Game Over: A look at the longest season in Raptors' history

by Chris O'Leary

It was as honest and blunt as you might ever see Kyle Lowry in that setting, his heart played out on the court and broken by the Boston Celtics. 

“It’s sad that we have more to give and unfortunately we can’t give anymore right now,” he said, sitting in front of reporters in the bubble, with dozens more on a Zoom conference call after the clock hit zeroes on a 92-87 Game 7 loss. 

In the strangest NBA season in its 74 years, the Toronto Raptors were champions for a record 456 days. The world has morphed into something else in that time, some of it in ways that were unforeseen and others that were festering beneath the surface of our day-to-day, begging to be acknowledged. In all of that, the Raptors and the NBA as a whole found itself in the eye of this storm, first as a sort of accidental leader, then a deliberate one in trying to harness the volatility and uncertainty that wafts through our once full streets. 

This season started simply as a title defence; one that drew eye rolls from people that didn’t know this team. It turned into a testament of what an organization is about, a league taking unprecedented measures to finish its season and its players understanding and using their platform for change. 

*** 

A sold-out crowd of 20,787 watched the black, gold and red championship banner go up to the rafters at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 22, 2019, while the Raptors organization got its rings and eventually, an overtime win against New Orleans. 

Lowry watched Fred VanVleet open the season with a career-high 34 points; a total matched by Pascal Siakam, who added 18 rebounds. 

“Pascal and Freddy, they are the young core, they are the guys who will carry this thing on,” Lowry said after the game. “We’ll see them grow all year.” 

So much had been made through last summer about what the Raptors had lost, in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green’s free agency choices, as opposed to what they had kept and what had been building since that group’s first playoff run in 2014. 

What we saw in the 2019-20 season was a team in the afterglow of winning a championship. There would always be pundits and hot take delivery experts there to say that the Raptors would go from holding the Larry O’B to being a ping pong ball in the 2020 lottery. 

Lowry, who put in his sixth consecutive All-Star appearance in Chicago this year, wasn’t going to let that happen. Now 34, his toughness, determination, work ethic and competitive drive make up the DNA of the Raptors’ roster. 

“I’m proud of the effort we gave, especially coming off the championship and losing what we lost and coming into this season,” VanVleet said after the Game 7 loss on Friday night. 

“The only people that expected us to be good were the people in our locker room. I’m proud of that part.” 

This Raptors team endured. It lost 219 man games to injury this season, which was fifth-most in the NBA this season. Of the teams in front of them -- Golden State, Portland, Detroit and Washington, first through fourth -- only Portland made it to the playoffs. It didn’t matter who went out: Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell. the players on the court found a way. 

On Dec. 22, Lowry led the Raptors to their biggest comeback win in franchise history, erasing a 30-point deficit with three minutes left in the third quarter for a win over Dallas. The Raptors won it without Siakam, Gasol and Powell in the lineup. They didn’t have answers in every deficit and on some nights the injuries caught up to them, but this team found ways to win games that even the most diehard fans figured they’d be out of. 

As the team found ways to hurdle adversity and the wins piled up in the form of a 15-game win streak -- something no pro sports team in Canada had ever done -- Raptors Twitter began to adopt Rudy Tomjanovich’s famous line from his days as the Houston Rockets’ coach: Never underestimate the heart of a champion. 

A game after that win streak was snapped, Nurse already had coach of the year talk around his name when he took his staff to All-Star weekend. Lowry and Siakam, a first-time All-Star, joined too. Lowry taking charges trying to win the exhibition game may be one of the most Kyle Lowry-like moments of his career. 

Two days after the Raptors had one of their most impressive wins of the regular-season in Utah, everything started to change. During its slate of games on March 11, the league suspended its season after Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for Coronavirus. Quickly after, other active pro sports leagues followed suit and in a sense the rest of the world did, too. Our offices emptied out, out public transit ridership plummeted. Millions of us were essentially shuttered in our homes for weeks while we got a grasp of what life during a pandemic would look like. 

When the world stopped, some of its flaws started to become more evident. 

We saw George Floyd’s murder. We realized it had been months since Breonna Taylor was killed by police in Louisville KY and that there has still been no justice for her (185 days and counting as of Monday, Sept. 14). Systemic racism and economic inequality have become more visible as we’ve seen who has suffered the most over the last six-plus months. With little else to pull our eyes away from the horrors that have always existed around us, people started protesting, filling the streets during a pandemic to demand change. 

It took the NBA four months to work with the NBA Players’ Association and health authorities to set up its bubble structure in Orlando, Fla. 

The Raptors went back to work, in busses with Black Lives Matter boldly written on their sides. It serves as a reminder, along with countless stories that others can tell you from around the world, of what Raptors president Masai Ujiiri encountered last June when the confetti fell at Oracle and he couldn’t immediately get onto the floor to celebrate with his team. 

Those social efforts and the work that Raptors and other NBA players put in through protest were reflected on the court and it was powerful. It was something that hadn’t been done before. Then Jacob Blake was shot at seven times by Police in Kenosha, Wisc. and the players realized what they were doing wasn’t enough. 

As neighbours to Kenosha, the Milwaukee Bucks were the appropriate team to lead the way in boycotting games, but it was the Raptors that first put that idea out into the world. It was Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell that said there may not be games played, that the messaging in the bubble now felt like it was lost in the background of the games. 

After the Bucks didn’t take the court for their game against the Magic, the NBA postponed games for two days and the bubble itself hung in the balance as a resumption was negotiated between players and the league. The return to play hinged on forming a social justice coalition, teams working to use their arenas as voting spaces for the upcoming U.S. election and increased advertising focusing on greater civic engagement and voter access and opportunity. 

“We used our platform for our voices to be heard on social injustices, getting guys out there to vote, justice for Breonna Taylor, justice for everybody, every Black American out there that’s being harmed by police and police brutality,” Lowry said. 

“It’s not an immediate change, it takes a lot of time and effort and determination,” Gasol added “That’s what we’re going to continue to do.”  

The stoppage occurred just as the Raptors had swept Brooklyn and were slated to meet the Celtics in the East Semifinals. When they did take to the court, the series wasn’t pretty at times but over the course of seven games, the Raptors showed what they were about. 

They fought their way out of a 0-2 deficit, starting with OG Anunoby’s buzzer beater. It was a play (and the quote, “I don’t shoot trying to miss”) that accentuated his impressive playoff run, one that affirmed his value as an elite defender, an aggressive rebounder and a clutch player on the offensive end. 

After a flat Game 5 had them facing elimination, the Raptors played one of their best, most intense games in their 25-year existence. Their double-overtime Game 6 win was a legacy-shaping performance for Lowry (33 points, six made threes, eight rebounds and six assists in 53 minutes) and showed the team’s refusal to pack it in, regardless of how tough the situation. 

The positive moments in this series were reminiscent of last year’s playoff run, where the American audience that often doesn’t get to see the Raptors on a regular basis came to realize many of the things that fans in Canada have seen for years. 

Lowry is a playoff performer and should be debated/considered a one day hall of famer. He’s certainly the greatest Raptor over the last 25 years. He deserves the statue that’s dominated online discussion over the last few days. Nick Nurse is an outside of the box (and one) thinker that gets the most out of his roster, sometimes in adverse situations. 

Most important -- and this is something Raptors fans realized as this strange season unfolded -- this team was so much more than one player. It was before the championship and as it found its new identity in 2019-20, it grew toward being the best version of itself. 

Of course, it didn’t fully blossom in the playoffs. You expend a lot of energy digging out of deficits and playing for your playoff lives on a routine basis. Just as Lowry grew into being a playoff performer, Pascal Siakam acknowledged after the Game 7 loss that his journey on that front is just beginning. 

“I think I learned a lot, man. I went through a lot,” Siakam said. 

“It wasn't normal circumstances and I tried to fight my way through it. I just didn't have it, I didn't play well. I didn't really help my teammates as much as I could have. 

“One thing that I did is I gave it my all out there, I played hard. That's something I always want to do and I have to live with the results. I'm gonna come back and be better for it.”  

The 2020-21 Raptors won’t be the same. There are free agency questions to be answered about VanVleet, Gasol and Ibaka. Change abounds in any off-season and this one, while it will undoubtedly be different than others, will be full of change, too. 

“I think we’re going to remember how well we played, considering there were really low expectations for us. We never got hung up on that,” Nurse said of this season. 

“We didn't play great in this series, there’s just no denying that, but pretty much the whole rest of what we did we played awesome, overcoming a lot and we never really wavered. It’s almost hard to believe we were within a possession of carrying on here.” 

Skepticism surrounded the start of the bubble. People wondered if it could function, if the virus could be kept outside of this all-basketball all-the-time world. It, along with other pro sports setups, has become one of the few refuges in the world from the pandemic. 

“I’m thankful for everything, to be in this position, to do something I love to do and be safe,” Ibaka said. “(The series) didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but there are a lot of people dying, people losing their jobs (in the outside world). Life could be worse. I’m grateful.” 

“I already miss this team,” Nurse said. 

“That was a hell of a two-year run for the core group of these guys. A hell of a run for this team and some amazing moments. I think everybody should be really proud of them.” 

As Lowry concluded his final press conference of the longest season in league history, he talked about the growth of his young teammates. There was sadness that it was over, but an appreciation of what this team has done and what it still can do. 

The team’s leader ended things as only he could and in the best way possible. 

“It’s time to leave this mother f----r.”

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