Siakam was truly unbelievable. He looked every bit the part of the leader he was during the Raptors 905 championship run a year and a half ago, quarterbacking an astonishing offensive pace in his 28 minutes of floor time. He continually pushed the tempo either with his passing (6 assists), or by flying coast to coast after pulling down one of his 11 rebounds.
His energy tonight was unmatched, as his 12 free throws show, giving Anthony Davis — an MVP candidate — a run for his money all evening (*also, it’s preseason). I’ll add one thing: once Siakam learns how to finish around the basket, he won’t need a three-point shot. In fact, whichever develops first will become one of the most dangerous offensive weapons on the entire Raptors roster. Siakam finished the game with a team-leading 21 points (matched by Malachi Richardson).
I want to dedicate at least a paragraph to roster-hopeful Eric Moreland. Moreland is a special talent — he’s clearly an incredibly athletic big, but there has to be a reason he’s never gotten consistent minutes in the NBA. So far, we haven’t seen enough to know why he hasn’t played much in the past, but I do think we’ve seen enough to justify handing him a roster spot. He played a great game and made more than a few positive plays tonight.
I’ll be honest: I stopped watching the potentially illegal CCTV stream after about three minutes into the third quarter until the midway point of the fourth because it was a painfully annoying in-arena-but-actually-at-home experience. I won’t go into details, except to say that the regular season can’t come soon enough.
As an organization, the Raptors have been trying to ascend from good to great for several seasons now. Modernizing their scoring, finishing in the top five of both offensive and defensive rating and flirting with 60 wins last year were all supposed to signal a step into that elite class. Yet, the season finished in all too familiar fashion.
Perhaps, then, it makes complete sense that the new head coach, Nick Nurse, has introduced championship belts to practices, is freely mixing and matching starting lineups in each half of preseason games, and has brought an offensive playbook a tenth the size of a season ago — for now — to challenge not only the players, but himself, to figure it out.
The addition of Kawhi Leonard is certainly a major step in the direction towards greatness as a team. You just don’t contend for titles without a true superstar (unless you’re going up against two superstars feuding to the point of no return). The addition of Danny Green matters, too, but for all the innovation and fresh faces brought to the table, it’s vital the Raptors also learn from the errors of their past.
The signs mentioned earlier pointed toward last year being different, but then why did it end so poorly? Were there red flags that should have made us better understand how good this team really was? Or were the Raptors really good but just under a mystifying LeBron voodoo curse?
As a starting point, Toronto finished a league-best 35-2 against teams with sub-.500 records. One loss came in late November in New York when the Raptors inexplicably gave up 28 straight points in the third quarter, and the other a day after Christmas in Dallas. That’s a remarkable accomplishment by Dwane Casey and his coaching staff to get his players ready to play on nights when the struggle to stir up those competitive juices was as real as it gets.
The other half of the glass, though, shows they went 24-21 against teams over the line of mediocrity, a mark that didn’t really separate them from the likes of Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Utah or Indiana. Those teams were never in the conversation as legitimate title contenders.
The result is that they’ve forced opponent turnovers on an obscene 22.5 percent of preseason possessions, by far the best mark in the league. (Turnovers are higher in the preseason in general, but that’s 11 percent more turnovers than the No. 2 preseason defence.) There are some trade-offs in terms of the openness of 3s on resultant kick-outs if a ball can’t be deflected and with an opponent free-throw rate the team will want to come back down. Still, the net result is working in Toronto’s favor — they’re averaging three more shooting possessions per-game than their opponents and have a better mark than their opponents across all of the Four Factors (effective field-goal percentage, turnover rate, free-throw rare, and offensive rebounding).
This may not maintain all year. Nurse believes it’s easier to ratchet up aggression now and then dial it back as necessary rather than vice versa, and when the games count, some of those trade-offs will carry more weight. Opponents will also tighten things up, end-of-bench players will see fewer minutes, and teams will be more aware that the Raptors are getting aggressive in driving and passing lanes.
This is still a pretty major development. The Raptors are big, switchy, fast and more importantly long, and they have exactly the type of personnel that can afford to play a riskier brand of defence two-through-four (and, depending on your risk preference and lineup choice, one-through-five) and still be just fine stopping shots, as well.
The Raptors figure to be a top-five defence, maybe even top-three. It’s what that defence can do for their offence that is perhaps most exciting, given how they’ve approached things in transition.
The lights? They are exceptionally green. For, like, everyone.
Green has missed 12 and 14 games, respectively, the past two seasons and also played through an ailment last year.
Green is also helping Leonard settle in as a Raptor. Their lockers are placed nearby and Leonard was even chuckling while Green answered questions on Wednesday night.
Leonard added four steals of his own against the Nets, while head coach Nick Nurse singled out OG Anunoby’s ability to pick the pockets of opponents, and it’s clear this group is going to be able to force tons of turnovers, leading to quick transition opportunities at the other end.
“We worked a little bit on some of the changes that we’re going to make defensively and turning things up a little bit,” Nurse said.
“I think we had something like 14 deflections in the third quarter and that’s a humongous number. It’s one of the things we’re trying to do. I’ve told you since Day 1 we’ve got a team that can be more aggressive and we want to play more aggressive and we didn’t really let them for a while … we’re trying to get closer to (the way) we want to play.”
Green says he owes a lot of the success he’s found has been thanks to the recently retired Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, as well as long-time Spur – now Charlotte Hornet — Tony Parker.
“They led in many different ways,” Green says of that great Spurs trio. “Sometimes by accident, sometimes by words. But they were passionate guys that gave their all every night on the court, every day in practice. They made sure they took care of business. So just being in that atmosphere, in following them and learning from them naturally my habits developed in doing what they did.”
Now a member of the Raptors because of the stunning July trade that also saw the team acquire Kawhi Leonard, Green wants to apply some of those same lessons he learned while with the Spurs to his new club.
“They’re both top organizations,” Green said of the differences between the Raptors and Spurs. “We have some younger guys, they had older guys who were established and won some championships and we’re still trying to figure that out here.
“We’re trying to bring that culture here, me and Kawhi, but they’re two top organizations that understand how to do it the right way and win games and get things done.”
The Raptors at the moment are a lot like Green once was: Talented but unable to make it over that hump and really break through. Similarly, it hasn’t been an easy road for Green, but he fought through it all and became a winner.
With him on the team, the Raptors just might become winners, themselves, too.
In Episode 394 of Locked on Raptors, Sean Woodley is joined by Vivek Jacob and Sahal Abdi as they make their picks in the second annual Locked on Raptors Prop Bets Showdown. Vivek’s the defending champ, but has apparently gone soft, as we learn in his response to prop bet #10.
OverDrive hosts Bryan Hayes, Jeff O’Neill & Jamie McLennan are joined by Sirius XM NBA radio host Antonio Daniels to get his take on Kawhi Leonard appearing to come out of his shell more in Toronto.
WL: The main concern with Toronto is still their offense. Even though last year, their offensive rating was pretty strong, I think that had something to do with Washington being a really poor team, and then playing Cleveland, which was not a very good defensive team, either. I’m still a little worried about Toronto’s offense in the playoffs. Kyle Lowry’s offensive production drops off a little because the playoffs are more physical; teams are scouting a little more. Kyle Lowry is an opportunistic scorer, where he capitalizes on mistakes. And there are generally less mistakes in the playoffs, unless you’re the Wizards. So I’m worried about him as a secondary scorer. And then after that, it’s probably (Jonas Valanciunas), whom there’s a lot of optimism for, but he still has defensive shortcomings where you would have issues playing him all the time in the playoffs. And then, past that, it’s just Kawhi, because the rest of that team doesn’t really generate shots on their own. They could use someone on the roster to emerge and become a secondary shot creator. In the playoffs, it always helps to have more of those guys.
No. 2: Toronto Raptors
Team president Masai Ujiri has eight months to make the relentlessly silent Kawhi Leonard fall in love with him, which feels like both a rom-com and a horror movie. Imagine if Leonard winds up worse than DeMar DeRozan, the beloved spokesman Toronto shipped out for him. Far more heartrending, though, is the more likely reality: Leonard is every bit the superstar the Raptors have lusted after — but he still loves LA. –Pablo S. Torre
The Quote: “We don’t want to be the ones that are felt sorry for anymore. We want to belong.” –Masai Ujiri
The Number: 263 (Raptors’ wins since 2013-14, Ujiri’s first season as GM, fourth best in the league)
Coach Nick Nurse said earlier this week he felt the team would be “just fine” if he had to set out his rotation. But it is not like the Raptors expected to have fully bonded by the final exhibition game in New Orleans on Thursday. That takes more than three weeks and five games.
“Chemistry kind of builds all season,” Nurse said recently. “It’s not like we say, ‘OK, it’s game one and now we’ve got our chemistry.’ I think it shifts and moves all season long.”
There will be players in and players out, different combinations to try early on. Nurse wants to be able to take one player out and plug another in without huge shifts in play at either end.
“So far there are some things that have emerged to me that I’ve really liked,” Nurse said. “There’s not a lot I haven’t liked. There are some things that obviously have stuck out that I really like and will continue to like. I don’t think I’m done looking at combinations and I don’t think there’s going to be much of a set (rotation) to start, especially. I think there will be some different starting lineups, which therefore means there will be some different second units. We’ll roll from there.”
It is a process that could involve some growing pains, Nurse admits.
“It takes some perseverance by us (not to) say, ‘Oh, that combination didn’t work’ and throw it in the bin because it was only a four-minute stretch,” he said. “The sample needs to be significant. Sometimes you want to pull the trigger on that stuff because games are coming one after another.”
A certain amount of chemistry is built through the pre-season, guard Fred VanVleet said, but without meaningful games there is little adversity. The challenges mount throughout a gruelling season.
Despite finishing last season with an East-best 59 wins and then trading for Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors still seem hard-pressed to push past the loaded Boston Celtics this season.
That is, unless they go all-in for Butler.
A wing rotation of Kyle Lowry, Butler and Leonard may be the best outside of Golden State and puts them head-to-head with Boston and likely above the Philadelphia 76ers. Good luck to all opposing shooting guards and small forwards attempting to score against the Butler-Leonard duo.
For Minnesota, Anunoby is the main prize. The 21-year-old forward started 62 games as a rookie for the Raptors last season and could play alongside Andrew Wiggins to make a long, athletic wing. Green is still a solid two-way rotation guard, and Powell probably needs a change of scenery to jumpstart his promising career.
Would Butler and Leonard’s opposing personalities clash? Maybe, but at least Leonard has a ring and hardware to do the speaking for his laid-back demeanor.
For Toronto, a long-awaited shot at the Finals is worth the risk.
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