Media day, the hours-long session that has players pose for endless photos, talk to every outlet imaginable, and produces unyielding claims about exactly how many pounds of muscle/fat a player has gained/shed, usually produces nothing of lasting importance. At best, the unearthed tidbits are fun but unsubstantial. At worst, talking points are disingenuous, distractions from the real issues that will linger for the next six-plus months.
Remarkably, this year’s media day was prescient for the Toronto Raptors. #SkinnyKyleLowry and the Raptors’ renewed commitment to defence were by far the two most discussed topics. As the regular season winds down, Lowry, who has sustained his excellent play to the point where he will probably wind up on a few MVP ballots, and the defence, jumping from 23rd last year in points allowed per possession to the periphery of the top 10, are the two biggest reasons the Raptors have bumped up their win total.
With the regular season ending on Wednesday with a rather meaningless game in Brooklyn, here’s a look at the players, stories and moments that have stood out since late October.
PLAY OF THE YEAR
DeMar DeRozan posterizes Rudy Gobert, Nov. 18
He is just 26, but DeMar DeRozan has been calling himself an “old man” for years now, thanks to his early entry into the league and the comparative youth of many of his teammates. That makes it surprising whenever DeRozan rises up as if he is an underclassman. That he took it straight at The Stifle Tower, dunking over the Jazz centre apparently without thought of opting for a floater instead, was breathtaking. Gobert is one of the best shot blockers — and shot deterrers (not a word) — in the world. DeRozan was not scared.
BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE
Kyle Lowry does everything against the Cavaliers, Feb. 25
The phrase “measuring stick” got tiresome this year. As did “litmus test.” However, games did not get litmus testier (or measuring stickier) than the home game against LeBron James and the Cavaliers shortly after the all-star break, and Kyle Lowry made sure that the Raptors passed the exam. The final line: 43 points, 15 of 20 shooting from the field, 11 of 15 from the free throw line, nine assists, five rebounds, four steals. With DeRozan suffering through the flu, the Raptors needed every last bit of Lowry’s performance, including that last bit: a step-back jumper with seconds remaining that broke a tie for good.
WORST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE:
Terrence Ross’s month-long post-extension swoon, Nov. 3-Dec. 5
The Raptors locked up Ross to a contract extension worth more than US$30-million over three years early in November. This was clearly a bet on Ross’s raw skills and potential. Over the next month, with a six-game absence due to injury thrown in there, Ross shot 15 for 59 in 12 games. During that span, he played more than 20 minutes just twice. He rebounded nicely as the season went on, finding a role in a reserve-heavy unit headed by Lowry. That contract could still be a good investment. For a month, it seemed like a nightmare.
Raptors lose in Golden State 115-110, Nov. 17; Raptors lose to Golden State 112-109, Dec. 5
Why choose? In the first game, the Raptors were a dubious foul call on Lowry away from maybe handing the Warriors their first loss of the year, erasing a 16-point halftime lead against the champions in Oakland. In the second, there was a Lowry-Stephen Curry shootout, as the two all-star starters combined for 85 points and 15 three-pointers. The Raptors got off to a wobbly start, but the close calls against the Warriors were the clearest signs of how good the Raptors were. Those games were as good as early regular-season basketball can get.
Raptors beat Spurs 97-94, Dec. 9
The Raptors had some impressive wins on the road this year, with victories in Oklahoma City and Los Angeles against the Clippers standing out. However, if you beat the Warriors or Spurs this year, those games get asterisks. The most impressive element of the win: DeMar DeRozan scored 28 points on just 15 field-goal attempts, despite having to contend with the defence of Kawhi Leonard.
WORST RAPTORS DEFEAT
Raptors lose to Bulls 109-107, March 14
They lost to worse teams (Sacramento twice, Denver twice, the Knicks), and blew bigger leads (a complete collapse against Houston in March), but no loss was more confounding than their final game against the Bulls. Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Mike Dunleavy and Joakim Noah were all injured, and Jimmy Butler shot 5 for 18. Yet, the Raptors still allowed the Bulls to sniff 50 per cent from the field, with Doug McDermott once more terrorizing Toronto. It was at this point where you had to start to wonder whether it was merely a uniform that was inside of the Raptors’ collective head. Thankfully, the Bulls missed the playoffs.
MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE
Norman Powell’s emergence
DeMarre Carroll’s injury problems and James Johnson’s reliability problems created a void on the wing. After some seasoning in the D-League, Powell, the 46th pick in June’s draft, has slid into a starter’s role by shooting 42 per cent from three-point range since the all-star break, and playing fearless defence against some of the league’s most dynamic perimeter players. Now, the Raptors might have found a rotation player for the next two years at a bargain rate, which is why Powell gets the nod here over Bismack Biyombo’s excellent season.
LEAST PLEASANT SURPRISE
DeMarre Carroll’s injuries
There is not much to choose from in this category, thanks to the Raptors’ record season. However, Carroll’s health was a continued concern, starting from opening night when he took a nasty fall. A bout with plantar fasciitis came next, followed by the big blow: an ongoing knee injury that led to arthroscopic surgery in early January. He missed more than three months, blowing past even conservative timetables for his return. Now, even though he is back in uniform, he is still dealing with some swelling, and his ability to impact the playoffs will be limited. This is not what was expected when the Raptors signed Carroll to a four-year deal in July. It throws into doubt what he will be able to do for the next three years, too.
AMIR JOHNSON AWARD FOR MOST UNDERAPPRECIATED RAPTOR
A first-round test for Casey is coming, as he is going to go up a playoff-tested coach in Indiana’s Frank Vogel. Casey also routinely ran up the minutes of Lowry and DeRozan into the high 30s or low 40s on any given night. Nonetheless, he took a team that most people assumed would come down from last season’s 49 wins into the mid-50s, despite losing the team’s most noteworthy offseason acquisition for the majority of the season. That is a hell of a coaching job. A shout out to Patrick Patterson, whose early-season shooting struggles masked his steady contributions in every other facet of the game, which has continued as he has found his stroke.
MOMENT OF THE YEAR
Kyle Lowry hits a game-winner against the Cavaliers
One of the most-hyped games of the year. A sold-out Air Canada Centre crowd standing up. A tie game, with Matthew Dellevadova, a sturdy (and some would say, dirty) defender in his face. Lowry rises up, and buries a jumper, his first game-winner since a tip-in when he was back at Villanova. Electric.