As far as warm-ups go, Raptors’ regular season was a huge success.
|Toronto Star 09 Apr 2019 at 17:15|
It was way back in November, with the NBA regular season barely under way, that a high-ranking Raptors official made a bold but astute observation.
The team had just dismantled the New York Knicks on a Saturday afternoon and the atmosphere in the Scotiabank Arena was, shall we say, less than electric.
“The fans, it’s like they’re bored,” he said. “They’re spoiled or something.”
Five years of consistent winning took the edge off all but a handful of games in the interminable regular season. Sure, there was a bit of a buzz for Golden State or Milwaukee or Houston. But on the whole, even the fans knew the season was about getting ready for the playoffs, for that giddy ascension from irrelevancy to hopefulness.
The Raptors were good. They knew they were good, the fans knew they were good, the rest of the league knew they were good. All they had to do was show that and get ready for what starts on the weekend.
Kawhi Leonard, much the chagrin of some fans and to the consternation of some commentators, said the regular-season games “are just practices,” And, for the most part, it was hard to disagree with him. To the players, that’s what they were: tune-ups and game-speed practices against other NBA teams.
But, still, it’s been a journey, with moments of discovery and moments of disappointment and difficulty. And the 2018-19 regular season will go down as a breakthrough year on so many different levels.
Pascal Siakam emerged in one year as no Raptor ever has. He went from an intriguing backup full of athleticism and promise to a bona fide NBA star, an incredible one-year journey that was the best Toronto story of the season by a wide margin.
The season was also an experiment in the newfangled “load management” as a way of keeping Kawhi Leonard healthy, involved in his treatment program and comfortable in his new surroundings. It could not have worked better.
It instilled with Leonard a trust with the team’s medical, coaching and front office staff that he did not have a year ago in San Antonio. He is, by all accounts, feeling as good today as he did on Day 1 of the season, perhaps even better because he has been through 60 high-intensity practices and come through it feeling no worse for the wear.
If there was one downside to the full season, it was that the backups never really coalesced into a significant unit. Some of it was circumstantial — injuries, changing personnel, a February trade, Siakam’s growth into a full-time starter — and some of it was simply that fans were spoiled by 2017-18’s Bench Mob, which was incomprehensibly good. No matter who came back or who did what, it would have been virtually impossible to match that performance.
But the full season has weeded out some roles and, while Toronto will not used 10 players the same way this season as they did last year, an eight- or nine-man rotation is tighter, better and, if anchored by some starters always being on the floor, probably more effective than last year’s group.
That was all part of the regular-season plan for Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, to find out who could handle what jobs in which groups through games that didn’t matter an awful lot. He did it by juggling his way through injuries that might have decimated other teams; Nurse simply shrugged his shoulders, made do with what he had at his disposal and made it work.
Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Jonas Valanciunas, until his departure, all missed substantial time. Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin didn’t get here until February. Only Danny Green, Siakam and Serge Ibaka had injury-free seasons. Yet Nurse coaxed a 21-4 start out of his new team, and the Raptors are likely to end the season ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency ratings.
They won’t win as many games as last season and they won’t finish first in the Eastern Conference, but for what the regular season was supposed to be, it had to be considered a tremendous success.