
The Toronto Raptors, similarly, walked into a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers with heads held high, facing certain defeat. The Raptors sported four players who were in the NBA a week ago: Yuta Watanabe, Chris Boucher, Dalano Banton, and Svi Mykhailiuk. Each is a supporting piece at best, ill-suited to the requirements of leadership that this game demanded. The Cleveland Cavaliers were dented by illness as well, but they rostered a variety of established NBA players, including All-Star hopeful, Darius Garland. The Raptors, like Meursault, knew exactly what they were facing as they stepped into the spotlight.
It was King Theoden’s finest moment, perhaps, when notified that the Rohirrim did not muster enough men to defeat the armies of Mordor. “No we cannot,” he mused. “But we will meet them in battle nonetheless.”
Certainty is a rare prize, and certainty in defeat is one of the most precious gems available. It yields great poetry, great art. And for the Raptors, it yielded a great story.
Watanabe rose to the occasion of being his team’s leader, finishing with 26 points and 13 rebounds, both career highs. The real story, though, was that of Toronto’s newcomers.
In recent days, the Raptors added four players to the team to join the four holdovers. Tremont Waters, DJ Wilson, Juwan Morgan, and Daniel Oturu joined Banton, Mykhailiuk, Watanabe, and Boucher.
None of the newbies are NBA rookies. Waters has played with the Boston Celtics in multiple seasons, including last year. Wilson spent three-and-a-half years with the Milwaukee Bucks. Morgan spent two years with the Utah Jazz, and Oturu spent one with the Los Angeles Clippers. But this season, none were on NBA rosters. They all toiled in the G League, where so much of Toronto’s homegrown talent has earned its stripes before ascending to team stardom.
Morgan was showing off a reformed jumper with the Maine Celtics this year before joining the Raptors, while Oturu was putting up a 20-10-2 monster season (with range from deep) for the Windy City Bulls. Waters was starring with the Wisconsin Herd, and Wilson was starting for the Oklahoma City Blue. Each had tasted the NBA in past years before falling out of favour. Each was fighting to return to the league, and the Raptors offered that ticket back, with a catch: you’re going to have to survive the first game back.
Toronto’s first practice, first moment with the new four joining the old four, came just before 5 pm EST, with the game tipping off at 6. (They had met on the bus to the game.) The Raptors walked through as much as they could with the stolen moments before game time, with the idea was to keep everything as simple as possible. There wasn’t room for more than that.
They even kept the game close in the first quarter, as the Cavaliers threw turnovers all over the gym, and Toronto put together some easy points in transition. Wilson snatched four steals in the game’s first seven minutes. Waters hit his jumpers early. Watanabe scored in the teeth of the defense, with nifty strong hand floaters while taking contact. Fatigue set in shortly after; the Raptors haven’t done any basketball work for over a week, with the outbreak limiting any contact between players. The new players have taken several flights over the past few days, with Wilson describing five just over the last few days: Oklahoma City to Los Vegas to to Chicago to Los Angeles to Cleveland. He’ll fly tonight to Toronto.
Heroism isn’t always about winning. The Raptors fell short of heroism, of course — this is basketball, not a fight for Middle Earth. But they faced certainty with courage. That’s about everything you’re gonna get from a game like this. Merseault, of course, didn’t have to star in 82 books a season, and Theoden only had a couple fights left in his old bones after that that speech. The Raptors have to suit up again on Tuesday.