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Raptors Road Trip Reflections: Growth, setbacks & inspiring moments from the last six games

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A lot has changed since the Raptors last played at home more than two weeks ago. The autumn air has chilled. The Orlando Magic, once infallible, lost to the Bulls and are bad again. And they may not know it yet, but the Raptors have almost certainly changed, too. A grueling, sleep-sapping, 13-day journey to the west doesn’t simply happen and then fade into memory. It’s the kind of trip that begets internal reflection upon it’s conclusion.

How has this changed me? Did my experiences foster personal growth? Did I put down a cooler dunk than anyone else on the team did while we were away?

We may never be privy to the post-travel ruminations of the Raptors’ players. Such things are far too personal to reveal in a casual locker room scrum. That doesn’t, however, preclude us outsiders from asking and analyzing the important questions about the Raptors’ McCandlessian travels of the last two weeks. Baked into the Raptors 3-3 road record are stories of self-improvement, strife and inspiration. This a look at those stories.

 

Who made the most life-affirming play?

Masai Ujiri has achieved the oft-attempted, rarely-reached goal of balancing present-day winning with the development of a stable and bright future. The best play from the Raptors’ road trip embodies Ujiri’s two-pronged success.

Kyle Lowry’s post punking of noted “guy who is a foot taller than Kyle Lowry,” Kevin Durant, showcases the blend of underdog spirit, cerebral superiority and immense basketball talent that makes him Toronto’s coal-fired engine. This play is everything that made Lowry’s return to the team this past summer an indisputable necessity if Ujiri wanted to keep the Raptors in pseudo-contention.

On the receiving end of Lowry’s steal and fast break: a majestically bounding impala … no wait, that’s Pascal Siakam.

Unlike his draft classmate Jakob Poeltl, Siakam is not a lottery selection tethered to expectations. His hypothetical NBA success will be a bonus; the kind of bonus a team perennially picking in the twenties needs to happen into if the now-and-later team building approach is to succeed. That run-out and yam was part of a 14-point, 6-of-7 third-quarter eruption for Siakam in Oakland, during which he offered his team more than any unheralded draft pick ever gave to to the Chris Paul Clippers or has given to today’s Wizards. Cheap, young, upside-oozing players are essential for such teams, and the inability to hit on them (or hang on to the picks that grant you to chance to) can sentence a talented roster to an early demolition.

This wasn’t a simple high point of the Raptors’ travels memorialized by a blurry iPhone photo. This was an affirmation of the Raptor’s organizational ethos. This was Ujiri’s grand vision in GIF-able form.

 

Whose situation improved the most? 

Speaking of Siakam. He entered the trip as the team’s clearly defined fifth big man. With the Raptors 905 season about to start, you could have even envisioned a G-League assignment in his near future. Injuries happen, though. And they have a way of revealing previously unanticipated depth. With Jonas Valanciunas missing the start of the trip, Siakam parlayed three starts into a more pronounced role in the rotation upon JV’s return. In 22.6 minutes a night — a good chunk of which came in crunch time — over the final five stops on the trip, Siakam posted 12.4 points, 4.8 boards and 1.2 assists, while weaving in some tantalizing, Zach Lowe tweet-inducing instances of ball-handling intuition.

Dwane Casey is now confronted with one of those excellent problems: two front court spots, 96 minutes to split, and like seven guys who should probably be getting a piece. Siakam’s growth while abroad all but forces Casey to bump the second-year, could-be Olympic sprinter’s minutes slider up.

 

What was the most annoying minor inconvenience?

On any trip worth it’s salt, you’re going to run into a delayed flight or missed train that pisses you off despite it not really detracting from the trip’s quality. For the Raptors, that hiccup took place in Portland.

Further proving that he is incapable of doing anything fun on a basketball court, Evan Turner ruined a really cool thing last Monday night. After holding the Blazers without a single field goal for 99.25 percent of the second frame, Turner did to the Raptors’ best ever defensive quarter what he did to the 2013-14 Pacers: he made it significantly less cool.

Sure, the Raptors have a new record for fewest buckets allowed in a quarter now. But … like … ugh. If you’re going to get scored on once in a quarter, why not get scored on twenty times, you know? Allowing one basket — an Evan freaking Turner basket — is like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter and losing 1-0 because some dumb shit happened when that one guy who got plunked on the toe by a murderous curveball was on base.

Ultimately, the trip was still a good one. But I hated Turner’s bucket more than I enjoyed the win at Staples Center. At least Raptors fans have someone to blame for this misfortune.

I am the airline that delayed your arrival in Prague by 45 minutes.

 

Which player found himself the most?

Like a wide-eyed twenty-something escaping to Europe after finishing an under-grad, Kyle Lowry rediscovered himself on the Raptors’ road swing. Against San Antonio and Golden State, you could see Lowry searching for an entry point to a higher plane. He spent those games furiously bumping into doors that were frustratingly locked. Through two road games, Lowry had managed just 22 points on 8-of-29 shooting and an uncharacteristic 3-of-16 from outside. The other Lowry staples were there — play making, dogged defense, gratuitous charge-taking — but he was without the scoring layer that ties each flavour of his game together. Without it, his game is tasty but incomplete.

Whether it was the hours of alone time the road would have given Lowry with his thoughts, or the ineludible wave that is regression to the mean, Lowry began to find that which makes him an All-Star as the trip progressed. Over the last four pit stops, Lowry’s stroke rounded into form — 41.6 percent on six attempts a night isn’t quite to the standard he set last year, but it’s excellent nonetheless. His defensive engagement is at a two-year high, and he’s looking more at home setting up teammates in the Raptors’ new all-for-one offense. He’s not yet at his peak — through eight games Lowry’s gone to the line a woeful 12 times total. Eight straight games of sub 20-point production from him is downright freaky. Still, after using his time on the road to fine tune himself away from the daily glare of the hometown media, he’s returning to Toronto in vastly improved form. A trademark Kyle Lowry Eff You Game can’t be far away.

 

What was the biggest setback?

Some people are saying the Raptors played a game Wednesday in Denver that went poorly, but that’s a blatant fabrication. No sane person has any recollection of this “game” taking place.

Boy did the last couple minutes of that Warriors game suck, though.

Up 112-107 after a night of free-flowing ball movement and tremendous execution, the Raptors needed to simply not poop the bed for the next 103 seconds. Instead, they proved that two weeks in a strange land isn’t enough to fully affect change in one’s self. The merits of the Raptors’ reversion back to a simplistic offense to close the game can be debated. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are top-flight isolation scorers, and the Warriros snuff out even the most complex actions with wits and claustrophobic length. Sometimes the “get buckets” offense is the path of least resistance at Oracle.

That said, it was a disheartening reminder of the work the Raptors still need to do before they can truly consider themselves an up-to-date offensive team. Lowry and DeRozan’s dueling ISOs have been central to this team’s annually angsty playoff runs. Yet it was still the modus operandi in the most important stretch of the biggest game of the season to date.

A great vacation can reroute your life’s trajectory. It can also spawn the kind of homesickness that compels you to eat McNuggets in lieu of adventurous local cuisine. Against the Warriors, the Raptors ordered a 10-piece meal.

 

What was the most inspirational moment? 

Stepping out to view the beautiful and unending expanse of the Grand Canyon, so I’ve heard, is pretty dope; life-changing, even. Fittingly, the Raptors’ Grand Canyon moment from this trip — the instance in which they were made aware of what is possible in this world — took place in the state of Utah.

DeMar DeRozan has spent eight years being chided for his inability to hit threes. It’s a caveat that lingers over every conversation about him. “DeRozan’s an incredible scorer and wonderful ambassador for the city of Toronto, but … ”

Well, for a span of 4:55 on Friday against the Jazz, DeRozan was no longer an arcane relic of a more primitive NBA; he was a three-point bomber on the level of his most prolific peers. As part of a 17-point deconstruction of Utah’s outstanding defense in the third quarter, DeRozan drained 3-of-4 shots from deep, bumping his three-point percentage from 22 to 38 percent in the process. Small samples, be damned.

We don’t yet know if DeRozan will return from the road ready to embrace change, whether he’ll be more willing to add two or three feet to his preferred range. As with the Raptors’ philosophical approach to offense, bucking old habits requires more than a statement of intention and willpower. History suggests DeRozan’s shot chart isn’t due for much evolution in the coming days and weeks.

Or perhaps what DeRozan’s needed all along is a moment like the one his shooting generated Friday night — a blip in time in which three-point shooting unlocked for him a new stratosphere of efficiency. The annals will circle November 3rd, 2017 as the day DeRozan’s transformation into a modern superstar began. Or they won’t. Either way, that night was a whimsical peek at a fully-actualized DeRozan — at what could be. An inspiration point like that can’t simply be ignored, can it?

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Podcast host and writer for Locked on Raptors, Raptors HQ and Hoop Talks Live. Terrence Ross believer. On Twitter @WoodleySean. It's 10 grown men playing with a ball -- let's have some fun with it.

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