The Toronto Raptors have only 10 games left to play in their regular season.
Given where they are in the standings, with the possibility of reaching the play-in tournament still very real, each game the Raptors play will be vitally important, with the stretch the Raptors are currently in the midst of chief among them.
Game No. 63 of Toronto’s 2020-21 regular season campaign goes Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET against the Denver Nuggets on Sportsnet ONE and is just the second of a five-game stretch that could very determine the fate of the Raptors’ season.
This stretch in question kicked off on Tuesday with a loss to the Brooklyn Nets and now sees the Raptors head out west for a four-game trip where they will see the Utah Jazz, and both Los Angeles teams after their Thursday night affair with the Nuggets in Denver.
There’s plenty on the line for the Raptors and the tests coming their way will seemingly feel non-stop.
Here’s a look at four things to keep in mind as you take in Thursday’s game.
(New) Freddie feeling good
In some unequivocally good news for the Raptors, the team announced on Wednesday that it had signed Freddie Gillespie to a two-year contract.
Despite being called a two-year deal, Gillespie’s contract is more like one full season and these final 10 games.
Regardless, however, Gillespie’s story of going from playing Division III basketball to Division I to the NBA G League to earning a couple of 10-day contracts to, now, getting a standard, guaranteed NBA contract is inspiring and is something that he’s always had the belief in himself could happen one day in the back of his mind.
“It’s like one thing I always say is, ‘Faith of a mustard seed,’” said Gillespie during Raptors shootaround in Denver Thursday. “You need to have a whole bunch of faith, but have you ever seen a mustard seed? It’s like really small. So sometimes that’s all I had, I had this really small inkling and I thought if I just work off of that then maybe I can get there. But didn’t I think this is what it would look like or was I crazy confident and boasting around about it? No, but I had a little bit of faith.”
Gillespie said he got this great self-belief and positive mindset from his mother — “she always told me, like, look at the glass half full, not half empty” — but to get to where he is now has taken a lot of perseverance and hard work along the way, too.
As such, he’s not one to look too far ahead and take this opportunity for granted.
“At the end of the day it’s a privilege, you know what I mean? This is one of the most esteemed fraternities in the world,” said Gillespie. “There are 450 players that get to do this, so to be able to be one of them at this moment and to be able to get this opportunity is amazing.”
He later added: “The next step right now is to get through this game and after that it’s to get to the next game. For me, I really take it day by day. Like, I have an overarching picture but, for me, I mean, I really try to have the best walkthrough possible, best practice possible, the best film session possible, the best game possible, trying to prepare myself to just take on the challenges that come with every day.”
It’s clearly an approach that has worked for him and with him being on the Raptors next season, he figures to be even better prepared as he’ll have a summer and a full training camp to work with the Raptors’ well-regarded player development staff.
“I’m ecstatic, honestly. It’s something they have a reputation for,” said Gillespie of Toronto’s player development program. “Me as a player and as a person, I’m always trying to grow and get better and improve myself, and I wanna be around people that can help me do that.”
That will have to wait until the off-season, though. For the time being, Gillespie will continue to help the Raptors as best as he can over their last 10 games.
Be it with the energy, effort and size he has brought to the team to help shore up the club’s centre spot or by boosting the team’s morale with his incredible dance moves and singing voice.
“Everyone is saying, ‘You’re a great singer,’ ‘We didn’t know you could move like that,’” said Gillespie. “So a lot of laughs, some funny comments here and there. When we did it I didn’t think it would go as big as it did. It is cool, though. What I like about the video is that it really shows a little snippet of what this organization is kind of about. So I think that was cool.”
Start of a difficult trip
As previously mentioned, Thursday’s game is the start of a tough Western Conference road trip for the Raptors.
This trip will be challenging for the team not only for the quality of the opponents the Raptors will see, but because of the scheduling.
After seeing Denver on Thursday, Toronto will then have to fly out to Utah for a Saturday game then hop on a plane immediately after that contest to make it down to Los Angeles to see the Lakers on Sunday. And then, from there, the Raptors will play the Clippers next Tuesday.
The day off in L.A. would’ve been helpful to the Raptors and maybe would’ve allowed them to sneak in a practice had if not for the back-to-back they have to play over the weekend, but alas, that’s just the way things have worked out.
It’s not particularly fair to the team, but this is the situation that’s in front of them at the moment.
Still chasing Washington
The Raptors remain two games back of the Washington Wizards for No. 10 in the Eastern Conference.
That’s certainly within striking distance but, with the team going through such a tough stretch of games at the moment, keeping pace may prove quite difficult, particularly because the Wizards are playing the best basketball they’ve played all season long right now.
Still, if the Raptors are going to make the play-in tournament they have no choice but to find a way to rack up at least a couple of wins on this Western Conference road swing in order to give themselves a chance in what’s shaping up to be an incredibly important game next Thursday when they host the Wizards at Amalie Arena.
The Raptors must keep close with the Wizards in order to make that game next Thursday worth it.
The Raptors will be without Chris Boucher (left knee), Gary Trent Jr. (left leg), Fred VanVleet (left hip; injury recovery) and Paul Watson Jr. (left knee) Thursday.
According to the Raptors, neither Boucher nor Watson made the trip with the team out west and will remain in Tampa to rehab.
In some better news, though, it sounds like Trent did make the trip, so there’s hope he could return to the lineup at some point soon. Additionally, rookie Jalen Harris (right hip) has seen his status upgrade to “available” for Thursday’s game. So that’s at least one more body who will be made available to the Raptors Thursday.
As for the Nuggets, the big vacancy for them is, obviously, Jamal Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury a couple of weeks back. Being unable to see the Canadian star is a shame, but we wish him the best in his recovery and rehab process.