When it has come time for the Raptors to buckle down, they’ve buckled under.
It has become an increasingly obvious flaw in the roster, more mental than physical, and it has to be giving Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster much food for thought as the inexorable disappointing end to this season approaches.
It’s not that they play scared at the most important moment but they don’t thrive.
It’s not that they play to lose but they don’t play hard enough to win.
They just don’t play well enough, it’s like their thoughts get in the way of their actions.
“One of the things that concerns me — and I’ve got to get it back — is it seems to be a lot of individuals that aren’t playing with a lot of confidence,” coach Nick Nurse said after his team’s latest loss, a rather dispiriting performance in Detroit on Monday night.
There are extenuating circumstances that have landed the Raptors where they are, of that there is no question.
Needing to relocate to Tampa because of border issues was a major inconvenience — less of one when the Raptors were on a 14-7 stretch in the first third of the season it must be pointed out — and the long-term effects of an outbreak of COVID-19 within the organization was a crushing blow.
For each of those reasons the roster gets a bit of a pass but the underlying issue, the inability to fight through adversity no matter in which form it comes, has been the team’s undoing more often than not.
Perhaps, though, it was by design.
Ujiri and Webster, when they made the conscious effort to let Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol go, would have wanted to see how a young group handled it, how unproven players reacted to more demands for leadership and guiding a team through the inevitable rough patches that pop up in a season.
Sure, they wanted to save money for a foray into free agency this summer and, at the time, Giannis Antetokounmpo was the big prize being dangled.
But upper management would also have wanted to see who emerged, who became the face, the conscious, the leadership of young group.
They would have suspected that Fred VanVleet would handle it as well as he has and they would have known what they would get from Kyle Lowry because of their personalities and histories.
But OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and to a much lesser degree Chris Boucher, were going to be charged with taking charge and how they handled, or didn’t handle, the task would give Ujiri and Webster something to consider when the free agency period opens this summer and another roster remake may be at hand.
But they will have found out what’s worked, who’s emerged and have a far better idea of what’s needed. It will allow them to search for the veterans they need for specific roles and to have a year of important experience for their still-growing younger players.
The crazy thing is, though, the season is not dead. It may be seriously wounded but there is still a chance for the Raptors to claw back into a playoff race. And since gaining experience and watching key players evolve is such an integral part of this season, having a bit of playoff run might be beneficial in the long-term.
The schedule is, one could imagine, beneficial. They face teams with similar records in 10 of their next 11 games, eight of them in Tampa and the chance still exists for the Raptors to at least harbour hopes of a playoff run.
There is no real margin for error — “the future is now,” Nurse said even before Monday’s loss — and it will take some mental toughness from a larger part of the group than they are getting.
It will also mean not giving into circumstances, odd though they may be.
“I don’t think you can blame it on anything,” Nurse said. “I think there are extenuating circumstances of course.
“You’ve got to at least be cognizant of the fact that it is choppy waters. It’s been choppy waters for some time. We found only one stretch of smooth sailing, and we beat a lot of the best teams in the league, one after the other, for a couple weeks. And then we get hit with the break and the COVID and then we’re in choppier waters than ever.”