Trailing the Dallas Mavericks by as much as 30 points in the third quarter, pretty much everyone wrote off the Toronto Raptors in Sunday’s matinee matchup. Sound familiar?
Even with tempered boos raining down from their home crowd at Scotiabank Arena after an uncontested Tim Hardaway Jr. three boosted the Mavs lead to a disheartening 30, the Raptors fierce competitive spirit and deep bench led them to a franchise-record comeback for the ages. The Raptors (21-9) were led by veteran Kyle Lowry and received some unexpected contributions from Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Lowry put up 32 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists, including several clutch 3 pointers. In what has become a defining characteristic of the Raptors, their stubbornness once again prevailed over the odds stacked against them.
Missing rising superstar Pascal Siakam and key contributors such as Marc Gasol and Norm Powell, the Raptors were clearly shorthanded (although the Mavericks were also missing 20-year-old phenom Luka Doncic, who missed his 4th straight game due to an ankle injury). The Raptors, however, then faced yet another daunting obstacle as they were not only being embarrassed at home but were also facing a game in Indiana the following night (a game the shorthanded Raptors once again rallied back in with contributions from their bench but ultimately lost in overtime), leaving them with a decision to make; mail it in and rest up or go for it all? Do we bother even playing along and answering this?
Nick Nurse and his resilient squad don’t know the meaning of quit, and it’s about time we stop underestimating them.
After years of teasing their fans with regular season success and playoff heartbreak, the Raptors shocked the world, winning the championship last year and forever cementing Toronto’s place in NBA history. Furthermore, they silenced naysayers who can finally stop questioning whether a lone Canadian city deserves to be a part of league comprised of American ones, or if it is even capable of keeping up with other NBA markets and perspective markets begging for a team, such as Seattle. The Raptors front office, coaching staff and player personnel had been undeservingly overlooked for several years prior to their Cinderella story championship run, and unfortunately due to Kawhi’s departure, their title defence season had been perceived no differently. They are still tasked with making doubters, admittedly myself included, look silly, a task they seem to be accomplishing night after night.
I am by no means an NBA expert, however, it does not take such credentials to acknowledge and appreciate the current Raptors era. My admiration is founded on not only what the club has been able to achieve, but also what the Raptors are in the process of achieving now, even without Kawhi Leonard.
See, it would have been far too easy for the Raptors to punt on this coming season. Coming off a championship run, exhausted from not only their extended playoff run but also the several months of celebrating it, it would not have been far-fetched to expect some fatigue to play a debilitating factor this season. It also would have been reasonable to expect some contentment from a club, who really did not have anything to prove anymore. Expectations coming into last season after cashing on the “Kawhi sweepstakes” were obviously “championship or bust” and this season was perceived to be more of a honeymoon, rather than a title defence.
This season, and several seasons beyond, had been perceived to be the price the Raptor’s acknowledged they would have to pay for their championship run, as their gamble fittingly ended the same way it started, in bittersweet fashion.
The Raptors paid a significant price for Kawhi, sacrificing a beloved piece of their history, in Demar DeRozan, and their future, in Poetl, which stung Raptor fans, for a shot at title contention immediately with Kawhi. Yes, it paid off with a parade and I am sure there are no regrets, but the aftermath of Kawhi’s departure to his hometown Los Angeles Clippers might have left a slightly sour taste in Raptor fan’s mouths and undoubtedly gave ammo to critics once again. In saying that, no one would have harped on a Raptor’s down year. No one would have impugned Masai Ujiri for his gamble, no one would have bashed Lowry and Siakam for a hangover or condemned the Raptors “deficient” supporting cast for only living up to what was expected from them. The deed could have been perceived to be done and the expectation could be lowered for the next few years in Raptors irrelevancy; clearly Lowry and co. have not received the memo. Although it’s still pretty early in the grueling 82-game NBA season, this comeback win highlights something greater than its seeding implications, it is the Raptors once again illustrating a plea for critics to finally give in, doubt does not affect this Toronto Raptors club, if anything it feeds them.
There was no plausible way to replace what Kawhi contributed to the team on a nightly basis (load management aside). After his departure, the Raptors turned to some unexpected players for support and thus far it has paid off. Very few predicted that substituting Kawhi’s presence with an array of increased roles for Powell, Anunoby and Boucher would be a recipe for success, but clearly it is time to feed off what chef Nurse and Ujiri are cooking.
Ultimately, the Raptors, as cliche as it may sound, are greater than the sums of one of its part. As injuries continue to take their toll on the team, their gritty, persistent and stubborn nature continues to shine. Their uninspiring roster, the limited expectations and constant doubt placed on them could have suffocated even the most inspired NBA rosters; yet the Raps aren’t like most. Similar to a popular strategy in blackjack when other players notice one hand at a table is hot; now is time for doubters to abandon their bet and place it on Nurse, Ujiri and the Raptors squad, as their unlikely hot streak persists. Though Kawhi jumped off, the Raptors’ bandwagon still has plenty of momentum.