For the Raptors, It’s All Coming Together

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Photo credit: Trung Ho/TrungHo.ca

The season has offered compelling story lines: the confirmation that this isn’t a lucid dream and that Kawhi Leonard is actually playing for the Raptors; appreciating Kyle Lowry’s awesomeness; crystalizing what the future, whatever happens this summer, holds with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam at the helm. There’s also Serge Ibaka’s renewal, Danny Green’s impact, JV’s continued efficient play, to name a few. The next step for this team is to further validate itself by notching some top-tier wins, and the remainder of the month presents that opportunity with Boston and Golden State.

Nick Nurse’s style also appears to be more suited to the players. His jovial and slackjawed style of communication may seem refreshing after dealing with the Dwane Casey’s businesslike manner for years, but credit needs to be given to Casey for instilling discipline and professionalism as table stakes, something that wasn’t there before his arrival. The Raptors boast the league’s second-best offense (behind Golden State) and it has come during a period where losses would be forgiven in the name of gelling. What has helped Nurse promote a more egalitarian offense is downloading authority from the sidelines to the court and allowing players the freedom to make reactionary decisions rather than starting from predictable sets (e.g., horns and DHO). DeMar DeRozan’s exit has made for better ball-handling, notably in “two PG” lineups, which has translated to the ball not getting stuck. And possibly most of all, Pascal Siakam has been taken his game to a level where he is a matchup nightmare on either end. Bookend this with Kyle Lowry having an MVP-caliber year and the defense oscillating between suffocating and asphyxiating, this Raptors team is proving to be a puzzle for anyone to crack.

In seasons past the team went as the offense went. We bemoaned clutch play as our Achilles’ heel in playoff failures, because we relied on it to overcome the deficient defense. For the Raptors to be good, the offense had to be great, especially DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Nick Nurse’s Raptors have shifted the equation to where the offensive throughput is not constrained by two people, but rather by team play. Of course, the Raptors still need Lowry and Leonard to perform, but there isn’t a crutch-like dependence on them to compete.

Instead, it’s the defense that the Raptors can scale up and down to take out teams. Any lineup out of a hat will be defensively above-average, and there appears to be more in each player’s reserve tank that when they need to crank it up, they can. Having any of Green, Leonard, Anunoby, or Siakam affords the Raptors plenty of leeway in switching while containing, and when there is dribble penetration, the help and secondary help rotations have been on point, especially considering the unit hasn’t played much together. Credit needs to be given to Nick Nurse for simplifying the defense where it’s easy to learn, and also to the intrinsic defensive instinct of the roster.

My “if I had to buy one jersey, it’d be this guy” player has been Pascal Siakam for quite some time, and his trajectory is downright scary right now. The comparables are hard to make without sounding a bit ridiculous. He’s right now a mesh of Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Marcus Camby with a dash of Kevin Garnett thrown in there. He is automatic in the post against smaller defenders, is blowing past from either side against 3s and 4s, and has an improving jumper. Watching him defend point guards after a switch up top feels like it would be a nightmare for the guard:

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He’s making tempering expectations very difficult because of the game-by-game improvement he’s showing.

Despite the record, there is room for improvement. The Raptors are prone to giving up dribble penetration and have encountered some difficulty defending pick ‘n rolls against big men who can shoot – Brook Lopez and the Milwaukee game comes to mind, and we also saw this on the West coast trip. Both issues are a matter of tightening up the communication than ability, so as the season continues, you expect them to improve on the front.

I am liking the religious attention to minutes management being paid to Kawhi Leonard. The acknowledgement that the regular season is a means and not the end, even if it comes at the expense of disappointing many fans, is the right one. We’ve been long complaining about Lowry being overplayed, not enough attention being paid to minor injuries which eventually balloon into playoff problems, so even if it’s a tough pill to swallow on some nights, it’s easily the right move. The same should also be extended to Kyle Lowry, which may have a side benefit of bringing another guy into form – Delon Wright. Of Anunoby, Siakam, and Wright, he’s the furthest “behind” and some extended minutes would help, even if it’s in stretches here and there.

Nobody is talking nearly enough about Kyle Lowry and the season he’s having. He’s not necessarily approaching the game much differently than last season, and the difference seems to be that he’s surrounded by shot-makers on a much more spaced out floor. A lot of lip service had been paid to being a run ‘n gun team over the years, but this time around there appears to be talent to match the will, along with the right tactical approach. He’s averaging 11 assists which is 4.1 more than last season, and well above his previous career high of 7.4 in 2013-14. This isn’t just a player who decided he needed to average more assists, but a player who has found that the context around him has changed to match his natural passing ability. Sometimes I wonder how many assists Lowry would average if Patrick Patterson knew how to shoot.

I’m glad the Jimmy Butler trade happened because it adds some weight to the Eastern conference and makes coming out of the East that much more meaningful for whoever team does get to the Finals. Watching Philly/Charlotte and Clippers/Bucks the other night, it’s the Bucks that worry me more. Leaving aside that Giannis is a threat to dunk the ball no matter where he catches it on the floor, their big men have the ability to stretch us more than Philly. Brook Lopez is dropping bombs and guys like Ilyasova have always been thorns in our side. If getting to playoff maturity is a road, Philly is just starting on it while the Bucks, having gathered valuable experience the last few years, are halfway through it. Ultimately, though, I believe it’ll boil down to defense and of the three, the Raptors are the better defensive team.

Butler is a scorer who needs possessions being fed to him on a surgical drip. For every possession he’s taking, that’s one less for Ben Simmons and Joel Embid, which is fine by me. The Raptors are well-equipped to defend a team where guards feed off isolation plays. The trade has further solidified the top four in the East – Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia, with Indiana and Charlotte posing their old mild but mannered challenges, while Washington rots away in the basement. We make fun of a LeBron-free East as being weak, but relative to the shape of the conference for the last decade or two, it’s quite decent.

My Schadenfraude team has been the Wizards, who desperately are hanging on to the potential of Wall/Beal much to my amusement.  I’m use to them being the “Middle East” of the NBA, but this season they’re having trouble driving and kicking without glaring at each other in anger. It’s great. Overall, this season has been a nirvana.

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