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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – It’s unusual for two teams to win the same game, but that’s how it felt when the Washington Wizards defeated the Toronto Raptors in Tampa on Thursday.
 
Desperate to show progress by squeezing into the postseason, the Wizards got one step closer to securing a spot in the Eastern Conference’s play-in tournament.
 
The Raptors, a team with very different priorities and motivations, probably didn’t lose sleep over the loss. The guys on the court could be proud of the effort, having pushed one of the NBA’s hottest clubs to overtime, while the folks in the front office had to feel good about the result.
 
They’re not eliminated yet, but with five contests left and Washington sitting four games ahead of them in the race for 10th place and the East’s final play-in spot, it’s inevitable. Toronto will miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
 
The decision to hold Kyle Lowry out of Thursday’s game for rest and give OG Anunoby another night of maintenance on his sore left calf raised some eyebrows, given what was at stake, but it shouldn’t have caught anybody by surprise. The team’s intentions have been clear for a while.
 
For more than a month, the Raptors have been giving Lowry and other key starters select games off, either for rest or out of an abundance of caution, with most players nursing minor aches and pains late in the season.
 
Their stated goal was to use the stretch run to develop and to evaluate. The implication: If it wound up costing them wins and improving their odds in the draft lottery, then so be it. Dropping five of the past six contests, despite being competitive in each of them, is one of the few things that has gone according to plan all season.
 
The truth is, this is the last place they should have ever wanted to be. They won’t make the playoffs but, barring some lottery luck on June 22, they won’t finish low enough in the standings to score a top-five draft pick either. They’re in no man’s land.
 
So, how did they end up here? The real failure for these 2020-21 Raptors was their reluctance to decide on, or commit to, a path, opting to toe the thin line in the middle instead.
 
Last fall, they prioritized long-term flexibility over retaining Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol and hoped their patchwork in the frontcourt would be enough to remain competitive, which turned out to be a crucial misstep.
 
At the trade deadline, they declined to deal Lowry for what they felt were underwhelming returns. Although the Norman Powell-for-Gary Trent Jr. swap has looked like a prudent move, people around the league were surprised that they didn’t do more to propel themselves in one direction or the other.
 
Coming off a 1-13 month of March, the result of a COVID-19 outbreak that hit the organization hard, they were left with plenty of ground to get back in the standings, a roster that was too talented to bottom out completely, and an unenviable decision to make. Would they go an all-in on the play-in or were they fully committed to the tank? Once again, they hovered in between.
 
The play-in was attainable if they wanted it. They nearly backed into it. It’s not hard to imagine some of those narrow losses going the other way if their best players were all on the court instead of sitting out for rest.
 
Then, as head coach Nick Nurse and some of the players have reiterated, they’re not a team that anybody would have wanted to face in a win-or-go-home scenario. They probably could have won a game against whoever goes on to finish ninth between Washington and Indiana, then knocked off Charlotte to earn the eighth seed, and maybe they could’ve pushed Philadelphia or Brooklyn in a seven-game series. But at what cost?
 
Clearly they weren’t willing to overextend their players – several of whom were recovering from COVID-19 – to prolong a season that already seemed ill fated. Would it have been worth all that just to play a few more games in front of a limited number of somebody else’s fans at Amalie Arena?
 
Not having the support or revenue of sell-out crowds at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto surely made that decision easier. To little surprise, there are players on the team and people within the organization who have been counting down the days until they can pack their bags, take their families and get out of Tampa on the morning of May 17, per sources. It’s hard to blame them, all things considered.
 
The problem with going all-in on the tank, which they also haven’t done, is that this isn’t a team that’s built to bottom out. Outside of Lowry, who’s 35 and an impending free agent, their core players are all under 28 and still in the development stage of their careers. Shutting down Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet or Anunoby was never a real option, given what the team has invested in their continued growth. With those guys in the lineup, even if one or two of them are getting the occasional night off, you’re not going to out-tank the league’s rebuilding teams.
 
If the season ended ahead of Friday’s games, Toronto would have the seventh-best odds of landing the top pick in July’s NBA draft at 7.5 per cent. The value in continuing to lose games is to maintain those odds. Just 2.5 games separate the Raptors from the three teams ahead of them (New Orleans, Sacramento and Chicago). However, they’re not going to fall any further in the standings. Orlando, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Detroit and Houston are all at least 5.5 games below them. These are teams that have spent the bulk of the season playing for lottery balls. Their rosters are conducive to it, if not constructed for it.
 
Even if the Raptors chose to shut down Lowry after the deadline, like the Thunder did with Al Horford, it might have resulted in three or four fewer wins, at most. That still wouldn’t have been enough to catch the league’s most aggressive tankers.
 
So, with one week to go in a lost campaign, they find themselves in basketball purgatory. They're not quite good enough and not quite bad enough. Instead, they'll close out the season somewhere in the dreaded middle.​