Raps take some normalcy into 2021 with a win

by Chris O'Leary

At the end of a year that’s found a way to essentially throw all of our lives in a blender, it’s fitting that the final days of 2020 were a bit of a mess for the Toronto Raptors and a big chunk of the NBA, too. 

The first handful of games have seen some surprising teams at the top of the standings early and some equally surprising ones at or near the bottom. For the first time in 15 years, that’s where the Raptors found themselves after dropping three winnable games in a row.  

As the world happily opened the door for 2020’s departure on Thursday, the Raptors did the same in Tampa and found a shred of normalcy that they’ll try to bring with them into the 2021 portion of the schedule. 

Their 100-83 win over the Knicks ended their uncharacteristic slide and should let them collectively exhale a little. Big picture, it’s just one win and they’ve played four out of 72 games, but big pictures are made up of many little brush strokes. Getting that first good one in is a meaningful thing. 

They got the win without Pascal Siakam, who sat out as a disciplinary measure, but will be back in the lineup for the Raptors’ Jan. 2 date with the New Orleans Pelicans. 

“The first one is hard to get in any season,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said, after scoring 25 points and adding seven assists and five rebounds.  

“Losing three in a row at any time of the season is not acceptable around here. I think a lot of guys were fired up. There's a core group here that we know what each other is thinking at all times but sometimes things need to be said out loud. So I think guys (felt like) enough is enough and it was time to get a win. 

“Some things were addressed. That’s not the reason why we won, I think it was just time. We should have won all three games but we didn’t. You’ve got to continue to keep making plays and tonight we did.” 

The Raptors got 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists from Kyle Lowry and 17 points from Norm Powell, who slid into Siakam’s spot in the starting lineup and helped provide some of the spark the Raptors were missing over the last three games. 

“I think we were all waiting for Norm to get a Norman Powell-type game under his belt and he certainly did that, which was really good to see. We needed that,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.  

Nurse was happy to have Powell join in on what Lowry and VanVleet brought and pointed out OG Anunoby’s night of work defending Knicks’ power forward Julius Randle, whose 18 points led the Knicks. New York shot 3-36 from three, on a bad-kind-of-history-making night. 

As he has so often in his career, now into Year 7 in Toronto, Powell just took advantage of the opportunity he was given. 

“Everybody, taking advantage of this opportunity. Being the next man up, I'm going in there and executing the game plan and doing whatever it takes for us to get that first one,” Powell said. 

“When Pascal comes back, we’ve still got to come out with that energy. No matter what your role is, no matter how many minutes you play, that energy that we played with tonight has to be consistent going forward.” 

With Siakam out, Nurse looked a little further down his bench and used Yuta Watanabe, Terrence Davis, Alex Len and Stanley Johnson. Len provided some bench spark by hitting all three of his three-point attempts as the Raptors began to pull away from the ice-cold Knicks in the second half. 

The question always seems to follow Powell whenever he does get to start -- Thursday was his 90th start in 310 career games -- that his productivity argues for him to stay in that lineup. 

“It's nice to start. I see myself as a starter in this league,” Powell said. 

“Every time I get a chance to go out there starting I try to show that I can fill that role, I try to take advantage of that. But I've always been a team guy and try to focus on what the team needs of me, whatever role that is.” 

Nurse tackled the question again after the game and shared a vision he had for the team when he took the head coaching job in 2018.  

“I think it needs some consideration,” Nurse said of Powell starting. 

“The statistics really bear it out. The only part that makes it tough is who goes out of the starting lineup? Maybe we'll get to a point where we move it around a little bit. 

“I kind of had grand visions of that when I took the job, that we'd have like eight starters moving around a little bit. It's a little tough to do. Maybe it's not as tough in the COVID era because I think the guys really like to run out in front of 20,000 fans to hear their name in the starting lineup, but that isn't necessarily the case anymore. So we'll see.” 

As the clock hit midnight and Thursday turned into Friday and Friday brought 2021 with it, we can think about all kinds of possibilities. A year where vaccines can bring more normalcy back, where coaches have to think about crowds of 20,000 and how their cheers impact their players. We’re only dipping our toes into that water now, similar to how Nurse, Powell and the rest of the Raptors are with that winning feeling that they’d gotten so used to over the last few years. 

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