We shouldn’t be surprised about how it all went down. It’s human nature, really.
Anyone familiar with the pressure of live sports and the growing pains of young teams should have tempered expectations for the Toronto Raptors 2021-22 season, let alone their season opener, when they returned to Toronto to play in front of a sold out Scotiabank Arena crowd of 19,800 on Wednesday night after exactly 600 days abroad. The Raptors stunk, getting blown out 98-83 by the Washington Wizards in a game that wasn’t close from the second quarter onwards. But can we really blame them?
Between a Kardinal Offishall performance to a video tribute from the fans to a Fred VanVleet speech to the audience all before tip off, the Raptors were set up to fail. Think about it: only four players on the 17-man roster have ever played a game in Toronto for the Raptors, and many of the first and second-year players have never even played in front of a sold out NBA arena due to COVID. The emotions were too high, the hype too real, and the moment too big. And instead of creating the good kind of energy that fuels young players, it led to a team-wide case of the yips.
“I think so,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said when asked if the emotions of the night got to them. “It seemed to me we weren’t fully engaged and something was there and it probably was that it was a pretty big moment.”
“The only thing that I was upset about or that I felt that I let our group down was just that we didn’t fight enough. We didn’t play hard enough, tough enough, smart enough. And that’s the stuff that you can control,” VanVleet said. “But again, that comes with learning how to be a pro and learning what it takes to win, which, you know, you look down the roster and there’s a lot of inexperience there.”
“We let the crowd down, it was a hell of a crowd. The fans did their part. We just didn’t play well enough. But, you know, it’s game one.”
The bad news is the Raptors are now 0-1, with 81 games remaining on the season. The good news is that Wednesday night wasn’t at all representative of how the Raptors will play or their skill level. So, before we enter panic mode, let’s suss out what was real and, more importantly, what wasn’t.
The Raptors want to play fast. They want their bigs to grab rebounds and race down the floor themselves, attacking backtracking defenses that aren’t set up yet; They want to thrive in transition and to shoot without hesitation. But when the lights went on—the real lights—the bigs who were taking the ball coast-to-coast in preseason started passing it off. When the lights went on, the transition offence became sloppy, with guys throwing the ball off each other, leading to just 18 fast break points and 19 turnovers. When the lights went on, guys who made threes in preseason stopped even taking them, ruining the flow and spacing of the offence, and the ones that did take them shot just 20.6 percent.
“I told you so. I’ve been telling them for a month now, a month and a half: it’s different,” VanVleet said about his message to the young players. “You can get all the pats on the back and all the hype and everything that you want. Preseason was great, training camp was great. It does not matter. There’s different lights out there. These guys are coming to beat us. They don’t care.”
The Raptors will be better than they were on Wednesday, because how could they not be? The performance was tied for the ninth-worst team shooting percentage in team history at 30.9 percent from the field, their fifth-worst at home, and their worst since 2018. It was their second-worst loss in an opener, with the 83 points they scored marking their second-fewest in an opener. That stuff will all get better: their defensive rotations will be more crisp, their transition attack will be more cohesive, and their three-point shooting will come alive. But this is a young team with some significant flaws, especially in the half court, and if that wasn’t obvious before Wednesday night, it certainly is now.
The NBA is getting younger. That’s a simple fact. More training, funding, access, facilities, coaches, and opportunities have created a landscape in which young athletes are not only getting more and more jobs in the best basketball league on earth, they’re also playing more and contributing to winning more.
The Toronto Raptors have taken notice of the league’s youth movement. How could they not after the 2020-21 NBA playoffs featured Devin Booker (24 years old), Deandre Ayton (22), Ja Morant (21), Trae Young (22), RJ Barrett (22), Luka Doncic (22) and Donovan Mitchell (24) all playing extremely well despite their youth and inexperience?
“You probably could see the direction the team was going and jumping up in the draft to get the fourth pick, I think philosophically going young became kind of a more desirable path,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said around the 2021 NBA draft. “I think philosophically that’s where we were going as an organization and we thought now was the best path for us the next year, two, three, four, five years.”
“There are going to be growing pains.”
The 2021-22 Raptors average just 25.1 years of age and have just 68,000 combined minutes of NBA experience (including 35-year-old Goran Dragic’s 13 years of experience), which is fewer than the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Charlotte Hornets. Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa, two of the Raptors opening night starters, are 20 and 22 years old, respectively. And hometown hero Dalano Banton, their best player on the night, is just 21.
One of the biggest things that the Raptors need to focus on this season is staying even keeled throughout the full 48 minutes of each game. With all the ups and downs an NBA game can take, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. And the Raptors certainly were guilty of that on Wednesday night, putting their heads down after missed shots instead of running back or showing frustration after turnovers.
“These games are long and they take a lot of turns, a lot of directions. And not getting caught up in any of the severe turns they take is part of the experience,” Nurse said. “I think that’s probably the part that I’m trying to just focus on: continuing to play and maybe not getting caught up sometimes in the scoreboard and things like that; just really zeroing in on getting a stop and then having a quality offensive possession and you just kind of keep doing that a little bit.”
“And I think you got to be able to handle some emotion there, you got to have some maturity. All of those things that I think we’re building at this point.”
“Playing until the game is done is definitely going to be a big thing for us, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Banton, who scored 7 points in just 12 minutes on opening night, said: “I feel like just kind of understanding that in this league, you’ll never be out of the game. We have a lot of talented guys. So whether we’re down 30 or 20, it’s kind of next possession, keep playing, keep fighting. At any point the game could change, and with a fan base like we have, momentum shifts. Just to stay in the game and play to the finish and play until the game’s done.”
“I feel like that was the thing that got to our heads, just thinking about the last play too much. And just learning that there’s a lot of possessions throughout the game… Playing until the game is done is definitely going to be a big thing for us, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
The Raptors will need to stay even keeled and focused not just over the course of a 48 minute game, but also over the course of an 82 game season. And that is one area where having a young team could actually help. When asked what his youth could add, Barnes said:
“Just keep bringing that young energy every single day into that locker room and try to just keep having fun no matter what it is. I know it’s gonna be a long season, something that I’ve never been through before, but just keep trying to bring that positive energy… that’s just what I plan to do.”
Coach Nurse and veterans are confident that the young players can, in fact, contribute to winning right away. Yes, there are going to be growing pains. But the team we saw on Wednesday night isn’t the one we will see going forward. This group is too hard working and mature for them to not bounce back.
“They take criticism well. They don’t really take it as criticism, but constructive criticism,” OG Anunoby said about the young players. “They try to learn from it. They don’t make the same mistakes twice. They learn from what they get wrong. The next day they fix it. Whatever they get wrong, they fix the next day. So they just keep getting better.”
“It’s a long NBA season and there’s a lot of room for growth on the roster,” VanVleet adds. “If any handful of guys take a quick step, we’re looking at a completely different roster than what the general public would see.”