By Jack Maidment
After playing with the kind of lethargy normally associated with a morgue employee, the Toronto Raptors found themselves in a familiar 21-6 hole early against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday February 12.
They were doing everything they were supposed to: not playing defense, not making shots, not really doing much of anything.
Just as advertised.
The offensively challenged Lakers proceeded to pour in 34 points in the first quarter, a season high for an opponent of the Raptors. Oh, and Kobe was scoreless.
What happened next was deeply surprising and for those who doubt the veracity of the Mayan 2012 prophecy perhaps a little worrying.
The Raptors gave the Los Angeles Lakers a game. An actual game with lead changes and everything. Unbelievable.
Toronto have been in the NBA basement for so long that writers could feel confident copy and pasting season projections for years: Replace Bosh with Barnani, Carter with DeRozan, cap up the word ‘soft’.
But on this particular lunchtime the Raptors did something new. They showed some heart. They fought.
The old Raptors would have thrown in the towel; hopelessly out matched and outclassed by NBA royalty.
But this time they dug in and found a way, clawing back an 18 point deficit over three quarters and actually going ahead with under a minute to play on a Jose Calderon jump shot from the free throw line.
Nobody thought the point guard’s shot was going in. He may have been in the midst of a career night, he scored 30 points, but nobody in the Air Canada Centre thought he was actually going to sink it; that’s what years of perpetual losing will do for a fan base.
But he did.
And if the Lakers didn’t have a player who can consistently make fadeaway 18ft baseline double-teamed jump shots the Raptors would have tasted an improbable victory.
Despite the loss, 94-92, and many similar this season, the Raptors and their fans should be encouraged by the performance and the overall effort of the team under first year head coach Dwayne Casey.
They have had close losses before, plenty in fact, but the one against LA felt different. The ones they have played against Chicago, Miami and New York have felt different. The games have felt real, like the Raptors actually had a chance. Like they are actually going somewhere.
If you google news search Raptors+heart you get 90 results. And most of those also include the words ‘lack of’.
But if there is any justice in the world that should change this year.
Their roster may be… interesting, and a little short on elite NBA talent, but team basketball and belief can be great equalisers.
That and the fact they have Jonas Valancianas stashed in Europe, a legitimate seven foot center with oodles of potential and the toughness to protect Andre Bargnani, and a probable top five pick in this year’s draft.
With Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes likely to be available it’s not a bad time for things to start looking up.
Next year their starting five could be Jerryd Bayless (I believe), DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani, Jonas Valuncianas and Top-5 Draft Guy X from the deepest Draft in years.
Get on the bandwagon early. Next season the Raptors will rise.