As trying season nears end, Raptors’ focus turns to recharging for big summer

Toronto Raptors guard Malachi Flynn (8) gets past Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) for a shot in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Friday, May 14, 2021. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

TORONTO – With just one game left in their season, the Toronto Raptors’ off-season plan is coming together, but beyond anything else, this is a team that’s looking for a little well-deserved time off.

“The plan first is to get everyone away and relax, regenerated and rejuvenated,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse before his team nearly pulled off an upset against the Dallas Mavericks, before falling 114-110 in Toronto’s penultimate game of the 2020-21 season Friday. “That’s really the focus now, more than ever. This has been a year where we need to, with everyone, staff, coaches, players, recharge the batteries.”

Given the season the Raptors have played through, and will conclude on Sunday against the Indiana Pacers, the desire for some rest and relaxation is understandable.

This has been a year like no other for the Raptors, who have been displaced from Toronto since Day 1, playing an entire season, essentially, on the road while dealing with injury- and COVID-related absences — as well as just plain poor play never really allowing them to get off the ground — leading to this disappointing, frustrating season.

So go ahead and hit the golf course, hit the beach or whatever else, Raptors. After going through a season like this, you deserve it.

Because there’s lots of work to be done afterwards.

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Despite the immediate off-season priority being to get some rest, the Raptors have already begun to map out some possible dates to jumpstart their off-season development plan for some of the young players who have been getting a closer look as the season has played out here near the end.

Right now nothing’s set in stone, but what is known is that this will be a major point of emphasis at some point for the Raptors after this season officially comes to a close Sunday.

“We totally missed the whole program last year,” said Nurse. “It’s something we’ve leaned on, become accustomed to. We think it’s a big part of what we do. We are really confident that we’ll be able to do it in a fashion we want. We might not be able to do it, exactly, but we’ll be able to do it somewhere safe and sound and all of those kinds of things.

“It’s more just that we’re looking at these players and evaluating them, which helps us decide which course of action to take when it comes to developing him.”

As Nurse alluded, the Raptors weren’t afforded much of the luxury of a proper off-season to allow their strong player-development program to start working with their young players, another reason you can point to as to why Toronto’s season will finish in disappointment.

In particular, the lack of a proper off-season likely hurt the Raptors more than usual because they ended up drafting two rookies who needed some pre-seasoning before arriving at training camp.

For Raptors rookies Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris, it’s been a tumultuous season for them as they both, essentially, didn’t play for the majority of the year – with the only consistent playing time for both of them during a brief G League stint – and then, during Toronto’s season conclusion with the team out of the playoff picture, they’ve finally got their shot and, for the most part, have looked pretty good.

Entering Friday’s contest, Flynn was averaging 10.4 points and 3.7 assists in about 26 minutes per game over his last 10 games. Harris has averaged 7.8 points per game while shooting 50 per cent from three-point range in 15 minutes per contest in his last eight games, including a 16- and 17-point outburst in two of his last three contests.

During Friday’s game, the two rooks kept their strong play going as Flynn finished with a career-high 26 points and added six rebounds and five assists on 11-of-21 shooting. Meanwhile, Harris also had a career-night, scoring 31 points on a 12-for-21 mark from the field and a 5-for-12 outing from deep. Harris also matched his previous career-high of 17 points in the first half alone and, as an interesting note, the 30-point showing from Harris was the 10th different Raptors player to have a 30-point game, an NBA record.

“They did a good job,” said Nurse of Flynn and Harris. “I think that the group kind of all played well, right? I think that they, you know, we found a few things we needed to clean up defensively and they did them at the halftime with some adjustments and they kept kind of going to the right places offensively, too.”

Thanks to a furious fourth-quarter effort mostly from Flynn and Harris, a Dallas lead that was as much as 19 shrunk to as little as two with 4.9 seconds to play, before the Mavericks managed to hold onto their lead at the free-throw line and officially clinch a playoff spot for themselves.

It’s becoming pretty clear that these two rookies the Raptors drafted last year will figure into the club’s future plans in one way or another because, well, they can really play.

Perhaps the hardest thing to find in a young player is confidence, but that isn’t an issue with either of these young men, they have it in spades and with the opportunity given to them at the end of the season they’ve managed to make the most of it and show a little what they can do.

“Everything is just starting to come together,” said Harris, who played in front of friends and family Friday and said he had a little extra juice going playing against his hometown team. “Opportunity with the work and then like I said, I have been strong in my faith about it so I just kinda been trusting there. It’s been doing it for me. Who would have known having eight guys out I would have had the opportunity I have now to do what I’m doing. So I’m just grateful for it honestly.”

It’s unfortunate, though, that they weren’t able to show this earlier in the season, which brings us back to the lack of a proper off-season for these two to work with Toronto’s player-development program.

If they’re performing this well right now, just imagine how much better and more polished they could be come next season when they get a full summer program under their belts.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” said Flynn. “The off-season is really when you get better and I’ve used that throughout my whole career to get better each year in the off-season and take it seriously. So the same kind of mindset, going into the off-season and really try to work on different things and try to show that you’re a different player than you were before.”

The potential is there for both of them, all they need to do to unlock it is put the work in.

So after Sunday, Flynn and Harris should be looking to recharge their batteries as much as possible, the way Nurse wants his entire team to, because they probably won’t be leaving the gym much afterwards.

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