PHILADELPHIA — The Toronto Raptors have been looking for games like this while stumbling at times through a strange season which has been successful by almost any measure, but still seems to have them pawing around for the light switch in a strange room more often than their record would suggest.
Through injuries, rest, and personal issues, the Raptors have played less than a handful of games at full strength all season. The moment is approaching, as the Raptors took on the Philadelphia 76ers missing only Jonas Valanciunas from their rotation, and he’s expected to be back from missing 31 games with a thumb injury imminently.
But after all that, could the NBA trade deadline Thursday bring the greatest roster upheaval of all?
At the moment, the team that still has yet to fully hit its stride hinted at what they could look like when they do, as they stepped into a hostile building against a top-four team in the East and snatched a win, 119-107 over a 76ers team that — to be fair — was missing starters J.J. Reddick and Wilson Chandler and coming off a west coast road trip.
Still, there were long stretches of smart offence and good ball movement but at the very end, as field goals were tough to come by, it was their defence that pulled together as the 76ers didn’t score for nearly three minutes after pulling within seven on a Joel Embiid dunk at the 3:47 mark.
The win improved the Raptors’ record to 39-16 and gave them the edge in the season series against Philadelphia 3-1. Toronto held Philly to 44-per-cent shooting and out-rebounded them 42-34 thanks to a 15-5 edge on the offensive glass as six Raptors hit double figures in scoring, led by Kawhi Leonard with 24 as he went 16-of-17 from the line while the Sixers got 37 points and 13 rebounds from Embiid and fell to 34-20.
“I think we just had a good overall game as a team,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who was at the heart of trade rumours for much of the day Tuesday.
The Raptors were in command for the entire game as they put 40 on the Sixers in the first quarter, led 72-55 at the half, and took a 100-82 lead into the fourth quarter with the Sixers never getting closer than seven down the stretch, even though Toronto shot just 6-of-21 in the final period and 0-of-5 from deep.
Otherwise everyone was in on the act with contributions from big dogs Lowry (20 points, six assists) and Leonard, as well as nice-when-you-get-it nights form Delon Wright (eight points and five assists) and Greg Monroe (10 points and seven rebounds). But getting Lowry and Leonard together was key, and will be, and Lowry dropping bombs always helps.
“He was awesome, he was awesome,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “You know, that’s Kyle in a super focused game. He took his threes, he took his deep ones, he took some drives. Whenever you see him pull that little slam-on-the-brakes spin to the left fadeaway, you know he’s in the game right. So he did some nice things, he drove deep and dumped it off a few times as well. He was great tonight, Kyle Lowry was great.”
The question as the NBA trade deadline looms Thursday afternoon is who Valanciunas — or anyone else — will be playing with when that moment comes.
The Internets being the Internets, there was considerable speculation about what the Raptors may or may not do or be looking to do. Lowry has heard it, was rolling with it, more focused on playing at home with Mom in the crowd.
Said Lowry: “I love playing at home. It’s home. My Mom is here. You know what I’m saying?”
Where Lowry’s next home may be was the buzz pre-game, as unlikely as it might be for the Raptors to trade their five-time all-star at this stage of a season in which they’re gunning for the NBA Finals.
For his part, Lowry wants to see things through:
“I personally want to be in Toronto. I never asked for a trade. My goal is to win a championship here and that’s what I want to do,” he said after the game. He said no one in the Raptors organization has asked him about being dealt or advised him that something might be brewing. “No. I’ve heard all the rumours just like that. I’m sure if anything were to happen, management would call me and talk to me and make me aware of anything that was going down. That’s one of the things where I’m sure we have a good enough relationship to know what is going on.”
One report suggested that the Raptors had asked Memphis about a trade involving Lowry and Valanciunas and for Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Multiple sources I spoke with confirmed that there had been discussions, but from my understanding it was the Grizzlies initiating contact and trying bid up the market for their veteran stars as they rebuild, with Toronto only listening politely.
“There are six teams talking to Memphis,” one source said, confirming Toronto as one of them. And for what it’s worth, Conley would be open to playing in Toronto, said one source with knowledge of the situation.
The attractiveness from Memphis’ viewpoint is they could save about $40 million on the transaction as Conley is owed $67 million over the next two seasons while Lowry only has one year and $34 million on his deal, and Valanciunas is about $7 million cheaper than Gasol next season.
There were reports also that Gasol was heading to Charlotte alone — he was held out of the Grizzlies’ game vs. the Los Angeles Clippers — and who knows if a deal for Conley would be feasible after that, given so much of his reputation has been built as a pick-and-roll maestro alongside the Spanish big.
One way or the other, Lowry seemed determined to put on a show in his hometown as he came out buzzing, his best stretch coming in the second quarter as he went off for 13 points and four of his five triples — the kind of scoring binge absent from his game as he struggles with back issues.
An interesting side note is how even the ‘report’ of Lowry and Valanciunas being discussed would play in the Raptors room. Both are exceptionally popular among their teammates and Lowry has the kind of equity that all-star level play and years in residence builds. It’s not clear what kind of chemistry the Raptors are currently enjoying, although the perception that management is willing to turn the roster over to benefit a player — Kawhi Leonard — who may be not be here at the end of the season could be an issue.
The working theory is the club’s off-the-floor chemistry is fine — the room gets along well. But playing selfless, committed basketball on the defensive end, and at times offensively in the crunch, comes and goes.
“We have all the pieces,” said Danny Green “We just have to put it together and make it work … we just have to keep moving in the right direction, be mature and not take any steps backwards.”
Said Lowry: “Yeah, we have a great group. I think we have just been so banged up and in and out, it’s been tough. That has been the one thing that has been so difficult for us, being banged up and in and out. But I think we all know what we want and what the end goal is.”
On the floor against the Sixers, there was no evidence of anything being less than solid — for one night at least.
Lowry’s troublesome back — which caused him to miss Sunday’s game and had him listed as doubtful against his hometown Sixers — seemed perfectly fine and he stepped into his long looks with conviction — something that has been missing during more than the two-month stretch in which he’s shot 29 per cent from deep. Lowry finding his shooting stroke and Valanciunas returning to the lineup could be all the help the Raptors need.
Better yet, in just their 29th game together out of 55 chances due to injuries and games missed due to rest, Leonard and Lowry looked as comfortable together as they have this season.
Leonard was at his efficient best, getting to the line at will; Lowry looked comfortable shooting from deep; the bench was sharp and organized and the defensive intensity was there when needed at key moments.
The Raptors looked as cohesive as they have in weeks. Now we get to see how long the band stays together.