The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.
The thing is, it would’ve been fine if the Raptors had just punted.
OK, maybe, not fine. Players and teams play professional basketball games to win, so they’re theoretically beholden to a moral obligation to hold up their end of the bargain until the buzzer sounds, there are zeros on the clock, and a bunch of people like me have written a bunch of purple prose about their indefatigability. It would’ve been understandable, though.
The December 22, 2019 tilt against the Mavericks was Toronto’s fifth game in eight days—a 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday matinee at home, right before they got on the road for the second half of a back-to-back against a Pacers team just a half-game behind the Raptors in the standings. Yes, Dallas was without transcendent sophomore Luka Doncic, but the injury-stricken Raps were once again missing Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell, and seemed to be out of gas. With 2:30 left in the third quarter, Toronto’s starters were shooting a combined 15-for-50 from the field, just 30 percent; that paired nicely with the 30-point deficit the Raptors faced after a Dwight Powell layup made it 85-55.
Even the best teams don’t have it every night. The Raptors won the whole stinkin’ thing last year; better to be at your best in the spring rather than just before Christmas, right? Nick Nurse could’ve chalked the outing up to late-December malaise, packed it in for the final 14-plus minutes, and lived to fight another day. To be honest, with a reserve-heavy lineup on the floor to close the third quarter—Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, and Malcolm Miller alongside Kyle Lowry—it kind of looked like that was the plan. Sure, Lowry and the bench were the cure for what ailed Toronto a ton of times through the years. Not this time, though. Right?
Nurse, perhaps the NBA’s most daring coach when it comes to just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what happens, decided to dial up a full-court 1-2-1-1 diamond press in hopes of generating more possessions for the comeback effort and forcing the Luka-less Mavericks into making some mistakes. It worked like a charm: The length of Boucher, Miller, and Davis, and the ever-revving motors of trappers Lowry and Hollis-Jefferson, forced seven fourth-quarter turnovers, many leading directly to free throws or layups that helped the Raptors cut into the lead—and, perhaps even more importantly—find their long-awaited rhythm.
Lowry was ice-cold for three quarters, but he started to get warm as the pace picked up. After cutting the lead down to 13 with just over eight minutes left, the six-time All-Star drilled a stepback 3 to force a Dallas timeout. On Toronto’s next trip, he nailed another, this time falling out of bounds and over the outstretched arm of ex-teammate Delon Wright to get the Raptors within single digits.
The 14-year veteran had absolutely everything working in that final frame—change-of-pace probes for floaters, bulldozing drives all the way to the rim, pull-up triples in transition—and it completely knocked the Mavericks back on their heels. Lowry poured in 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the fourth alone and notched a pair of dimes, including a dump-off pass to a rolling Boucher for a dunk with 25.8 seconds to go that put Toronto ahead for good.
”All [Lowry] said was ‘keep pushing,”’ Boucher told reporters. “He led us the right way, put us in great spots. Kyle does that every time. Even when people don’t see it. Kyle’s a great leader.”
It’s the same sort of praise Lowry elicited from teammates during last June’s NBA Finals, when he finally shed all the shade about how he shrunk in the playoffs on his way to his first NBA championship. Lowry’s nuclear start to Game 6 in Oakland—11 points on four shots in the first two and a half minutes, a loud and unmistakable message, right out of the gate, that Toronto wasn’t fucking losing tonight—was one of my favorite moments of last season. What makes Lowry special, though, is that he doesn’t need a championship on the line to get to that place; he’s not fucking losing tonight when he’s down 30 three nights before Christmas, either.
The Raptors took their cues from their leader all season long, determined to outperform the low expectations set after Kawhi Leonard’s departure in free agency. The Raptors accepted the challenge of filling the massive shoes left by the Finals MVP, and they did it as a collective. Siakam assumed the mantle of no. 1 option, joining Lowry as an All-Star for the first time. Fred VanVleet not only proved he’s a bona fide starter in the NBA, but set himself up to make a fortune in unrestricted free agency (you know, whenever the market actually opens). Powell had a career year, and Serge Ibaka was the best he’s been in ages. OG Anunoby cemented himself as a promising two-way contributor and a piece of Toronto’s future; ditto for Davis and possibly Boucher, who seemed to take turns as nightly revelations off the bench.
The Raptors played hard as hell, and they played with the stone-cold belief they could not only survive the toughest situations, but thrive in them. This is the golden glow that comes with winning a championship, and the Raptors wielded it like a weapon, all the way to the NBA’s fifth-best point differential, a .719 winning percentage (better than last season with Kawhi, by the way), and the no. 2 seed out East. They got there, in part, by insisting their way to wins they had no business taking. Like, for example, one that required a 40-10 run in just over nine minutes.
“I would say we have always been a team that fights,” Nurse told reporters after the game. “In my time here, we hardly ever mail it in. It’s a good characteristic to have.”
And man, did it make for a fun watch.