Toronto Raptors fans have had it pretty darn sweet over the last decade.
Give or take a lost season in Tampa or the odd contest near the end of the season, virtually every win or loss has mattered. The standings have mattered. The stakes have been simple, even if fans disagreed with the direction of the team.
With the OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam trades, thus setting the Raptors on a re-something (Pick one — build, set, tool) course, that is not the case. The particularly devoted fans will be checking the reverse standings because if the Raptors finish in the bottom six this year, they will have a chance to keep their top-six protected draft pick they owe the San Antonio Spurs.
In reality, the wins or losses do not mean much. The Raptors lost 126-125 to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday. That knocks them 2 1/2 games out of the final Play-In Tournament spot, the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference. After last year’s Play-In experience, very few Raptors fans are going to be tracking those standings. Where, then, should they focus?
“Right now,” head coach Darko Rajaković said after the Raptors Friday’s loss to the LA Clippers, “our wins are those small gains — in small experiences that guys are improving, getting better.”
It is a hard thing to get used to, especially when the Raptors suffered injuries to the quartet of players who figure to be a part of the long-term future. RJ Barrett missed the game against Atlanta with knee swelling while Immanuel Quickley sat out with a thigh contusion. Jakob Poeltl was still recovering from a sprained ankle. That left Scottie Barnes and Gradey Dick to watch closely. Without three starters, and with Dennis Schröder in foul trouble, this was an exceptionally young, unproven Raptors team. That they were able to keep the game so close down to the wire is — yes — a win.
It didn’t make the result, with Saddiq Bey flushing home a put-back off Trae Young, any easier to deal with. The Raptors almost pulled out a miracle win thanks to a Young turnover, and it’s disappointing that they couldn’t hold. Nonetheless, it is imperative to start finding moral victories, as cliché as that sounds.
Bey timed this perfectly for the game-winner 🔥🔥 https://t.co/RjAuDGPnWa pic.twitter.com/gp1OZXMstA
— NBA (@NBA) January 29, 2024
So, how do fans find things to stay invested in the games if the results aren’t paramount? You zoom in on the players, whether it is Jontay Porter, who had a nice night against Atlanta, trying to prove he is worth keeping around from a developmental perspective; Gary Trent Jr. and Bruce Brown perhaps raising or lowering their trade value — or something else.
The ties to the Raptors’ plans are tenuous, though, which is part of the reason there has been so much focus on the regular season standings over the last few years, as well as an effort to curb the benefits of finishing lower in the standings. (How successful they’ve been on both fronts is up for debate. I believe that they can and should do more.)
It is an adjustment for fans, to be sure. You can make fun of the Play-In Tournament, but the ninth and 12th seeds in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, had a scintillating game on Saturday night, and that was partly because those teams have not given up on the idea of winning this season. (The history of LeBron James, Steph Curry and Draymond Green didn’t hurt.) The Raptors are going to continue to try to win, in all likelihood, with Masai Ujiri saying there would be no tanking this year, but it is hard to feel much urgency given the reality of this how season is going.
Stories always emerge. The Raptors badly need some developmental wins, and seeing players like Porter, Dick and Javon Freeman-Liberty in action would be meaningful. In addition to that, this roster will almost certainly get younger after the trade deadline, whether it is through trades or signings following trades of veterans and, maybe, buying out the players who come back. Maybe Jordan Nwora, one of the players who came to the Raptors in the Siakam trade and was excellent on Sunday, gives the Raptors something to think about heading into the offseason.
In the meantime, fans will need to take the wins where they come. They’re not that different from the team they are pulling for, in that sense.
• Bey put his forearm on the back of Nwora before getting the game-winner. The NBA Officiating Last Two Minute Reports will come out Monday afternoon for Sunday’s game, and it will be fascinating to see if the league rules Bey should have been called for a loose-ball foul.
• Poeltl was listed as doubtful on game day against the Hawks, which is the first time he has reached that status since spraining his ankle three weeks ago. He had been ruled out before game day previously. Trae Young was merciless with the Raptors’ lack of size early on, tossing lobs to the rim, knowing Thaddeus Young would not be able to do much about them. The Hawks feasted in the paint. The Raptors combatted that by putting much more pressure on the ball, trying to make Young’s passes more difficult. It felt right that the Raptors lost it on another play above the rim.
The Hawks are averaging 5.5 dunks per game this season (5th-most in the NBA). They have 6 in 10 minutes vs the Raptors tonight.
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 28, 2024
• The lineup of Barnes, Brown, Trent, Schröder and Nwora that Rajaković used in the second quarter is probably the smallest the Raptors have been at any time this season.
• Dick continues to show progress, especially as a playmaker coming off pindowns. If he starts hitting his shots, he will be able to weaponize that much more. He hit three shots from deep on Sunday, finishing with 15 points. He had plenty of nice moments on both ends.
• Speaking of passing: What a pass by Porter to Dick. Nice activity, with the asterisk that Trae Young was guarding Dick, and the Hawks cannot play a lick of defence.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 28, 2024
• Barnes threw some awesome passes, especially to cutters from in and around the paint. He has a special vision, as everyone knows. I thought this was Barnes’ best overall game in a little while.
• Nwora wasn’t exactly utilizing the Raptors’ preferred ball movement-heavy offence when he put the moves on Garrison Matthews, but cool is cool. Nwora showed some burst off the bench, scoring a season-best 24 points.
• Upon seeing the starting lineups displayed on the TSN broadcast, I observed that Brown’s moustache looks drawn on by a third party.
• Speaking of the broadcast, Sam Mitchell was on the call with Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong in the first half. Mitchell spends most of his time in Atlanta, where he contributes to NBA TV. It was interesting to hear a three-man booth at a January Raptors game, but Mitchell’s familiarity with the Hawks was a nice bonus during a fairly random game. Mitchell was critical of Barnes’ defensive rotations on the first play of the game. Mitchell will never hold his tongue. He gets forgiven for calling the Raptors centre “Joey” Porter.
• Quickley was wearing a Vince Carter Raptors T-shirt on the sidelines. A decade ago, such behaviour would have gotten him booed at the next home game.
(Photo of Gradey Dick whose pass to Scottie Barnes resulted in a basket for the lead in the final seconds against the Hawks: Dale Zanine / USA Today)