Underappreciated: Credit Nick Nurse for making the right adjustments against Utah. After being bludgeoned in the paint for most of the first half, Nurse conjured up a zone defense that stymied the Jazz and sparked a 26-10 run. The Raptors then went back to playing their regular scheme, but dialed up their intensity in the second half and forced the Jazz into settling for terrible shots.
Nurse quickly went to Ibaka who was coming off a career-high 34 points against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night and was rewarded when Ibaka picked up where he left off as he knocked down his first five shots for 11 points as the Raptors clawed their way back into the game, taking the lead for the first time on a Ibaka hook shot early in the second quarter.
But Nurse had another choice to make when Ibaka picked up his third foul trying to figure out what to do with Gobert who was having his way rolling to the rim for 11 first-half points to lead the Jazz.
Nurse chose to go to little-used Monroe and was rewarded as Monroe was more than serviceable in a three-minute stint where he made both his field goals. Nurse adjusted again by having Pascal Siakam set screens at the point of attack for Lowry and then clear out the floor behind him to let him attack the basket.
With the floor spread and the ball in his hands the hyper-mobile big scored seven of his 14 first-half points during a 17-6 run the Raptors used in the final four minutes that sent them into the half with an improbable 65-54 lead.
“At full speed I always feel like I can get to the rim whenever I want to,” said Siakam, who finished with 16 points and seven rebounds. “The guys, Fred [VanVleet], K-low, they do a good job [clearing out] whenever they feel I have a matchup and especially with my speed they just give me that freedom.”
The Raptors are playing free and easy, and one these days they’ll even start playing well.
But give the Raptors credit for staying in this one because that first quarter was extremely ugly.
The duo of Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry combined for 16 of the Raptors’ 35 points in the second quarter while the defence locked in and the turnover faucet got turned off. By the half the Raps were up 11 and on their way to a dramatic turnaround win.
Lowry once again reached double digits in the assist department finishing with 11, pushing his double digit assists steak to nine games.
Serge Ibaka, who didn’t start with Rudy Gobert one of those traditional bigs that matches up better for Toronto with Jonas Valanciunas opposing, continued his hot shooting going a perfect perfect 8-for-8 in the game before fouling out in the fourth quarter.
Over the past three games Ibaka has made 27-of-29 field goal attempts.
Ibaka’s run had Nurse thinking back to his own high school days.
“We had a kid in my high school state championship in three games go 25-for-28,” Nurse said. “ I was telling (assistant) Nate (Bjorkgren) Ibaka was reminding me of Roger Gehling. Nate said who? Kid averaged eight points a game and wound up making the all-tournament team. Serge is playing Roger (Slick) Gehling like.”
Slick was also a nice description of the Raptors coming back from that awful start.
The Raptors go for the rare West Coast sweep on Wednesday in Sacramento.
After three, the score was 94-72. The Raptors’ defense had turned it on, and the offense had already found its groove. Somehow, what started poorly was not going to end that way. Basically, how basketball works is it’s a make-or-miss league (Doug). By the end of the night, the Raptors had made a lot of their shots and walked away with a 124-111 win.
Threes were the real highlight: The Raptors had made 13 on 33 attempts and the Jazz were merely 8-for-31 in comparison.
Yeah, also shoutout to Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Both were not good in last night’s big win over the Lakers: Both were awesome tonight finding their grooves. This is me forcing a mention of them into this recap.
The Raptors are good. This was an example of that. Just look at the way a schedule loss became a massive road win. That rarely happens to teams that are not good.
The Raptors, who move to 10-1, which is a good record, will have yet another opportunity to be good when they wrap up their road trip in Sacramento on Wednesday.
But, in continuation of a perplexing fault that appears that it might sunder the Jazz’s aspirations for the season, Toronto’s offense continued to roll over the Jazz defense, even without Kawhi Leonard. Meanwhile, Utah’s offense fell off another cliff, one just as sheer as the one they plunged from in the brutal fourth quarter being outscored by 20 in Denver.
One couldn’t help but see it leave the Jazz, all of it, everything: energy; focus; belief in their ability to generate points and, painfully, to get stops.
In the second and third quarters, Toronto outscored Utah 64 to 41.
The visitors were awesome, offensively and defensively, long and athletic and completely confident in their system and roster. In those same 24 minutes of play, the Jazz went from full effort and intent, to firing blanks and a defensive fugue, to offensive and defensive futility.
The game was over before the final quarter started.
Toronto is a good team. Likely better than the Jazz, even with Donovan Mitchell (ankle) swapped out in exchange for MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. They had four players score 17 tonight. But the Jazz entered the season fully believing there was no team in the league they couldn’t beat.
Tonight there was a powerful sense that Utah wasn’t going to win this game, and worse, they had no idea how to change that.
In any other loss, we’d talk about how the Jazz fought in the first quarter, but without their best player, they just fell apart in the third quarter, but then you’d have to talk about how the Toronto Raptors were without theirs as well. In what is continuing to be a trend, the Utah Jazz got flamed by another point guard. This time it was Kyle Lowry who finished with 17 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds with a +/- +29.
In a game where both teams’ big stars couldn’t go — Donovan Mitchell and Kawhi Leonard were both nursing ankle injuries — Kyle Lowry led a balanced Raptors attack that shredded the Jazz D in epic fashion.
Lowry, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet all had 17-point nights for Toronto, while Pascal Siakam chipped in with 16 of his own. As a team, the Raptors shot 57 percent from the floor, hit 13 3-pointers and won in the paint (58-56), as well as in transition (22-17).
The Jazz front was especially bad over the final four minutes of the first half; the Raptors scored 20 points over that short span to wrest control over what had been, to that point, a back-and-forth contest.
From that point, they never looked back.
Offensively, the Jazz did move the ball well, wracking up 29 assists on 38 made baskets. However, they hit on just 8-of-31 shots from distance and continued to struggle from the charity stripe, missing 14 of their 41 attempts.
In particular, Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles scuffled offensively, combining to go 4-of-23 from the field. As a team, the Jazz did manage to score 111 points, but a lot of that was garbage time theater; the Jazz scored 39 points during the final frame when the game was already well out of hand.
The only real individual bright spots on the night were Alec Burks and Royce O’Neale. Burks dropped a team and season-high 22 points after missing the previous four games with a hand sprain. Meanwhile, O’Neale added 11 in relief of Mitchell.
1. Jazz get outran, out-hustled by Raptors team on back to back
Remember how this game was a “Schedule Alert” game for the Raptors? Well, it certainly didn’t look like it.
The Jazz just got absolutely blasted by a Raptors team playing on a back-to-back, without their star Kawhi Leonard. Yeah, the Jazz didn’t have Donovan Mitchell, and that would be a good excuse if they played well defensively, but not offensively.
That’s not what happened. The Jazz were a trainwreck on the defensive end, especially in transition. The Raptors were supposed to be tired, and instead they just ran right past the Jazz: 20 percent of their offensive possessions were classified as transition, and they scored 183 points per 100 possessions on those plays.
That wasn’t just after turnovers by the Jazz, it was after missed shots. Fully 30 percent of the time after a Jazz miss, the Raptors got out and running, and even on just those plays they scored 188 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass.
This was the Raptors’ longest experimentation with a zone defence, perhaps a product of a tired team that was missing two swingmen due to injury. The look coaxed a truly confused possession out of the Jazz, but Utah soon moved the ball well enough to get several open jumpers, only one of which Jae Crowder knocked down. The Raptors will need to take the zone into the lab a little more, but it served its purpose against the Jazz.
This and that: Serge Ibaka got into foul trouble early but that didn’t stop his recent offensive surge: despite a season-low 13:46 minutes, he shot 100 per cent from the field. Ibaka has reached double digits in points in 10 straight games, before fouling out at the nine minute mark of the fourth quarter … Greg Monroe, who hadn’t played more than 4:49 in a single game before Monday, showed his veteran presence as he stepped up in Ibaka’s absence, looking like he hadn’t missed a beat as he went 4-for-5 from the field with three rebounds in nearly 13 minutes … VanVleet and Anunoby, who have missed a combined seven games already this season, both started to find a groove offensively: their 17 points each were season highs.
The Lowry Effect
Ibaka is earning the early praise for the turnaround in his productivity, but it’s important to also acknowledge the role Kyle Lowry has played in putting his teammates in positions to score.
“Kyle is making the game so easy for me and JV,” Ibaka told Sportsnet’s Eric Smith following Sunday’s win in Los Angeles, a game in which Lowry registered 15 assists, extending his league-leading total to 116 so far this season — a stunning 31 more than any other player in the NBA. Lowry had nine assists in the first quarter alone, with Ibaka the recipient of five of those.
The point guard and centre are clearly on the same frequency this season; 3.4 of Lowry’s 11.6 assists per game come courtesy of an Ibaka basket — by far the highest mark of any Raptor and double the next-highest teammates.
Also not to be overshadowed amid Ibaka’s successful start is the play of Valanciunas, too. He may have come off the bench for most games and is playing a career-low 18 minutes per game, but he’s making the most of his playing time, scoring 14 points per game. If the centres do their job in Nurse’s system, simplifying their approach and looking for opportunities at the hoop, they’ll succeed.
What’s most remarkable about Ibaka’s hot start is how dramatically he’s shifted perceptions through his early season performance. Following an up-and-down campaign in 2017-18, Ibaka was practically left for dead by Raptors fans at the close of the 2017 playoffs. After posting 23 points, 12 rebounds, and two blocks in Toronto’s first post-season game, he proceeded to disappear down the stretch, averaging just seven points and five boards while shooting 36 per cent. As his athleticism waned, it looked like his best years were far behind him and that a stiff decline was imminent, if we weren’t already seeing it before our eyes.
Throughout the off-season there were (fair) questions about where he fit in Nurse’s rotation, whether he’d be relegated to the bench, or would have a consistent role at all. Nurse obviously saw things differently, and has been able to maximize Ibaka’s abilities, a fundamental trait of a good coach. And credit to Ibaka for buying what the rookie coach has been selling and showing a willingness to evolve.
After all, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Siakam is the perfect representative of what the Raptors have built. The power forward was plucked out of New Mexico State with the 27th pick in the 2016 draft. He was thrown right into the fire, playing rotation minutes in his first two seasons and drawing tough playoff matchups against the likes of LeBron. He and other young players, such as OG Anunoby, gained meaningful experience, all while the Raptors rose to the top of the East. Now that combination of talent, experience, and upside has raised Toronto’s ceiling higher than last season’s 59 wins. “I don’t think any of us feel like we’ve been playing well, so that just kind of shows you where we feel like we can be,” VanVleet said. “We’re figuring it out while winning, which is great.”
Perhaps because it has such a steady core, Toronto has opted to ease Leonard back from the troublesome quad injury that derailed his last season in San Antonio, playing him on only one half of back-to-backs. He was absent Sunday because of a foot injury he suffered at the end of Friday’s win in Phoenix, but even without that he likely would have sat out either this game or Monday’s matchup against the Jazz. One person inside the Raptors organization said the expectation is that Leonard will be fully healthy around the All-Star break. “I think he’s playing more free this year,” the source said.
But when Leonard sits, the Raptors are still in capable hands. Toronto is now 2-1 in games that Kawhi has missed, with the lone loss coming to an 8-1 Bucks team that was playing without Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Lakers are 4-6 and still trying to figure things out, especially on a night like Sunday, when James played just 28 minutes.
“We’re all in early stages trying to figure out how to play with each other—we are, they are,” Nurse said. “[LeBron’s] getting there.”
Nurse’s answer was diplomatic, but Sunday night, it was clear that one team is adapting better.
A survey of several league executives this weekend had the Lakers trailing, even among Staples Center tenants, in the competition to get Leonard, with the LA Clippers universally being placed ahead of them. Rather than seeking to team up with James, the thinking is that Leonard would prefer to have control of his own team, which the Clippers would offer, while still giving him the ability to return to his native Southern California.
The Lakers explored a potential Leonard trade this summer, but the San Antonio Spurs’ asking price prevented a deal from ever coming close to fruition. The Clippers, meanwhile, have relentlessly pursued Leonard since the summer but didn’t have the assets necessary to get a deal done.
Toronto, however, did, ultimately sending an All-Star (DeMar DeRozan), a young talent (Jakob Poeltl) and a first-round pick to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green. And now that the Raptors get to spend a season recruiting Leonard to remain north of the border, the Raptors have a quiet confidence about their ability to get him to stick around next summer.
One source of optimism stems from the fact that Thunder general manager Sam Presti was able to hang on to George — despite George having openly stated he wanted to play for the Lakers, Oklahoma City being one of the league’s smallest markets and the Thunder having lost in the first round of the playoffs last season. But the bigger source of optimism is what Toronto has to offer Leonard if he does decide to stay.
Nurse can see a time when Anunoby, who missed basically the entire pre-season and three regular-season games while dealing with a personal issues, forces himself back into the starting lineup.
“I think eventually, with his defence and perimeter shooting, he probably ends up in our closing lineup and then probably works his way back into the starting lineup, too,” Nurse said of Anunoby.
But Siakam has been a revelation through 10 games. His ball-handling skills are unique and most welcome, he’s a passable rebounder and a long, springy defender who can guard multiple positions.
Nurse has unquestionably thought of what could be a crazy good defensive unit that comprises Lowry, Green, Leonard, Anunoby and Siakam. The versatility in that group would be boundless.
“We’re trying to create a versatile, versatile team so we can compete against the other really versatile teams in this league,” the coach said. “We’re still a work in progress, but that’s what we’re shooting for.”
Anunoby got his second start of the season Sunday against the Lakers, filling in for the ailing Leonard. He had seven points despite missing 4-of-5 five three-pointers he tried, and grabbed one rebound while guarding LeBron James about as well as James can be guarded.
It gave the coach more reason to think the 21-year-old will be a major contributor sooner rather than later.
“I thought he gave a tremendous effort on defence and his offence is just a little rusty,” Nurse said. “He took good shots, he made one really good drive for a dunk, that was about it. And other than that, I thought he did a great job on James and we’ll just wait. I think his offence will come, it’ll be there.”
Coaches often become friends, sometimes out of sheer understanding for each others’ situations. In the NBA, there are only 30 men who really understand the pressures of being a modern NBA head coach.
In the D-League in 2007, though, there were only 14 teams; only 14 coaches to know. The D-League then felt even more minor league than it does today: Salaries were only about $15,000 per season, and far fewer players and coaches got big bonuses from an NBA-affiliated franchise.
It also involved more player movement than today, according to Snyder and Nurse.
“The thing about the G League is that your team was always changing. Some of that was your ability to always adapt to your roster,” Snyder said. “It was one of the ways as a coach you could grow, and what looked like difficulties could be opportunities.” Nurse noted that the changes developed his “management of organization, quick teaching, and developing chemistry several times throughout the year.”
But despite the differences, both appreciated the training ground of basketball that the D-League presented, and both coaches are using tactics that they picked up at the D-League level.
“One of the questions you get when coming from the minor leagues is ‘well, maybe you could do that in the minor leagues but you can’t do that in the NBA.’ You hear that a lot,” Nurse said. “I’m not so sure that a lot of that is true. Basketball is basketball. There’s more talent here, supposedly more pressure, but a lot of it is just the same. It’s about getting your guys to play hard and play together, and that carries a lot of weight at any level.”
Nurse, for example, is rotating his starting lineup in a way that mirrors what some D-League coaches do. Though Serge Ibaka picked up a career-high 34 points on Sunday night, he found himself out of the starting lineup on Monday against the Jazz, as Nurse picked Jonas Valanciunas instead.
In Episode 410 of Locked on Raptors, Sean Woodley is joined by Dharma Naik (@MindofDharma) to break down the Raptors’ 121-107 win over the Lakers. They discuss Serge Ibaka’s explosion, Nick Nurse’s successful vision for the big man rotation, the C.J. Miles vs. Norman Powell conundrum and what to expect from the Raptors as they visit Utah on Monday night.