There’s a refrain that Raptors fans have come to have a complicated relationship with: "Play-in for what?"
The quote originated in a longer presser Toronto’s President, Masai Ujiri, gave after renewing his contract in May 2021. “Why won’t you get in the play-in?” Ujiri asked rhetorically, “Play-in for what? We want to win a championship here.”
At the time, the team had just struggled through its dreaded Tampa relocation season and was yet to draft Scottie Barnes. There were a lot of questions on the horizon but confidence, too. The Raptors were returning home, and surely nothing could be as bad as Tampa was. Plus, the re-signing of valued and impactful people like Ujiri in a sport that can so often get stuck in a pattern of churn always feels affirmative and propulsive.
Fast forward to this season’s trade deadline and the statement’s intent has inverted. The play-in is absolutely Toronto’s target after a shaky, demoralizing four-and-a-half months of — mostly — losses. What seemed like a diminished target in spring 2021 to a championship franchise, and still a holdover postseason apparatus from the Orlando Bubble many weren’t sure was sticking around, is now a newly reenergized team’s springboard; necessary to answer many of its approaching offseason decisions.
Predicting a franchise’s upcoming game schedule strength is, this season, as erratic as the NBA’s constantly jostling standings, but Toronto’s difficulty rating has hung somewhere between first and sixth since the trade deadline. Beyond opponents, what’s been another major factor to the flux is the way the Raptors are playing basketball since re-acquiring former center Jakob Poeltl. Namely, much better.
True to Toronto’s form as a franchise with an identity that rests stubbornly on defense, it’s been Poeltl’s defensive capabilities that are lending a much-needed offensive boost. In Poeltl, Toronto finds a dedicated rim protector who beyond grabbing rebounds, just by virtue of his ability to stand under the basket and not get out-muscled, frees up stretch players like Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa to roam the floor and hunt for shots without getting so battered and bruised as rotating post players. Poeltl’s also been adept at screening, and a complimentary pick-and-roll partner for Fred VanVleet, whose own hot and cold shooting this season has factored into doubt over the guard’s future role with the Raptors.
Ujiri was honest at the trade deadline about the team’s shortcomings this season and where he played a role. “I hadn’t done my part, maybe, in this team to play a little bit better. I think we needed a big like Jak to protect the rim,” Ujiri said in an interview after the deadline, “There were times in the season where we got a little bit too individual,” he added of the Raptors’ character struggle.
In recent wins, the Raptors’ improved connectivity is apparent. So is the relief at having a set rotation of solid starters and added depth on the bench with Achiuwa, Gary Trent Jr., and new addition Will Barton coming off of it. Still, Poeltl hasn’t fixed everything. Ujiri, whose front office has rarely made its biggest move at the deadline, said it’s “not a great place to make long-term decisions”. For the Raptors, those decisions will come this summer.
Toronto has big offseason questions looming in terms of who it will re-sign and what’s realistic for a team that’s either severely underperformed or was playing to its capabilities (another question to answer) this year, but the value in the Raptors’ upcoming five-game stretch against West Coast teams is tremendous for decision-making as much as securing a ticket to the playoffs. It’s been in the cramped, unyielding parity of the East where Toronto’s had a hard time catching a break.
The Raptors have been shoulder-to-shoulder with the Pacers, Bulls, Wizards, Hawks and Heat since October, and with no team definitively pulling away, they’re all now essentially vying for a play-in position. But the Raptors are the only team out of the group with a concentrated field of Western Conference matchups in the next stretch and as a franchise that seems to have the quality of playing to the level of their opponent, what looks on the surface like a tough week could be a fortuitous slingshot out of the East’s quagmire.
The pressure could also prove tempering for the rawer elements of the Raptors' core. Though Barnes was in no way at fault for the recent ego flex of one Scott Foster, young players — especially young players on a team that doesn’t get the most favorable whistles — should never fall into the habit of looking for calls. Against the Lakers, Clippers and a rematch with the Nuggets early next week, officiating likely won’t be on Barnes’ or any Raptors’ side. If a play-in spot is what Toronto’s after, the team needs to rise in the standings as well as reel in their own self-assurance and control.
There are just 15 games left in Toronto’s regular season. Treating each as its own opportunity and matchup, focusing on the closing stretch where games have been getting ragged and away from the Raptors — in other words treating each game as a smart team would in a playoff series — could bring some of that much-needed propulsion and turn a team at a crossroads into a franchise on the verge of something bigger.