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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – We’re coming up on 22 months since the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors squared off on basketball’s biggest stage during the historic 2019 NBA Finals, with the former defeating the latter in six games and securing the franchise’s first ever championship.

But for the Raptors players that lifted the trophy, or the Warriors players that had won it three times in the previous four years, that memorable night in Oakland probably feels like a lifetime ago now. Indeed, it’s been a long 22 months.

Dating back to the start of the 2013-14 campaign, no team has won more regular season games than Golden State. No Eastern Conference club has won more than Toronto over that same span. These two organizations have been the benchmark for sustained success this past decade. They’re also prime examples of how quickly the tide can turn in this league.

Their latest meeting was anything but familiar. Only three of the 27 players that appeared in their postseason series less than two years ago were available for Friday’s contest; Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet – who had to leave the game in the third quarter with a strained left hip flexor – and Kevon Looney.

Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka are with the Clippers. Kevin Durant is in Brooklyn. Marc Gasol is a Laker and Norman Powell is the newest member of the Trail Blazers.

Meanwhile, Klay Thompson is out for the season. Kyle Lowry and Steph Curry are nursing foot and tailbone injuries, respectively, and Draymond Green was a late scratch with a finger issue. Oh, and the game wasn’t played in Canada or Oakland or San Francisco. The two teams renewed acquaintances in Tampa, Florida.

The result, a wildly lopsided 130-77 win for Toronto, was another bizarre chapter in their unusual seasons. The Raptors came in having lost 15 of their last 18 games. They went 1-13 in March – the third-worst month in team history – and have fallen to 11th in the East. The Warriors, who have now dropped six of seven contests, are 10th out West.

As bad as it’s felt, both teams still have something tangible to play for in their conferences. If the campaign ended today, Golden State would face the eighth-seeded San Antonio Spurs in one of the play-in tournaments. The Raptors are just a game and a half behind Chicago for the final play-in spot. However, given what these clubs are used to competing for, it’s hard to get too excited about the chance to squeeze into the playoffs, as Green expressed following the Warriors’ loss to Miami on Thursday.

“Fighting for a playoff spot doesn’t motivate me at all,” said the three-time all-star forward and former Defensive Player of the Year winner. “I don’t go into these games thinking, hey, we’re right on the fringe, we need to win these games for this play-in spot. No. I want to win every game I play in because I hate losing, that s*** really bothers me. So, that’s what motivates me – not fighting for some play-in spot.”

Frustration has taken its toll on players and staff – most of whom have never lost this much in their lives – from both organizations. Although the Raptors were able to use the undermanned Warriors as their own personal punching bag on Friday – beating them by 53 points, the largest margin of victory in franchise history – these past few months have not been easy.

“Everything is surreal these days,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said shortly before tip-off. “You walk on to the court and there’s a sign that says We The North and you’re in South Florida. That’s kind of weird.”

“I can only imagine what it’s like for the Toronto coaches and club, players and management to be living down here throughout the season. Just an incredible challenge for everybody involved.”

In some ways, Kerr can identify with what the Raptors are going through. Thanks in large part to roster turnover (Durant leaving for the Nets and the mid-season trade with Minnesota for Canadian Andrew Wiggins) as well as injuries to Curry and Thompson, the Warriors finished last season with the worst record in the NBA at 15-50. Even if they don’t know what it’s like to move their operations across the continent in a global pandemic, they sure know how it feels to have one of those seasons where you just can’t seem to catch a break.

“It’s difficult when you’re used to winning every night and all of a sudden you’re getting your butt kicked,” Kerr said. “It’s a slap in the face. It’s a jolt of reality. That was our feeling last year. We’re still feeling that this year. We’re below .500. We’ve not performed that well, I don’t think. I think we’ve got the potential to do more, but we haven’t gotten there yet. It’s very frustrating.”

They can also identify with the Raptors’ plan to bounce back from it. Even after Durant left or the injuries hit, the Warriors chose not to tear down what they had worked so hard to build. They kept their core together but changed the way they were building around them. They got younger and added a lottery pick in second-overall selection James Wiseman – the result of last year’s blip season. Depending on how these final 23 games shake out for Toronto, the Raptors may wind up in a similar position.

Still, it’s clear that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster don’t intend to rebuild. Instead, their hope is to regroup, retool, and get back to winning at the level they’ve become accustomed to over the years.

Their challenge over the next six weeks is to find value in these games, regardless of whether they result in wins or losses, and regardless of whether they lead to the playoffs or the draft lottery. A big part of that is continuing to develop their young players, which – for Toronto – pertains to most of the roster, including the core.

Siakam celebrated his 27th birthday by carving the Warriors up to the tune of 36 points on Friday, but the star forward has had a tough year and an uneven season for the Raptors. Getting him back on track to where he’s playing at that level consistently again would go a long way in helping the team rediscover its winning ways.

Historically, OG Anunoby has always played his best basketball after the all-star break, and that’s been the case again this season. The 22-year-old is averaging 18.6 points in eight games since coming out of the health and safety protocols, having scored at least 15 in each of them. His offensive role should continue to grow following the trade of Powell.

Speaking of the trade, 22-year-old Gary Trent Jr. is showing why the Raptors are high on him and his upside. After scoring a career-high 31 points in Wednesday’s loss to Oklahoma City, the recently acquired guard followed it up with 24 points against Golden State. He’s hit 12 of his 20 three-point attempts over those two games.

With Lowry out and expected to miss at least another week, rookie Malachi Flynn is seeing regular minutes for the first time in his young career, and that opportunity will only go up if VanVleet is sidelined. Nick Nurse has been impressed with his defence but wants to see him be more aggressive offensively – the point guard seemed to get the message on Friday, scoring a personal-best 16 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes off the bench.

“Any time you have a difficult year you have to find the small victories within,” Kerr said. “You have to plan for what’s next. You can’t just wallow in your self-pity. You have to stay positive and push for what’s coming next. For us last year, that meant developing young players and really trying to give experience to young guys who can make an impact for us in the future. There’s no season that’s a wasted season. Every season should be productive regardless of how many wins or losses you have. It’s those internal improvements, the game within the game, that you’re looking at.”​