After years of heading in one direction — up — the Toronto Raptors are in a new place.
Their record and place in the standings say they’re sliding towards oblivion. Their core and their history says that they’re in the midst of a blip that will correct itself at some point this season or next.
What they aren’t doing — yet — is rebuilding.
The Oklahoma City Thunder? They’re rebuilding, and doing it with a level of thoroughness that makes the ‘The Process’ in Philadelphia look like a half measure.
Two years after the Thunder parted ways with Russell Westbrook and five years after Kevin Durant left for the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder are poised to reshape the NBA with 34 draft picks to use in the next seven seasons — 18 in the first round; 16 in the second, overall more than double the typical allotment.
They’ll be able to use those picks to draft stars or to package them together to make bold trades, all in the name of building around a young core that centres on a pair of Canadians: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who was putting together an all-NBA level season before being sat down indefinitely with plantar fasciitis and all-NBA defence candidate Luguentz Dort who missed the game due to concussion protocols.
The team the Raptors played in Oklahoma City was the youngest in the NBA with an average age of 25 – and that includes 34-year-old Al Horford, who has been shut down for the season.
The Raptors couldn’t beat them though, as they fell 113-103, fading down the stretch as they fade from a realistic shot at the playoffs.
Toronto lost their fourth straight game and their 15th in the last 17 to finish the month of March with a single victory to their credit. They are now 18-30 and mired in 11th place with 24 games to play. It didn’t help that Kyle Lowry was ruled out before the game with an infection in his right foot and will likely be out of action for a week to 10 days, or that newcomer Rodney Hood had to leave with a hip injury that was described as fairly serious after the game.
Things are feeling grim.
Meanwhile, in the ‘selling wins or selling hope’ equation that is so much part of sports, the Thunder have enough hope to run a 2-for-1 deal. For them, the remainder of this season is a development lab, a tryout and a race to make sure they choose as high as possible on draft night.
The Raptors are stuck in no man’s land, trying to convince themselves they can make the playoffs where what remains of their championship pedigree will make life difficult for whoever they meet there. But belief is wavering.
“It’s tough. I mean, I don’t know, does anybody really care? Like does it matter?” said VanVleet. “I mean, I gotta show up tomorrow and get ready for a game on Friday so I mean I can tell you how I feel but I don’t really think it matters that much right now we got to look forward and try to keep getting better.”
The frustrating thing was for long stretches, Toronto played well. They played at their preferred tempo. They got a career-high 31 from newcomer Gary Trent Jr. who was hot from the tip and stayed that way through most of the game. They got a competitive performance from Fred VanVleet who had seven assists, five steals and four blocks to go along with 17 points and yet another strong outing from OG Anunoby who had 20 points and 11 rebounds.
But it wasn’t enough. As has been the case throughout the season Toronto was undone by a long scoring drought – in this case, it was most of the second half. The Raptors shot just 7-of-23 in the third quarter and started the fourth clinging to an 89-87 lead before dropping off in the fourth. Toronto shot 6-of-25 in the fourth and just 27 per cent in the second half. They were running out of gas and it showed.
“We’re fighting uphill,” said VanVleet. “You know things like, want to be in a game. And tonight what you would think would be our three best players with me Pascal [Siakam] and OG, you know, all trying to recover from COVID, obviously, and like, you can feel we all are hitting the same conditioning wall at the same time, and so there’s spurts where we play high-level basketball and spurts where we suck … it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly it is because there’s 1,000,001 things going wrong out there but we gotta figure it out somehow.”
The Raptors’ struggles were exacerbated because it seemed like every time the Thunder did miss, they would chase down a loose ball or win the battle for the rebound and get another opportunity. The Thunder enjoyed a size advantage at nearly every position and several possessions ended up with the likes of 7-foot-2 Moses Brown, and undrafted find or six-foot-eight Isaiah Roby, a second-rounder, playing volleyball off the glass.
The Thunder took the lead with 10 minutes to play and the Raptors couldn’t respond. The Thunder finished with 19 offensive rebounds and 30 second-chance shots. It was the difference in a game in which Toronto made 16 threes to 14 for OKC and forced 20 turnovers for 19 points as well.
“I think we were times where we didn’t block out, lack of physicality and they went around us and there were times where we did and then we didn’t go get the ball, right? It’s kind of a two-part job. You got to tag your guy with a block out and then you got to go get the ball,” said Nurse. “I just thought we needed to go after it a little bit harder for the most part but yeah it was a big, big problem tonight. I think other than the numbers that it played out it was, it was a spirit, it was disheartening a little bit, because we were playing some … really good defence for lots of stretches of that game and they were walking away with two points on a putback or even three sometimes.”
It’s a story that has been told many times this season.
There was hope early in the first quarter when the ball started flying around at high-speed generating open shots that the Raptors let fly with a rhythm and a confidence that has been missing for a month. Leading the way was Trent Jr. who picked up where he left off with a solid effort against Detroit on Monday. He knocked down his first four shots and interestingly scored twice at the rim on dribble drives – supposedly a weakness for the 22-year-old acquired from Portland the deal that sent Norman Powell west.
But the good vibes couldn’t be sustained. The Raptors led 32-30 after the first quarter, 67-59 at the half and 89-87 going into the fourth but got steamrolled from there as the Thunder held Toronto to 14 points in the final frame.
They were running on fumes and eventually ran dry. The Thunder have hope, and plenty of it. The Raptors are searching for some.