While we wait for hoops, take some time to appreciate the defending champs

by Sean Woodley

When the NBA season came to a halt Wednesday night, every team in the league had a story interrupted. For some, the theme of  2019-20 was rebuilding, the promise of some not so far away hope. Other teams were in the heat of thrilling tales of ahead-of-schedule accomplishment. The league’s super-elite were still a couple months out from their narrative arcs really gaining steam. All these yarns slotted in somewhere along the spectrum of riveting to ho-hum. For those teams, and their fans, it’s a shame that each and every one might be stuck without a concluding chapter.

But of all the stories unfairly cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, the one the Raptors were telling might have been the most compelling. A global emergency can take away the stretch run, maybe even the playoffs. It most certainly can’t, however, erase the 64 games worth of unrelenting joy the defending champs dished out this season. 

This was a team in the midst of something special, featuring an uncommon brew of charming traits that made them impossible for fans not to love, and for outside observers to not respect like hell. Toronto entered the season free from the straightjacket that is expectation. Last year’s team dealt with that daily reality, and while the end result left a country in hysterics, the season was spent with a burbling pit in the stomach of those watching the team; the weight of every regular-season game and postseason possession was palpable. There’s a reason the release on June 13th was nation-consuming.

Without the burden of expectation, Toronto entered the year with a canvas on which they could paint as they pleased. In true Serge Ibaka fashion, they didn’t just play basketball -- they made art.

This team’s pantry was stocked full with all the ingredients for a good time. The comfort and ease of having a gigantic ring nestled snugly on their fingers; veterans, both young and old, championship seasoned and with unselfishness baked deep into their bones; pieces of the future making leaps of all shapes and sizes; the underdog spirit than only a thousand injuries can ignite; off-court goofiness to humanize them all -- everyone one of those components congealed to create the kind of basketball team you get out of bed to watch.

Connectivity defined these Raptors. Offensively, Toronto’s egalitarian, read-and-react attack wasn’t designed to funnel the action to any one player or particular section of the floor. The beauty of a Raptors possession was in its possibilities. Whatever the outcome, be it a pull-up triple from Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet, a security blanket-like Serge Ibaka mid-range jumper, or a late-clock OG Anunoby three off a gorgeous perimeter swing, you could be sure that it was borne out of sound and pretty process. Give the Raps a chance to gear up in the open court, and you were bound to get scored on. On the backs of Norman Powell’s speed-shifting finesse around the rim, and Pascal Siakam’s graceful thunder, the Raptors scored more points per game in transition (28.3) than anyone else.

Of course you don’t rack up numbers on the run without forcing plenty of misses. If the offense got its juice from each guy reading the movements and beats of his teammates, Toronto’s defense was powered by straight-up telepathy. Marc Gasol was the order-barking anchor; Lowry and VanVleet stood stoutly in the way of would-be slashers; Siakam and Anunoby terrorized the wings, lunging out to contest threes so effectively that the team could defy math. Toronto allowed the second-most three point tries in the league, but defended them more ferociously than anyone, with just 33.7 percent of opposing triples dropping in. Control-F the top-10 ranks in NBA.com’s hustle stats, and you’ll see the Raps pop up more than any other team.

What was truly remarkable about Toronto’s second-ranked defense was the interchangeability of its pieces. When Gasol sat, Serge Ibaka admirably slotted in to swat shots and drop thumbs. If Ibaka joined Gasol on the sidelines, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson became a perfectly suitable small-ball stop-gap. Cycling in off the bench were Patrick McCaw and his on-ball peskiness, Powell’s eagerness to jump passing lanes, and Chris Boucher’s maniacal urge to slap away shots both inside and out -- 7.1 percent of all shots taken with the Canadian on the floor ended in a block, usually of the demoralizing persuasion.

Those end-of-bench contributions were a necessity this season, as the Raptors dealt with more injuries than any other playoff-bound team. By game 64, the Raps ever-revolving door of battered and bruised core players stopped being a cute story, and flirted with becoming an existential threat to the team’s playoff ambitions. But there’s no denying that the swell of injuries, and the reserves’ responses to it, enriched the season with excess glee. Raptors fans got to take in more memorable regular season games than any fan base has a right to, with injuries often clearing the way for unexpected joy.

It started the second Lowry and Ibaka went down with their early-November thumb and ankle injuries. That night in New Orleans, Siakam tied a career-high with 44 points, while Anunoby hit 5-of-7 triples on the way to 21 easy points. This was a season about plotting the next two, three, even five years of the franchise; that 122-104 win over the Pelicans was one of many glimpses into a future that looks pretty darn alright.

From the Big Easy the Raptors travelled to Los Angeles, where on the first night of a Staples Center back-to-back, Raps fans got a taste of the short-handed tenacity for which the team would come to be renowned.  That was the night the Triumvirate of Chaos -- Boucher, Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis -- got intro’d to the basketball world, scoring 38 combined bench points on 16-of-25 shooting. It was also the debut of Nick Nurse’s star-killer defense, which held LeBron James to just 5-of-15 from the field. 

Uproarious success in the face of injury became the 2019-20 Raptors’ calling card. As the Raptors tested new limits in the accrual of busted extremities, new deep-bench heroes stepped in to earn their moments, while a walking legend added inches to the statue that should one day stand in Jurassic Park. 

Each player on this year’s Raptors played a part in ushering along the Raptors’ narrative, but more than anyone else, this was Kyle Lowry’s story to tell.

This was the year the broader NBA world grew to appreciate the reality Raptors fans have been basking in since 2013: Lowry is a basketball savant, who colours in between the box score columns more vibrantly than just about anyone in the world. He’s no slouch inside the lines either, as a step back up the ladder of responsibility saw Lowry rediscover his scoring knack. 33-year-olds aren’t supposed to average lines of 20-5-8 on 59 percent True Shooting. But like his team, Lowry isn’t one for preconceived notions.

Lowry’s most awe-inspiring moments this season came when they were most needed. Despite missing 12 games of his own, Lowry led the team in minutes played before the season stoppage, simply because of his indispensability when other Raptors were sidelined. He put his beefed up playing time to good use, adding even more signature Kyle Lowry Games to a list already pages-long.  

December 22nd’s game against the visiting Mavs will go down as a Lowry all-timer, while also being the game that most plainly embodied the relentless, excuse-free M.O. of the defending champs. Down 30 with two minutes to go in the third quarter, and with the half-court offense unable to muster much without so many of its smoothing cogs, Lowry just kind of decided the Raptors were winning the game, ripping off 20 of his 32 points in a fourth-quarter the Raptors won by 26.

The next night, on the road in Indiana, Lowry’s inspired 30-point, six-rebound, nine-assist effort very nearly earned the banged up Raps an overtime win. And just five days later, in a rematch against Boston after a disappointing Christmas Day loss, Lowry did the thing again. His 30 points, seven assists and 10-of-17 mark from the floor powered Toronto to a 16-point win at the always unforgiving TD Garden. It was around this time that a sixth-straight All-Star nod became an inevitability.

In Chicago, at the league’s mid-February showcase, no one leaned harder into the Elam Ending than Lowry, the man who will forever go down as the guy who took two charges in an All-Star Game. Though as he’ll tell you: “It should have been three.”

Every admirable trait these Raptors possessed, from their competitiveness, to their cerebral understanding of the game, to their comradery on and off the court, Lowry exudes in abundance. He’s a human pitch pipe, setting the tone and tenor for every game, quarter and possession he plays, as well as most of the ones he watches from the bench. He was the engine that turned blasé weeknights into bursts of supreme fun, November through March.

That was true up until the very last game the Raptors played before the sports world hit the pause button. The list of excuses against the Jazz this past Monday was overwhelming. On a back-to-back, at altitude, on the final game of a western trip, with their starting centre out, and the reigning Player of the Week ruled out 90 seconds in -- all would have justified a loss on their own, and none mattered even one bit.

With Lowry steadying the ship after the loss of Powell (and briefly Anunoby), Siakam reaching previously unseen play making heights, Ibaka flummoxing the defending Defensive Player of the Year, and Anunoby turning in the latest in a long line of marauding defensive efforts, the Raptors pulled out the 101-92 win by tapping into every inch of their identity. A sense of tenacious calm leading the way, booned by tested and reliable depth, and a pair of 20-somethings discovering more of their own substantial gifts. If it happens that Monday’s game was the last one played by this remarkable team, the Raptors story will be unfinished, yes, but it’ll have paused on one hell of a high note. It’s not often, after all, that a champion comes back and wins the final game of their title defense campaign.

Toronto may not get the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the Sixers or the Celtics or the Bucks. A screenplay-worthy NBA Finals match-up with an old friend might not get the chance to take place. Wherever these uncharted waters are heading, though, Raptors fans can rest easy, knowing that few teams in NBA history can claim to have defended a championship as nobly as the one they got to watch for 64 games this season.

And if happens that the Raptors do get a chance to finish their 2019-20 tale, you can guarantee these fierce, admirable champs will pick up the story in the exact spot they left off.

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