The Toronto Raptors have returned from their final Western Conference road trip of the season, going 1-3 in four games.
They lost to the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz before stunning the Los Angeles Lakers at the STAPLES Center. In the final contest of the trip, Toronto lost a close one to a familiar foe in Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers.
TAKEAWAYS FROM EACH GAME: Nuggets | Jazz | Lakers | Clippers
Before we look to the final stretch of the season, here are some takeaways from the team's trip out West.
Fred VanVleet looking healthy
He only played in two of the four games, but when VanVleet was on the floor, he looked like the rising star we saw prior to his hip injury.
VanVleet went for 30 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals in a loss to the Jazz. And after sitting out the matchup against the Lakers, he nearly single-handedly carried the Raptors to a win over the Clippers with 27 points, 13 assists, two rebounds, two steals and a block.
Plays like this showcase what appears to be a fully healthy and shifty guard once again:
Split 'em- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 5, 2021
drop it off
punch it pic.twitter.com/4jQYtBhlKq
While plays like this prove he's starting to get his touch back after struggling to get in a rhythm following his return from injury:
With the left?- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 5, 2021
BET 🎲 pic.twitter.com/4dDYZhAels
It looks like the Raptors are still going to take a cautious approach with their 27-year-old guard down the stretch - as they should - but there's only one more back-to-back on the schedule, so we may see VanVleet in five of the final six games of the season, depending on playoff chances.
Regardless of Toronto's playoff situation, it was encouraging to see VanVleet look like his usual self post-injury before the season comes to a close.
Kyle Lowry's still got it
Since the franchise elected to hold on to Lowry at the trade deadline, it has been a weird second half of the season for the Raptors' leader. He has only appeared in nine of 22 available games due to a foot infection and rest, and even when he has been on the floor, he hasn't always looked like his usual energetic self.
While Toronto is still outside of the playoff picture, there's no more assuring sign that this team could make some noise in the Play-In Tournament than Lowry completely taking over the game against the Lakers to the tune of 37 points and 11 assists with eight 3-pointers.
He really is the Doctor of Greatness- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 3, 2021
37 Pts | 11 Ast | 8 3pm pic.twitter.com/2HdwTCqryh
37 points with a career-high-tying eight 3s is nothing to sneeze at - it was Lowry's highest scoring output in a game since Jan. 20, 2018. For the 35-year-old guard to put together an outing like that, through injury and the inconsistency of resting games, is quite the feat this late in the season.
And for what it's worth, it was equally as comforting to see Pascal Siakam drop 39 points and 13 rebounds in that same game, showing that this team's star power can elevate their play for the big ones if they give themselves the opportunity to play in the postseason.
Khem Birch takes on multiple tough tests
What a whirlwind of a season it has been for Birch.
Going from playing sparingly with the Orlando Magic to becoming the everyday starting centre for the Raptors in the blink of an eye, the Canadian big man has thrived during his time with his homeland team.
Since taking over as Toronto's starting centre, he's produced 11.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 blocks per game with two double-doubles and one career-high mark in assists (6).
You could argue that no player on the team had a tougher test out West than Birch, who was matched up with bigs like Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Andre Drummond and Ivica Zubac.
Here's how he fared defensively in those matchups:
Birch has given the Raptors some stability in the paint, something the team has been searching for all season. So far, he has proven to be exactly what Toronto has needed.
The big picture
Coming away with just one win on this grueling road trip is less-than-ideal for the Raptors' playoff hopes.
Returning home with a 27-39 record, trailing the Washington Wizards by 3.5 games with only six games to play, the Raptors are up against it if they're going to qualify for the Play-In Tournament. With their next game coming against the Wizards (Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on SN One), Toronto does have a chance to gain some ground.
MORE: Nick Nurse speaks on the importance of Wizards game
It is worth noting that five of the Raptors' final six opponents - the Wizards, Grizzlies, Clippers, Mavericks and Pacers - are all either in their conference's playoff picture or sitting comfortably in the Play-In Tournament, so the Raptors have their work cut out for them moving forward.
The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.