ATLANTA — Norm Powell and Delon Wright were doing their thing pre-game: hanging out, playing a little FIFA 19, cutting up — stuff they’d done a lot of since being drafted by the Toronto Raptors in 2014 and working their way into steady NBA careers.
Powell wanted get his nap started so he put the video game on hold and went to his room, but before he could lay down he got a text: “I might be going to Memphis,” Wright told him.
Minutes later it was done. Wright was one of three Raptors headed to the Grizzlies, along with C.J. Miles and the centrepiece — Jonas Valanciunas, a seven-year Raptors veteran and one of most accomplished players the franchise has ever had. A 2024 second-round pick was included and in return, the Raptors will get Marc Gasol, a 34-year-old three-time all-star, twice an all-NBA defender and, in 2012-13, the NBA’s defensive player of the year.
The deal came together quickly. As of Thursday morning the Raptors were looking forward to just their second game in 56 with a complete roster together. Valanciunas, out since Dec. 12 with a torn ligament in his thumb — was giddy at the prospect of returning to action: “I am really excited,” Valanciunas said at about 10:40 in the morning before the Raptors pre-game shootaround at State Farm Arena. “I was really looking forward to this day and there you go. If nothing crazy happens, I will be playing.”
The NBA is a crazy league. Valanciunas, Wright and Miles were traded just after lunch. Suddenly, none of them were playing. The Raptors got the win 119-101 to improve to 40-16, but the results were almost secondary.
“Unless a guy asks for a trade in certain situations, you can understand it, but even then there’s probably a couple of guys that get swept up in that who don’t want to go,” Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet said of the emotions around the roster shakeup. “Without saying the wrong thing, it’s hard to speak about it because we want to welcome Marc obviously, but the guys that are leaving, it’s hard to see them go. You don’t want to criticize our management either, so we understand all sides of it. Just a tough situation for sure.”
One minute you’re playing video games with a guy, the next minutes he’s gone.
“We were drafted together, came in together, experienced everything together,” said Powell of his friend Wright as the smoke was clearing after the deadline bombshell. “We were in the foxhole when we weren’t getting minutes, talking about the process and working to make an impact when we did get the time and growing up together in the league. It’s definitely tough seeing guys like that go but you just wish them the best for their new opportunity to go out there and prove themselves with another team.”
There was, however, the matter of a game to play and not very many players to play it. An additional deal that sent back-up centre Greg Monroe to the Brooklyn Nets (along with another second-round pick) meant Toronto had only 10 players available for their start against the Hawks, who have been playing better basketball than their 18-35 record suggests, with a 12-11 record since Dec. 18.
The Raptors’ chances took another blow when Kawhi Leonard was ruled out before the game due to a sore left knee, leaving head coach Nick Nurse with nine warm bodies.
The trade can’t be completed until the players go through their physicals with their new teams. Gasol was on his way to Toronto for Friday and if all goes well, the plan is for him to join the team in New York for the Raptors’ game Saturday.
In the meantime, there was a game to play, but not without heavy hearts. Nick Nurse knew all the players traded as an assistant coach, a relationship where friendships can form without the friction that comes with the decision-making power of being the boss.
He worked with Valanciunas as an assistant for five seasons. It was the strength of their relationship that helped sell the big Lithuanian on coming off the bench this year. It was Nurse’s commitment to Valanciunas in individual workouts year-round that helped him expand his game and stay relevant as the centre position evolved in the modern NBA.
As glad as Nurse sounded to have Gasol, praising him for his basketball IQ and battle-tested qualities on both ends of the floor, he wasn’t ready to commit to whether he’ll start him at five ahead of Serge Ibaka or not. He hadn’t finished looking back. Tomorrow will be time to look forward.
“When you asked me about the atmosphere at the hotel [after the trade], in my room it was a sad one,” Nurse said after the game. “JV and I have spent a lot of time together. For five years as an assistant, I was his guy — we sat and watch film, I’ve been to Lithuania many times to work him out, Budapest last year watching him play. I said to him today, I said, ‘No more trips to Lithuania,’ he says, ‘Come on man, you can still come.’ I think it’s funny to say, as a coach-player deal, but I think we’ll be friends for life man, for sure. And certainly miss him. I miss him already.”
He missed him acutely in the early going against the Hawks. Valanciunas’ energy could have been a game-changer as the Raptors came out looking like a team suffering from shell-shock. The Hawks came at them with speed and were letting it fly from deep. Atlanta led 33-22 after the first quarter and had pushed the lead to 15 with five minutes left in the half. The Raptors showed some life before halftime to cut lead and go into the intermission trailing 68-60, helped by 11 first-half assists from Kyle Lowry and 20 and 14 points, respectively, from Pascal Siakam and VanVleet.
That wasn’t enough to make up for the Hawks going 13-of-20 from three, the 13 threes the most the Raptors have ever given up to an opponent in one half.
The Raptors kept plugging and started running the Hawks off the line more aggressively — Atlanta shot just 3-of-15 from three after the intermission. Toronto took their first lead since the 7:23 mark in the first quarter on a 7-2 spurt late in the third, as Lowry found Danny Green cutting for a lay-up.
But at that point, it was a matter of attrition: Heading into the fourth, Nurse had narrowed his rotation to seven players, essentially, and Lowry already had 33 minutes on his clock to start the fourth; Siakam had 34. Toronto led 88-85, but could they hang on?
They could and they did — thanks to a career-high 33 points from Siakam, a career-high 30 points from VanVleet and 13 points and 15 assists from Lowry, as the Raptors took command of the game with a 13-2 run to start the fourth.
Even in the midst of an upside-down day with players going and not yet coming, the win was welcome. But it came with a sense of loss too.
Siakam set a career-high for the sixth time this season. He’s having the year of his life. But after his post-game scrum, he wanted to make sure he acknowledged the teammates that weren’t there to share it.
“It’s tough. Those are my guys [and] it’s definitely tough to see them go and I just wish them the best,” he said. “We say it every day but it’s the nature of the business. The more you see it, the more you understand … obviously you’re still brothers for life but you want to wish them luck.”