On the anniversary of the biggest moment in recent Raptors history, Masai Ujiri was nowhere to be found.
Even with the Denver Nuggets in the building, his old team still stocked with players and staff he had helped assemble into a 57-win club two seasons ago, Ujiri opted to take a road trip.
“I’m somewhere far, far, away,” he said.
We’ll presume he’s scouting for the next Bruno Caboclo. One game isn’t going to change the way Ujiri handles his job.
When it comes to reflecting on the anniversary of his decision to trade Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings for what has become a very good basketball team’s bench, Ujiri sounds like the kind of husband he’s not.
“I completely forgot [about the anniversary],” he said. “I knew it was around this time, but I didn’t mark the date.”
He missed a thrilling game – or at least one more thrilling than it should have been, as the Raptors outlasted Denver 112-105 to improve to 10-3 at home and 16-5 overall. That they needed overtime to do it was the only discouraging sign.
The deal that brought the Raptors to this point became official on Dec. 9, 2013 and the franchise has been forever changed as a result. In Gay’s absence Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have had the room to become stars. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson have became essential parts of the rotation. Chuck Hayes is the dressing room sage and John Salmon’s contract begat Lou Williams.
Together, along with scrap-heap free agent signee James Johnson, the Raptors have one of the deepest and most effective bench mobs in the Eastern Conference.
They were on display Monday. The Nuggets were ripe given they’d lost three straight, had only 10 active players and were on the last game of a four-game road trip, but that didn’t stop the Raptors from giving up 30 first-quarter points on 63.2 percent shooting. Toronto led 35-30 as Denver allowed the Raptors to shoot 13 of 19 while putting them on the free-throw line 10 times.
Led by their bench Toronto looked like it was going to end the Nuggets’ night early. Williams hesitated and paused and shifted speeds on his way to 13 of the Raptors’ 27 second-quarter points. The other pieces yielded by Gay combined for six more as Toronto took a 62-52 lead into the half.
They made a mess of it in the third as they allowed Denver to recover from a 14-point deficit to draw within a point to start the fourth. It got worse from there as the Raptors were down by five with 2:41 to play, but they were helped immeasurably by a pair of triples down the stretch by Patterson, including one that rattled home with 28 seconds left to tie the score at 102 and sent the game into overtime after the Raptors forced a 24-second clock violation and Lowry missed a prayer at the end of regulation.
They were saved in overtime as they pulled away on the strength of an early triple by Ross and a dagger by Williams with a minute left that gave Toronto a seven-point lead and Williams a game-high 26 points as the Raptors’ bench outscored Denver’s 49-15.
But anniversaries are more than about looking back. They are the perfect time to look forward. The Raptors are 57-27 in the 84 games since the franchise-altering deal, one that was really aimed at beginning a rebuilding process. It was only a sudden change of heart by the New York Knicks that prevented franchise cornerstone Kyle Lowry from following him out the door last December.
But now that the Raptors have a suddenly slim one-game lead in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the question facing Ujiri is what next?
There is plenty of flexibility. Ujiri has six players on expiring contracts worth a total of $30 million. Of those only Amir Johnson and Lou Williams could be defined as core assets.
But Ujiri is unhurried.
“We’ve got young players,” he said. “When you take a job, you have to assess the guys you need and the guys you don’t. Some of that we did right away and some of it we waited.
“But now we’re at the stage where we let the players grow. You need to let your players grow. We will continue to look at our team, but the key is we have young players and they players will hopefully continue to get better and continue to grow.”
There are signs. Ross, 23, has averaged 14.6 points in five games since DeRozan got injured. He had 16 last night but was a painful 0-for-7 from the 3-point line, including four straight in the fourth as the Raptors were trying to reel Denver back in, though he redeemed himself with triple in overtime. Figuring out how not to shrink at money time will be part of his growth.
Jonas Valancuinas, 22, battled for 18 points and 12 rebounds but had to leave early as he picked up his fifth foul – his fourth being a needless one 90 feet from his basket. He can learn from that, too.
But learning takes time. And Ujiri sounds prepared for some downs after an early season – well most of a year really – that has been nothing but ups.
Perhaps the best advertisement for Ujiri’s instincts is what has happened in Denver since he left in the summer of 2013. The Nuggets were coming off a 57-win season, which was all the more remarkable because it was the first full year after Ujiri had been forced to trade Carmelo Anthony.
With his returns, Ujiri put together a deep, young, high-energy team with a near elite — if underrated — point guard in Ty Lawson, and coached uncompromisingly by George Karl.
If that sounds familiar, it should. When you don’t have an acknowledged game-changer in the NBA, you are automatically looking at Plan ‘B’ if you want to win, and that means depth, quality guard play and patience.
In Lowry, Ujiri has a point guard that can hold his own and then some in the deepest position the league has at the moment. Lowry earned NBA Player of the Week honours thanks to his efforts in the absence of DeRozan.
And in Ujiri the Raptors have a general manager who isn’t in a rush to follow up his last big move with anything more than a steady approach. The future will reveal itself when its ready.
“This is the time to let it sit and play itself out,” Ujiri said. “It’s not the time to play poker, not now.”