Raptors nightmare season comes to a fitting end with play-in collapse
TORONTO – With the Raptors’ season hanging in the balance, a generous shooting foul put Pascal Siakam on the line for three free throws and a chance to even the score.
The nervous energy you would have felt inside Scotiabank Arena in that moment was a product of the team’s 16 missed free throws. That sound you would have heard was Diar DeRozan, the 9-year-old daughter of DeMar, who was sitting along the opposite baseline and making her mark on Wednesday’s winner take all play-in game.
Whenever a Raptors player attempted a foul shot, Diar would let out a loud high-pitched shriek that echoed through the building. It was audible over the broadcasts, which aired nationally in Canada and the United States.
By the third quarter, she was an Internet celebrity.
“She went viral,” her proud father said afterwards. “I kept hearing something during the game, then there was a free throw somebody missed and I looked back and I was like, damn, that’s my daughter screaming. I was just making sure she was all right.”
After making his first free throw, Siakam missed the next two. For what it’s worth, he insisted that he didn’t notice anything different, that the noise wasn’t responsibility for his 5-of-11 shooting from the stripe, nor should it have been. Maybe it is a bit farfetched to think that a young girl and one of nearly 20,000 people in the arena could distract a professional basketball team to the point of missing half of its 36 free-throw attempts.
But during a season in which anything and everything that could go wrong often did go wrong, this felt like a strangely fitting way for it to end.
The Raptors were 10 minutes away from extending the campaign for at least another 48 hours. With a 12-point lead over DeRozan and his Chicago Bulls early in the fourth quarter, they were on the verge of taking down one franchise icon and moving on to face another. The winner would hop on a flight to Miami, where they’d play Kyle Lowry and the Heat for the East’s final playoff spot. They had only trailed for a total of 19 seconds and their lead grew as large as 19 points earlier in the second half. Most teams would’ve had it in the bag, but these were the 2022-23 Toronto Raptors after all.
“That was a tough one,” Nick Nurse said after his club’s disappointing season came to a disappointing conclusion with a 109-105 loss to DeRozan and the Bulls.
Toronto’s all-time leading scorer enjoyed another productive return. The 33-year-old had a couple of throwback slam-dunks, including one that helped put the game away in the fourth quarter. He even drew a charge on O.G. Anunoby, which is something you would expect to see from Lowry, not DeRozan.
It was an understated performance, as far as DeRozan postseason games go. He made 10 of his 19 shots and scored 23 points. He didn’t have to “empty the clip,” with his co-star Zach LaVine going off for a game-high 39 points, but his fingerprints were all over Chicago’s fourth-quarter comeback.
This wasn’t the story of a spurned former Raptor coming back to break the hearts of his old team. Time heals all wounds, and if there were hurt feelings after he was sent to San Antonio in the deal that brought Kawhi Leonard to Toronto, that’s water under the bridge now. Personally and professionally, he’s in a good place.
This was a mercy killing.
The best way to describe the mood around the club afterwards is sombre. Nurse and his players were visibly disappointed, distraught and defeated, but nobody seemed all that surprised. Of course, they probably didn’t expect to miss 18 free throws – the second-most any Raptors team has ever missed in a game. However, considering they’ve had difficulty putting the ball in the bucket for months, this was of a piece with their season.
They’ve lived it all before; giving up big leads and losing close games (they were an NBA-worst 4-10 in contests decided by three points or less). Mostly, though, as the year went on and the losses and setbacks piled up, you could see them losing their sense of self-belief, the same way you could see it disappear in real time during Wednesday’s must-win.
In many ways, their final game of 2022-23 encapsulated what made the season so frustrating. They showed glimpses of they could be at their very best. Their stars, Siakam and Fred VanVleet, helped them get off to a strong start, scoring 34 of the team’s 58 points in an impressive first half. Siakam hunted mismatches and used his size advantage to back down Chicago’s guards and shoot over them. It was some DeRozan-esque midrange mastery.
Meanwhile, VanVleet hit four of his first five three-point attempts, including a half-court buzzer beater to close the opening half.
But the Raptors got almost nothing from their bench, a running theme throughout the season, and once winning time came around, they couldn’t get the scores or the stops that they needed. After six months of finding new and creative ways to lose games, they’ve gotten pretty good at it.
“We were the ninth seed, we’re .500, so what does that tell you? Win one, lose one, win two, lose two,” VanVleet said. “That’s just the way it goes and that's just kind of the way it went.”
And so a season that started with great promise ends in indifference. They came in expecting to build off last year’s surprising 48-win campaign and compete with the Conference’s elite teams. However, the young guys – namely Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa – haven’t blossomed as quickly or as much as they had hoped. Their only meaningful off-season addition, Otto Porter Jr., played just eight games before undergoing season-ending toe surgery. After catching the league off guard the year prior, their position-less roster construction and style of play was exposed, prompting the re-acquisition of centre Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline.
In trying to salvage a lost season and squeeze into the playoffs via the play-in tournament, they find themselves in an unenviable position and one president Masai Ujiri vowed to never be: the murky middle, otherwise known as no man’s land. They’ll wind up at the back end of the draft lottery, with up to a 4.2 per cent chance of landing a top-two pick, depending on how the rest of the play-in plays out. And after making the playoffs in each of Ujiri’s first seven years at the helm, they’ve missed the cut in two of the last three seasons. While the ill-fated Tampa season came with plenty of baked in caveats, this year’s failures will be harder to justify and much tougher to stomach.
“I’ll probably sit in this one for a while,” said VanVleet, who rebounded from a slow start but, coming off an all-star 2021-22 campaign, had an underwhelming season overall. “A lot of growth and getting better and just being able to overcoming the obstacles and challenges is accepting where you come up short, and accepting your mistakes and your shortcomings. So I’ll probably beat myself up over this one for a while, let it hurt, let it sink in and then get back to the drawing board. It’s probably only like a 14-day window for me, that’s probably the farthest I can go. But right now, tonight, yeah, it’s hard for sure.”
“We’re gonna have to be better,” Siakam said. “When you look at the season, a lot of ups and downs. When you look at our record, 41-41, just not consistent enough and that’s gotta change.”
The Raptors off-season starts now, and it’s going to be an interesting and potentially very busy one for the franchise. Even for a front office that has routinely put off having to make big decisions in relation to its core, the time to defer is running out. VanVleet, Poeltl and Gary Trent Jr. will all be unrestricted free agents this summer. Several others will be extension eligible, including Siakam and Anunoby. And then there’s the uncertain future of Nurse, who has one year left on his contract but has seemingly had one foot out the door for months.
After a season like this, there’s plenty of evaluating to do, and with another early start to the off-season, they’ll have plenty of time to do.