If you are a fan of the Toronto Raptors, you will always remember the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors.
Remember them as proud champions who defended their title against all odds. Prognosticators tried to confiscate the Larry O’Brien Trophy when the Finals MVP left, but the Raptors rightfully claimed what was theirs. Kawhi Leonard was indeed missed in the end, but they won far more in spite of his absence than they lost because of it. This was a team that was counted out — outside of the playoffs altogether in one infamous NBA TV prediction — but finished with the second-best record in the NBA. They had no business winning so many games, except that they made it their business to win every last one.
Remember them for their stubbornness. This was a team that completed a 30-point comeback in the span of 14 minutes. This was a team that lost all but one member of their rotation to injuries for at least a month, but never once missed a beat by winning with undrafted players who made a name for themselves. They were 0.5 seconds away from being down 0-3 to the Boston Celtics, and evened the series instead. They outlasted a championship contender in double overtime with a 34-year-old point guard sinking a turnaround dagger in his 53rd minute of play. Every single win against the Raptors had to be earned, it was never given.
Remember them for how they defended. It was equal parts talent, skill, creativity, and will. They started the smallest backcourt in the league, but made it work in their favour. Fred VanVleet and his 6-foot wingspan led the league in deflections. Lowry absorbed charges against players twice his size without a hint of hesitation. Pascal Siakam ran himself into the ground contesting more 3s than any other player. OG Anunoby took on every defensive assignment from Kemba Walker all the way up to Nikola Jokic. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka used every bit of their veteran guile to throw shots off at the rim. And most of all, remember the nightly geometry classes from the playbook of head coach Nick Nurse, who made “janky” defences mainstream in the NBA.
Remember their humble promise heading into the playoffs. The Raptors didn’t make any predictions, saying only that they would be difficult to beat four times and will shake the hand of any team that met that standard. Boston had substantially more talent, but the series went the distance and the Celtics were made to face elimination. Even in Game 7, with not one player playing well, the Raptors held Boston without a field goal for the final five minutes of the fourth and forced a one-possession game. Toronto’s mistakes caught up to them in the end, but even through the bitterness there was respect, with the two teams sharing handshakes and Lowry helping up a fellow pest in Marcus Smart. This was a team of their word.
Remember them for their shortcomings. This was not a perfect team by any stretch, and their fatal flaw was offence. Toronto tried to make it work, but you can only go so far without a superstar. Siakam volunteered for that role, but the crown is far too heavy at this stage in his career. And when it fell to Lowry to wear it, he could only muster three superstar performances when four was needed. Failing that, there needs to be more balance from the rest of the roster, and there was just enough in the regular season with five players averaging 15 points. But those types of offences shrink against the toughest of opponents, and that’s what happened in the Celtics series. Norman Powell waited too long to make his mark. VanVleet can only do so much at his size. Anunoby impressed but is only a fourth option. Gasol was an outright liability. The rest of the bench wasn’t trusted. They need more reinforcements.
Remember them for the work they did to arrive here, and the work that is yet to come. The foundation is solid, they just need to add to it. They are simultaneously at the end of an era, while also at the beginning of a new one. President Masai Ujiri had a vision and Lowry brought it to fruition, but it took seven seasons to get here. It took astute planning to assemble the young core and meticulous patience to see them grow into the roots of the future, but there will be no steps skipped in the process. Just as there were heartbreaks and learning experiences for Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey, there will be the same for VanVleet, Siakam and Nurse. They can’t run away from it — they must embrace the challenge.
Remember them for the standard they set. The hardest thing in sports is finding an identity — all the best franchises have one. Toronto was a wayward franchise in its first two decades of existence, but now have a style of play and a way forward. This two-year run is the golden standard for all future iterations of those who wear Toronto on their chest. They must defend first and foremost, be unselfish, and approach every season with the same passion this team showed in winning and defending the championship. Because that is the goal, and the only goal moving forward. They will come up short more often than not, but so long as future teams play like this edition of the Raptors, fans will be proud to call them their own.
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