This sure doesn’t feel like "found money"

I have been subscribing to this being another bridge year right from preseason. In fact, right from the time in Game 1 of the season where Masai Ujiri, while being interviewed during the game, took advantage of a turnover to describe the season as “more of that”. Essentially, a young team coming together to find its way was the theme of the year. The win-loss record mattered little and after the Tampa season this was all about recovery more than reconquest.

Yet here we are down 0-2 to the Sixers and not a single cell in my body takes comfort in the season being “found money”. I am frustrated after each bad play and ecstatic after each made three. The context of the season has no bearing on my emotions as I watch the postseason. In Game 2’s Quick Reaction, I was blasted for giving Pascal Siakam a poor grade which I stand by because I expect more for him, and as I write the Quick Reaction seconds after the final buzzer sound, my heart and mind is distraught due to the loss. I take no solace in this being a developmental year, the progress Siakam has made this year, or the fifth seed being a gift from Lady Fortuna. All I care about is wiping that look off of Joel Embiid’s face and hoping Tyrese Maxey and James Harden feel some pain on their drives. At no point since the playoffs started have I kicked back in my chair and comforted myself by downplaying the losses due to the goals set in October. I don’t think I’m alone in that one. I think it’s what makes fans, fans.

This also happens to be the first playoffs I’m watching with my 8-year old son, who has taken to basketball mostly by being obsessed with how the standings work and follows the changing numbers on a nightly basis. He knows more than me about each team’s form because he’s got the “Last 10” and “Streak” columns memorized in the standings. Philly is his second-favorite team. The reason being he likes that there’s a number in the name and that the mascot is cute.

I was hoping that he would get to see the excitement that accompanies Raptors playoff basketball, which we’ve seen none of. Instead, it’s been a weird repeat of the 2007 and 2014 playoffs where the Raptors played well in the regular season against their eventual playoff opponents, only to be beaten by the Nets on both occasions. I suppose what’s been lacking for me is that we haven’t seen the best of Raptors basketball, and there’s nothing special that Philly appears to be doing. The Raptors simply haven’t been able to defend the way the fans and they themselves expected them to defend. Since the foundation of this team is its defense, watching it crumble and concede 51% and 49% from three in two games is disheartening.

The Raptors also seem to have gone away from how they’ve been playing the last few months. Instead of Siakam poking and prodding at the defense, we have seen more of Fred VanVleet dribbling and going up against trees. There’s a line in Winning Time (the Lakers documentary) where head coach Jack McKinney stops practice after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar makes a skyhook and says, “That’ll be there all game. Get your teammates involved because while you’re setting up, the rest of the guys are standing and watching you”. It seemed relevant last night as Fred’s usage rate was 32% (well above league average) for his 31 minute stretch to open the game. While Fred dribbled the Raptors watched. More importantly, Philly, instead of being stretched, did the same.

I’m frustrated at James Harden not being taken advantage of defensively, especially since Philly has been keen to concede switches. He has averaged 1 foul per game whereas Embiid is at 3.5. By contrast, Siakam is at 4.5. How many possessions can you think of where Harden had to negotiate a double screen, defend the pick ‘n roll, or seemed overmatched? Not many. He may as well pull up a lawn chair and grab a Mojito on defense.  In the prelude to this series we were hoping taking Embiid out to the perimeter will be fruitful for the Raptors as he is liable to pick up fouls and will be less of a shot-blocking presence. We were hoping Harden could be worn out defensively so he wouldn’t have enough for the other end. Neither has happened, and again, as thankful as I am for the found money, it feels like rubles more than dollars.

I’ve always looked at the regular season results with a degree of skepticism, and increasingly so when ideas like load management became official. Shortening the season in favor of a more competitive tournament (e.g., FA Cup equivalent) is something I’ve written about in this space before, but my larger problem with such a long season is that the games stop being reflective of a team’s true capability. This playoff run is the first test of the “length and strength” approach, which worked wonderfully in the regular season and appears to be beatable if you have dribble penetration. The lack of interior shot-blocking seems to offset any advantage gained by passing lane disruptions on account of length. This is especially the case if the opposition is able to swing the ball quickly and hit outside shots. Disrupting play on the strong side doesn’t cause the havoc that it did in the regular season because teams have time to plan for it. There should be more opportunities to see competitive matchups where coaches have to plan for a longer period. Maybe do baseball-style series?

I believe in the Raptors experiment, it’s just that we’ve run into a situation where we are relying on refs to call the game not just consistently, but correctly.

While I’m hammering away at this keyboard, let me also get something else off my chest: am I the only one who doesn’t care about All-NBA awards? Or in general, regular season awards like MVP? I stopped paying attention to those in 1997 when Karl Malone won MVP over Michael Jordan, only to get his ass handed to him in the Finals. I get Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player of the Year being legitimate awards, as they are very specific, but I just don’t see how an MVP (which even if it’s not intended to, is equated to the best player in the league) can be crowned based on regular season games. It seems we’re leaving a very valuable set of data out of these calculations. The same is true for All-NBA awards, but I will concede the 82 games provide a normalized data set on comparing players.

However, leave all that aside, even if these awards were based on regular season games, it would mean a hell of a lot more if they were awarded by coaches, assistant coaches, and players instead of the media. Media members simply don’t watch enough of the league to be given the weight they get. Contrast this to assistant coaches who have to religiously scout and watch countless hours of game tape all throughout the season. Who do you think is in a better position to dole out opinions and awards?

All this brings me back to Pascal Siakam and the absolutely mind-numbing arguments I’ve heard about whether he’s All-NBA or not. Since there are three All-NBA teams this is asking the question of whether he is a top 15 player (more or less). However, the better question is whether he’s a top 6 forward in the league. I can’t name you six forwards who are clear-cut better than him. I’ll try: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and…Draymond Green? Domantas Sabonis? So to me, Pascal Siakam is an All-NBA player, and maybe that does something for him personally, but as a fan I could care less. I’d rather him surprise people in the postseason by playing like a top NBA player.

Game 3 is a must-win because of all the stats that stack up against you once you go down 0-3. But for me it’s to avoid that nasty feeling I had when we got swept by Washington in another 4-5 matchup. I can’t have that weighing on me this summer, no matter how many bridge years are to follow.

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