I’m sure I wasn’t the only one disappointed with the Raptors home loss to the Cavaliers on Wednesday night or the one to the Washington Wizards on Monday. For the first time in, I don’t know how long, fans are scoreboard watching to see if other teams can help improve the Raptors playoff chances (yes, I said playoff chances). The Raptors didn’t help themselves out turning in one of the uglier performances we’ve seen from them this year. In a game that would’ve helped them keep pace with the other contenders for the 8th spot, they faltered. Looked lethargic and did not capitalize on an opportunity.
Then last night in Cleveland they did the unthinkable and made the loss to the Wizards look like a clutch playoff performance. The Raptors gave the ball away, shot themselves into a hole and made defensive miscue, after defensive miscue. They simply gave the game away.
In the end the Raptors missed an opportunity to make up key ground on the 8th place Bucks and are beginning to watch their slim playoff hopes slowly evaporate in front of them.
But this is to be expected with a younger team.
Many of the young players on this Raptors squad haven’t had much of a sniff of playoff intensity basketball. A number of the core players on this team have had some small brief playoff experience, but too many haven’t really truly experienced the importance of ‘must-win’ games this late in the season.
They don’t know how to close out games of this magnitude, they haven’t had enough experience being in a position to play for something meaningful. Their play of late seems to indicate that the Raptors have a lot of growing up to do still. These tough, excruciating losses are what help a young team learn what it takes to win when it matters.
You can’t look past the Cavaliers or the Wizards of the NBA in a stretch run. There is no such thing as an easy victory. Every game is an important game and needs to be closed out.
But there will be more important games to come. Some will take place this year, but more will likely take place next year.
This is a team on the rise. You can tell that this young Raptors squad is just beginning to scratch the surface of what they are capable of, but they’re still a couple of moves away from true contention.
DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, and Terrence Ross have never seen anything close to NBA playoff basketball in their short NBA careers, while others like Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson have only had a brief sniff of that playoff type pressure.
For a young squad like the Raptors this year is serving more as a learning experience, a dress rehearsal for the real thing. The young players on this team are beginning to see what it takes to close games out late in the season when there is something on the line. Even games against teams that seem to be “sure shots” on paper, become tough tests of will. Every possession is important, defense is king, mistakes come back to haunt you.
Case in point the last two games against Cleveland and Washington. Games the Raptors should have won handily. Instead they looked out of rhythm and seemed to be forcing things on both ends of the floor, giving their opponents plenty of extra opportunities to score.
This is clearly a team that isn’t quite ready for playoff basketball.
But they’re close.
Once upon a time the Raptors had another group of young players on the verge of making a dent in the NBA playoff picture. Young guns on the team in Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Alvin Williams were getting crowds in this city excited about competitive basketball for the first time in the franchise’s history. While they clearly possessed talent and future upside, they were not able to make the playoffs right away. They needed to go through some growing pains and needed savvy veterans added to the roster to teach the young stars what fighting for a playoff spot was all about.
The Raptors of that time were all about Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Alvin Williams, but key additions in Charles Oakley, Antonio Davis and Dell Curry helped get that young Raptors squad over the hump and into the playoffs.
When they finally got there, they were schooled by a well oiled, veteran Knicks team and the upstart Raptors were sent packing in three straight games. It wasn’t until the next season that this team showed enough maturity to actually win a playoff series.
They were able to succeed because they knew what defeat tasted like, they made mistakes and learned from them. They learned first hand how important games, like the one on Wednesday night, are to being a successful franchise.
That is where the current edition of the Raptors hope to get to. They’re close, but they lack the veteran leadership and discipline necessary to make the playoffs.
Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson with Jonas Valanciunas are a nice young core going forward, but they’re going to need to learn how hard you have to work to get into the playoffs and if/when they finally get there they’ll have to learn how much harder it is to win a series.
There are signs that this young squad will get there, but games like the one against Cleveland on Wednesday night indicate that the fans may have to wait a little longer before this team finally breaks through.
The Zan Tabak Herald