On Thursday evening, the Toronto Raptors exited their All-Star break likely enjoyed either recovering from the coronavirus or working out on the sandy beaches of Florida, still sans three starters, against the Atlanta Hawks.
Despite nearly flawless performances from Kyle Lowry, Chris Boucher and Norman Powell, the night came down to a wide open 3-pointer by Tony Snell. The theatrics of this game-winner did a great job encapsulating the uphill battle the Raptors have been fighting all season.
Again and again, they chipped away at offensive runs by the Hawks with poise and persistence, but without three of the team's two-way pillars, the helplessness was so palpable that one could see the breakdown coming from a mile away. Seven seconds is all the Hawks needed to secure their deserved win, and it was seven seconds too many.
For the 2020-2021 season, the allowed margin of error for the Raptors has been virtually non-existent. And as this season has gone for 27 of the league’s 30 teams, the Raptors have fallen victim to the whims of an airborne global pandemic.
Of course, the last 37 games have been a masterclass of irony. The internal spread that debilitated this roster came on the heels of an excellent stretch where it seemed the team was rediscovering its identity and finding some semblance of rhythm and swagger. With the absence of winning basketball comes the existential dread of an offseason featuring dying contacts — particularly pronounced for a team boasting one as significant as Kyle Lowry’s.
To Toronto, Lowry has defined an era of Raptors basketball and has acted as a recurring character through multiple iterations of the team. So it’s no surprise the prospect of his departure has been stoking so many anxieties regardless of the front office’s retention of its younger stars — anxieties that Lowry has been amusingly and sweetly entertaining.
“Let me say this,” he opined. “I will retire as a Toronto Raptor. That, if I'm here, I will retire as a Toronto Raptor. You know ... one-day contract, hey, whatever happens,” Lowry said during a practice run on Wednesday, further illustrating the fork in the road the Raptors are rapidly encroaching in on.
The uncertainty of Lowry and Masai Ujiri’s much-speculated upon futures, the decimated roster and the losing basketball all cloaked under the shadow of the NBA’s unusual circumstances amid COVID-19 has fashioned this year into a toxic ecosystem of a transitionary period for the Tampa Bay bound Raptors. It doesn’t seem fun for any of the parties involved (made evident by Powell seemingly doubling over in pain following Snell’s game-winning shot), who are still enjoying the warmth of an all too recent championship run.
But they say adversity strengthens teams.
Within the tumultuousness of the franchise’s 26th year are some bright spots that can make for a fascinating future.
The Raptors have retained GM Bobby Webster, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, who are both making a strong case for the NBA All-Defensive Team, all within the last several months and in spite of the chaos of this year. Prior to being sidelined by COVID-19, Pascal Siakam had been playing even better than his past peaks, averaging 20 points, five assists and approximately seven rebounds over the course of his last 10 games in addition to his energetic defensive efforts. Powell has been masquerading as an All-Star-calibre shooting guard alongside the starters, and VanVleet's leap as a playmaking hub has wiped away one of his very few weaknesses as a lead guard. The aforementioned factors destabilizing this Raptors season can sometimes make it hard to see that the franchise has somehow retained and cobbled together an impressive core that isn’t one to scoff at.
As it stands, the Raptors are at a crossroads, which is typically an unenjoyable period for fans still steeping in nostalgia or enjoying the temporary security multi-year contracts provide, while the ugliness of variables outside of team control has made it downright hard to watch at all. But these variables have had a funny way of warping the realities of an otherwise hopeful and organized future.
The Toronto Raptors will be fine, they just need to get through this year in one piece.
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