July 18th, 2018 should be forever stuck in both the hearts and minds of Toronto Raptors fans nationwide. On that faithful date, Masai Ujiri made the boldest move in franchise history and shipped out longtime faithful franchise player DeMar DeRozan.
The news broke early that morning before some of us had even awoke to start the day. As the sun came out, as did the news that the San Antonio Spurs had arranged a deal to send Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors under the pretense that they’d be given DeMar in return. Then, as the hours of the early morning crept closer to brunch, the remaining details of the trade came out. The Raps would send DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first round pick for both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (I would make this trade a hundred times over).
As Raptors fans nationwide awoke that morning and checked their AM sports updates, you could almost hear their collective gasps. The shock of another franchise player leaving the organization, the sadness of another lost franchise player. Although you might think that having received the best player in the deal may have taken the edge off of what was otherwise a heart shattering trade, the sting of losing DeRozan left a residual sadness that loomed for the remainder of the off season.
Kyle Lowry was not only visibly upset in interviews, but was fairly vocal about the whole ordeal through his social media. Immediately following the trade (and even to this date), reports flooded out about Kawhi “having no desire to play in Toronto." Before the season had even begun, it was rumored that he was already focused on pairing up with another max contract player in some bigger market organization. Before they had even hit the court together yet, there was a kind of uncertainty that made for an unshakeable feeling of discomfort.
Jump to the start of the season... actually, keep jumping a little further, to the first 10 games of the season. If memory serves me right (and it always does), the Raptors played some of the most exciting basketball they’ve ever played. They started strong at home by winning against the Lebron-less Cavs, and they kept their rhythm going by winning the next 5 games. Their streak put them at an undefeated 6-0 to start the 2018/19 campaign. The only loss the Raptors suffered in the first 10 games was to the Bucks- which to any knowing basketball fan would come as no surprise given their current season.
Keep this momentum train rolling past the first 10 games While it’s true there were some hiccups along the way, and a few games that could have been won but, in true Raptors fashion were lost for no reason in particular, this team still managed to swipe the season series from the Golden State Warriors.
Carrying their win streak of 6 games into Friday night’s contest, Toronto and Raptors nation had their long awaited welcome home reunion with DeMar. It certainly didn't fail to live up to all the hype as DeRozan was able to sink a respectable 23 points on 7/12 shooting while putting up a perfect 9/9 from the charity stripe. Perhaps the biggest surprise performance from a returning Raptor was Marco Belinelli, who scored a total of 21 points (5 of those coming from deep range).
However, it would take more than these Toronto alumni to get the victory. Kawhi of course did what Kawhi came here to do and contributed a team leading 25 points, even while struggling from three (missing on all of his 4 attempts). Of course, he had a hand in the steal leading to his go ahead dunk late in the game where he stripped the ball off of none other than Demar DeRozan.
What truly spoiled the Spurs chances of winning was the supporting cast around Kawhi. Pascal continued his campaign for most improved player of the year, turning in an impressive 22 points. Ibaka dominated the paint as he was able to pull in 15 rebounds. Even Danny Green was able to show up against his former club with 17 points and 5/7 from three point range. In the final meeting of the year, Kawhi and the new-look Toronto Raptors were able to get the last laugh and squeeze out the victory.
Throughout the game, I was constantly reminded of previous seasons when we had the “Two Jacks” of Lowry and DeRozan. It had the same back and forth gameplay fans had become accustomed to, but with a little twist at the end. The Raptors showed their ability to dig their feet in the sand defensively, and proved that they could force missed shots in key moments.
After this game, and quite frankly after reflecting on the season, I’m left asking myself the question as to whether or not I truly miss the days of the brotherhood that was the backcourt of DeRozan and Lowry. The multiple seasons of being one of the most talented Eastern conference teams throughout the regular season, yet being absolutely embarrassed come post season (and yes, I do mean embarrassed… just look at DeRozan’s final playoff series as a member of the Raptors). It is important to remember and to understand that the entire point for these teams competing is to win championships.
Think back to the days of Kobe/Shaq. Were they best friends? Was their bromance on display for the world? No. The two of them understood it took talent and hard work to win championships. It wasn't about being inseparable off the court, it was about talent, drive and dedication. Masai Ujiri clearly shares similar interest as he elected to bring in more talent and sacrifice the chemistry of the organization. He understood that trading a franchise player would have a ripple effect throughout the nation, but he did it anyway. He knew how much DeRozan had grown in the organization, but he did the trade anyway. Ujiri was able to set his feelings aside and make the move necessary to potentially get the Raptors out of the playoff rut.
If you look at the records, there isn't a visibly dramatic change to their success. When you really dive into the statistics of this season and seasons prior though, they are winning games with far more vigor. Their success is convincing and their force is undeniable. The defense is more aggressive late in games. The three point ability and confidence has improved across a large fraction of Raptors players who are now hitting clutch threes almost on a nightly basis. Even though they don't hold the best record in the NBA, they certainly are showing why they're in the conversation for the best team in the NBA and their grind into last night's victory was exemplary of that.
The organization has managed to have players and fans alike buy into this season and its success. There is an apparent focus on winning this year, and a hopeful glimpse toward a successful future for the team. Whether best friends off the court or just the best complimentary pieces for one another, the team is ready to prove something. They are ready to prove they can break through barriers that had otherwise seemed unachievable. They are ready to forget about the heartbreak of their offseason. In an effort to move past DeRozan's emotional departure from the team, they have proven that they are committed to channeling more positive energy into their game play as a way to create a winning atmosphere.
With all of that being said, it was great to see Demar back in action last night. I do truly miss having such a hard working player on the team. He is more than just a fan favorite. He is a charismatic leader and a fierce competitor every time he steps on the court. As far as his absence goes for the Raptors, though, they seem to be making great strides without him. This season, the Raptors are pushing past the heartbreak seasons they've become all too familiar with and are making a push for the crown.