Another day, another message delivered.
With three minutes remaining in the first half, the Toronto Raptors looked to run a 4-5 side pick-and-roll, because they can when Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka are the two concerned parties. Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma were so hung up on the fact that the recently converted full-time center had yet to miss a field goal that they both followed him, effectively rolling out a red carpet for Siakam leading to the rim. The sheer sight of an open lane seems to activate turbo mode for his spectacular quick twitch muscles, and before LeBron James could attempt what looked a polite contest at the rim, Siakam had his head above the rim, dunking and letting out a primal scream that summed up the starts to the season each team has had.
After an entire season of successfully subscribing to the traditional style of two bigs in the starting lineup, new head coach Nick Nurse looks to have made the commitment to a more athletic combo of Siakam-Ibaka as his go-to and it has worked wonders for the latter, especially.
Shifting to the five, Ibaka has rediscovered the game that made him one of the league’s most coveted third bananas, slicing up teams inside with his finishing at the rim, picking and popping from the mid-range with ease, and attacking the offensive glass with vigor. Catching everything thrown at him has been a nice added wrinkle as well. Per Cleaning the Glass, his usage has spiked five percent higher than last season to a career-high 21.5 percent, he has nearly doubled his attempt rate at the rim from last season to 43 percent now — in line with his best seasons in Oklahoma City, and he’s also finishing at a career-best 76 percent around the basket. Worth noting, he’s also shooting a blistering 67 percent on mid-range shots beyond 14 feet but within the three-point line.
Those numbers was undoubtedly aided on this night where Ibaka made one shot after another, eventually getting to 14 field goal makes in a row to start the game. That hasn’t been done since Shaquille O’Neal back in his Miami Heat days. This level of impact scoring is a huge positive for the Raptors, but another is the passing he’s displayed whether on the roll, to the weakside corner, or while working in the post.
Ibaka finished with 34 points (the second time he has crossed the 30-point mark in the absence of Kawhi Leonard this season), 10 rebounds and a team-best plus-32 for the game, and can thank his star point guard Kyle Lowry for helping him find the zone.
Without Leonard, who traveled with the team after the game to Utah but will be a game-time decision, the primary responsibility to shoulder the load fell on the four-time all-star, and he delivered as he has done all season. Lowry was mesmeric to open the game, picking apart the Lakers defense to find Ibaka inside and shooters outside alike, which ultimately led to a 42-17 lead after the first quarter, the largest deficit the Lakers have ever faced after a quarter of play in franchise history.
Lowry had six points and nine assists himself after the opening frame, finished with a double-double of 21 points and 15 assists, and maintains his lead as the league’s assist leader through 10 games. The game also marked his eighth straight double-digit assist game, a new franchise record.
What makes the individual ball distribution so impressive is the fact that he’s still finding time to work off the ball, whether it playing off Leonard, alongside Fred VanVleet, or even allowing Siakam to explore the depths of his game.
“Having Pascal show off his skill set a little bit more just changes it up for us,” Lowry told Blake Murphy of The Athletic after the game. “Gives teams different looks, gives teams different things they have to scheme for, and, with us, it’s a really good thing for us. I think, with Pascal’s skill set, he’s one of the best in the league at bringing the ball up and making plays. It’s good for him to have that confidence to do it and us having the confidence in him to let him do it.”
That is one aspect of Nurse’s coaching style that has become quite evident as a part of his DNA through 10 games, his willingness to show confidence in his players, allow them to battle through some struggles and figure things out on the fly. It’s worked with Siakam, who after a fairly slow start, is averaging 14.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and two steals over his last five games. He has missed all eight of his three-point attempts during that span, though, and also has 10 turnovers to show for his 11 assists.
One area that has yet to click on all cylinders is the bench unit, which courtesy an 0-for-14 shooting night from VanVleet, C.J. Miles and Norman Powell that included 10 three-point attempts, gave the Lakers a glimmer of hope. Powell forced the issue on both ends and picked up four fouls in just 14 minutes, Miles struggled to find space for a clean release, while VanVleet seemed uncharacteristically rushed on several possessions. There was one high-risk, low-reward entry feed to Serge Ibaka in particular that exemplified his sloppiness on this night.
Jonas Valanciunas’ 14 point, eight rebound box score in just 17 minutes looks perfectly fine, but when the Lakers made a run late, it was their ability to front the post and deny entry feeds that sent the bench unit’s offensive composure into disarray. Ironically, for all the damage LeBron James has done to the Raptors in the past, it was a scrappy unit of Lonzo Ball, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kuzma that brought them back into the game.
James had a mediocre 18 point, six assist, two rebound game, showing that — at least for one night — the Raptors don’t need that guy to guard that guy.
With the lead cut to 14 with under five minutes remaining, Nurse felt obligated to reinstate his starters, and Lowry closed the deal from there with a drawn charge on Kuzma as well as a sweet lefty scoop shot off the glass.
Toronto came away with a 121-107 victory in Los Angeles and showed that even in the absence of Leonard’s post moves, they’re capable of serving up some cold-blooded beatdowns. They’re having an incredible amount of fun right now, and after the game, even Mr. LeBronto had to acknowledge the level the Raptors are playing at.
“They’ve been playing like they’re the best team in the Eastern Conference so far.”