TORONTO – One of the two or three most integral moments during the Toronto Raptors’ remarkable 2019-20 campaign came in the second game of an early-season West Coast road trip – an unlikely, character-building win over the Los Angeles Lakers on November 10.
Despite a solid 6-2 record going into that contest, the reigning NBA champs were still in the process of establishing an identity without two key pieces from their title-winning team. They had also reached a potential inflection point in their season, with Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka sustaining significant injuries in New Orleans a couple nights prior.
Did they have the depth, or the mental fortitude, to withstanding such a devastating blow? That was still in question.
"I’ve been saying we got eight guys I really like and three guys are missing," head coach Nick Nurse had said, challenging his bench in Los Angeles that night. "So I’m gonna have to start liking a few more guys here pretty quickly. This is their chance."
Without Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet led the charge, scoring 24 and 23 points respectively, but the sparkplug came from the second unit. Third-string centre Chris Boucher (15 points in 24 minutes) and rookie guard Terence Davis (13 points in 17 minutes) both had breakout showings in the 113-104 win over LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a Lakers team that would go on to claim the Larry O-B, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Matt Thomas also established themselves as serviceable rotation cogs.
It felt like a big moment at the time, and sure enough, it wound up laying the foundation for what that Raptors team would become – a deep and resilient group that prided itself on overcoming adversity and exceeding expectations.
You don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities in Friday night’s comeback victory over the Kings. It was also the second game of a crucial West Coast trip early in the year, Lowry – unavailable for personal reasons – was not in the lineup, and Nurse had recently called out his underperforming reserves.
Once again, VanVleet (34 points and seven assists) and Siakam (17 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists) came up big, and once again, with the team undermanned and searching for answers, Boucher (23 points and 10 rebounds), Davis (18 points) and the bench stepped up and delivered.
Like last season’s win over the Lakers, this was the type of game that can spark a team, and Toronto is a team in desperate need of that spark.
Facing the prospect of falling to 1-7 on the season, the Raptors turned in one of their worst defensive quarters ever – surrendering 43 points and allowing Sacramento to shoot 17-for-21 over the first 12 minutes.
With the way things have been going recently, it seemed like they were headed for another painful defeat, but as bad as things felt, they never lost their composure. For the first time this season, they showed the fight that we’re accustomed to seeing from them, the fight they had been lacking to start the campaign.
"I think that when there’s a whole bunch of guys coming in, hitting the floor with that level of fight and each guy kind of sees what’s happening out there and they know when they check in they better bring it, too, I think it kind of snowballs a little bit and it’s contagious," Nurse said after his team erased a 19-point deficit to beat the Kings 144-123 and improve to 2-6 on the young season. "There wasn’t a whole lot to hang our heads about, other than the start and we didn’t do it then, either."
Following that opening quarter, the Raptors outscored Sacramento 109-80, including a 73-49 margin in the second half, and they may have found something along the way.
They may have found the semblance of a rotation.
After spending the first seven games cycling through a multitude of different lineup combinations and searching for three or four subs he could trust, Nurse finally stumbled on an intriguing group. Alex Len started in place of Aron Baynes, who was a healthy scratch, but got pulled after five minutes. From there, Nurse turned to Boucher and committed to playing small.
Boucher, Davis, two-way forward Yuta Watanabe and rookie point guard Malachi Flynn were all instrumental in chipping away at Sacramento’s lead in the first half, and then pulling away in the second. Although Watanabe scored just three points in 19 minutes, his energy and rebounding helped make up for the absence of a traditional big. And, after a few scoreless outings to begin his NBA career, Flynn looked like the player that fans have been clamouring for – a skilled and poised playmaker, and scrappy defender. He hit five of his six shots, including a couple threes, and scored 12 points in 17 minutes.
With Lowry expected back in time for Sunday’s game against Golden State, Nurse could have his new nine-man rotation – either starting Boucher and going small off the bench, or starting Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Siakam in an undersized front court and riding Boucher off the bench.
They may have found a style of play that suits their personnel.
Size and rebounding will continue to be concerns without a traditional centre, especially in matchups against bigger teams, but it’s not like Baynes or Len were addressing those issues, anyway. The Raptors have been at their best with Boucher or with small-ball units on the floor, and if that wasn’t already clear, it sure was on Friday.
Downsizing allows them to play the way they want to play, flying around and switching on defence, and pushing the pace and getting out in transition on defence – things they weren’t able to do with Baynes or Len out there.
Finally, and most importantly, they may have found their confidence.
For the first time in a while, it looked like fun to be a Raptor again. Guys were into the game, they were fired up and feeling good about themselves. For at least one night, the swagger that Lowry had said they were missing appeared to be back, and that could go a long way in helping them salvage their season.
"They’re hitting shots early and the guys showed a lot of heart, togetherness, toughness to hang in there and give ourselves a chance to compete into the second half," Powell said.
"In all honestly, I think going through a rough patch you do have to have some conversations about what energy we are generating as a coaching staff, all of the coaches, the guys on the bench," said Nurse. "Even in [Wednesday’s loss to] Phoenix, I came out of that game thinking the spirit of the team was very high. It certainly was again tonight and when you get rolling and you come back from a big deficit, you just play well all the way through, it’s easy to have fun on the sidelines."
But can they keep it going? The Raptors will play another two games out West before returning to Tampa next week, and they won’t be easy. In their first back-to-back of the season, they’ll visit red-hot Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors – who are coming off a thrilling comeback victory of their own – on Sunday before taking on Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the Trail Blazers in Portland on Monday.
As bad as their start has felt, there’s still hope for these Raptors. Nobody is running away with the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Miami have all looked vulnerable. Overachieving clubs like Orlando, New York and Cleveland should come down to earth. Then there’s the ultimate wildcard that threatens to bring any team to its knees at any moment; the virus.
The Nets have already had to manage without Kevin Durant, who’s going through the league’s COVID-19 protocols after coming in contact with somebody who tested positive. Now, the Celtics, who were just starting to pick up steam, will be without Jayson Tatum and a host of others that are in quarantine. The 76ers – the NBA’s hottest team out of the gate – have lost two games in a row, coinciding with Seth Curry’s positive test and the subsequent contact tracing that has kept key players out of the lineup.
Even at 2-6, the Raptors are just four 2.5 games out of fifth place and four games behind the first-place Indiana Pacers. It won’t take much to turn the corner and re-enter the mix in the thick of the East, provided they figure things out relatively soon. Perhaps they’ve already taken a step in that direction.
The question is whether Friday’s win was merely an outlier – a brief reprieve in the midst of a lost campaign – or the start of something.