23-7 (broken thumbs, injured superstars…no problems)
While Leonard still might not be entirely healthy—had the hip injury not kept him on the bench, the Raps surely would’ve sat him out of one half of their road back-to-back, as they’ve been doing all season (perhaps strategically)—he’s been nothing short of sensational in Toronto. He’s averaging 26.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.9 steals in 34.7 minutes per game, while shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 38.1 percent from 3-point land, and 85.9 percent from the free throw line, utterly dismissing questions about whether he could still be an elite force after last season’s bout with quadriceps tendinopathy. (Those worries about whether or not he’d show up in Canada seem pretty silly now, too.)
Leonard has been the immediate two-way upgrade over beloved former Raptors star DeMar DeRozan that president Masai Ujiri hoped for, putting Toronto in position to make the deepest postseason run in franchise history. Trading DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick for Leonard and Danny Green (who has been great for Toronto) wasn’t just about turning the page on last season. It was about seizing the opportunity to leverage what’s left of the primes of Lowry and Ibaka, to catch Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet on the upswing, and to package it all up for a title swing. A league-best 23-7 record and those two wins over Golden State suggests that this strategy is working so far. But “so far” only matters so much.
When you’ve come as far as the Raptors have during this golden era, all that’s left that matters is whether you can go any farther. If, once again, they can’t … well, Leonard can opt out of the final year of his contract and hit unrestricted free agency this summer, and even the most well-sourced NBA insider can’t presume to tell you what he’s going to do once he gets there. All we know for sure is that plenty of suitors will be waiting—hell, the Clippers apparently aren’t even waiting—to scoop him up and leave the Raptors superstar-less, right back where they started.
This all makes for a weird collision: a team so evidently soaring, yet still somehow stuck. The Raptors have been better than just about everyone this season, but they’ve still got so much up in the air, and none of that can change until the summer. All they can do is keep waiting and winning.
The Raptors are a team playing for more than pride and wins. There is surely more than a little extra motivation among the players at the moment. They are a team playing for their coach following the passing of Nick Nurse’s mother earlier this week. Nurse left the arena following the final buzzer and boarded a plane to visit with his family in his hometown of Carroll, Iowa and will rejoin the club ahead of Friday’s game in Portland.
Sure, the Raptors also benefited from an off-night from the Warriors’ superstar shooters — Klay Thompson and Curry shot a combined 2-13 from deep and missed many momentum-swinging attempts they normally make — much like the Milwaukee Bucks caught a break courtesy a rare scoreless night from Lowry in their win on Sunday. For the most part you only go as far as your stars will take you on any given night in the NBA.
Yet for the Raptors it’s the ‘other guys’ that have helped separate them from the pack this season. Of course there’s no overvaluing how much influence a good Lowry performance has can have on the team’s success, but when the rest of the team is on like they were on Wednesday it’s like cranking a Marshall stack to eleven.
Of all his improvements, Pascal Siakam’s biggest virtue is that he’s now a consistent contributor. Danny Green has been an absolute steal, leading the NBA in plus-minus by a healthy margin and bringing a level of authority to the team that has been missing in recent years. Serge Ibaka has been flat-out fantastic and looks like a whole new player; Fred VanVleet is a game changer and stepped up starting in place of Leonard; Delon Wright is starting to regain his form; OG Anunoby continues to ooze potential and is a problem when he’s looking to attack the rim; Jonas Valanciunas is playing the best ball of his career and has largely been too much for opponents to handle.
“They have a little bit of everything,” Curry said of the Raptors on Wednesday. At the moment it’s more than just a ‘little bit.’
I’m not Dr. Woz, but the Internet says dislocated thumb recovery time is usually anywhere from two weeks to two months. Don’t expect to see Jonas Valanciunas back anytime soon. In fact, the Raptors announced on Thursday afternoon that Valanciunas would be in a cast for a month. That’s too bad. Valanciunas has been a good soldier for the team, moving to the bench most nights without complaint and has played perhaps the best basketball of his career.
Inevitably, almost every player on a good team gets a moment during the year like the one Monroe got on Wednesday in the locker room: Seasons are too long and injuries are too frequent for each of 11 or 12 players to not step into the spotlight at one point or another. Monroe inched his toe toward the glare on Wednesday, with five points and five rebounds in seven minutes. He was also a plus-seven on the night.
As such, Monroe’s teammates yelled out his nickname, urging him to do a spin on the catwalk to show off the different brand names he was sporting. Raptors reserve Lorenzo Brown, who has already received one of those moments this season, was the first to notice the attention Monroe was poised to get.
“Industry,” Brown said. “Industry. Industry.”
Translation: Monroe, for the moment, was “big time,” the Raptors’ go-to phrase for any role player who starts to earn camera time and the queries that come with it. The thing is, Monroe has been big time before, not such a long time ago.
In Episode 436 of Locked on Raptors, Sean Woodley and James Herbert break down how the Raptors dismantled the Warriors so decisively en route to their 113-93 win on Wednesday, assess the Raptors’ big man rotation in the wake of Jonas Valanciunas’ thumb injury, and chat about James’ recent profile on the ever-improving Pascal Siakam.
No team ever wants a player like Leonard to be watching from the bench, rather than playing on the court. But, in this instance, his absence couldn’t have come at a better time for Toronto. After Lowry went scoreless in Sunday’s home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, he said he needed to be more aggressive, and to make a conscious effort to attack the rim.
With Leonard out of the lineup, Lowry didn’t have a choice but to go on the attack if Toronto wanted to win either of these games against quality opponents on the road. And, in doing so, the Raptors point guard managed to get his mojo back.
“Him being out [means] a lot of things got to go through other people, and I think guys usually step up,” Lowry said. “I have been here a long time, and we have always said next man up.
“That is how we always treated everything.”
Rather than next man up, though, this was about one of Toronto’s leaders returning to the way everyone expects him to play on a regular basis.
It is this version of Lowry — the attacking, aggressive version — that allows the Raptors to unlock their highest ceiling. The acquisition of Leonard this summer saw Lowry’s best friend, DeMar DeRozan, be shipped to San Antonio in exchange. While on a personal level it was undoubtedly a blow, on a professional one it gave a Raptors team that has always floundered come playoff time the kind of game-changing talent it has never had before.
Acquiring Leonard alone, though, won’t be enough to finally put Toronto over the top after those years of playoff failures. Nor will the improvement from across the Raptors’ roster — from Serge Ibaka having one of his best seasons in years to Pascal Siakam taking large strides forward to the bench unit, which has struggled much of the season, beginning to round into form.
No, for these Raptors to write a different ending in the postseason this time around, they cannot have Lowry looking as passive and ineffective as he was last week, and like he has been at times in previous playoff runs.
When Lowry plays like he did the past two nights the Raptors are capable of beating anyone.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge [without Leonard], and I thought Kyle did a phenomenal job leading our team,” assistant coach Adrian Griffin said.
“He is an All-Star, no doubt about it.”
There’s something different about the Raptors when Kawhi doesn’t play, a freedom and elegance to the way they move on offense. And so far, it’s produced masterful results.
“We’ve got to rely a little bit more on our offense to do the scoring, rather than individuals,” Nurse said of his team when Leonard sits out. “It could come from anywhere — anywhere from one to nine who gets into the game could go, and that’s just a product of the way we play offense. It makes us a little more unpredictable, harder to guard sometimes.”
Yes, Nick Nurse, head coach of the Toronto Raptors, said that his team is occasionally harder to guard when Kawhi Leonard, who averages 26.1 points per game, isn’t on the floor. That’s not exactly conventional thinking when a player of Leonard’s caliber is subtracted from an offense. Just look at what happens when Stephen Curry misses extended time for the Warriors — the offense falls off a cliff.
Nurse is a smart guy, though, and the numbers back up his assertion. The Raptors have averaged 119.1 points per game when Kawhi sits, compared to their average of 115.6 for the season, and it’s not as simple as Kyle Lowry, the team’s other All-Star, picking up the slack — though he has been brilliant (Nurse said part of what makes Lowry an All-Star is his ability to figure out when to assert himself and take over games). When Curry is out, for example, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson pick up the bulk of the scoring load. When Kawhi sits, however, the wealth is distributed across the deep Toronto roster.
Five players scored in double figures in the win over the Warriors. In the previous night’s win over the Clippers, six players cracked the 10-point threshold. Against the Hawks, the Raptors had four players with 19 or more points. You get the point.
The Raptors regularly have multiple players in double figures, so it can’t all be attributed to Kawhi’s absence, but the way in which they get their buckets changes. Part of the difference is that a lot of Leonard’s scoring possessions come out of isolation, giving the Raptors 253 isolation possessions this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology, good for eighth in the NBA (by the way, the Houston Rockets have a whopping 501 iso possessions so far, pretty much lapping the competition like Katie Ledecky at a swim meet).
For Leonard himself, 18.8 percent of his scoring opportunities come out of isolation, sixth in the NBA (yep, you guessed it — James Harden at 45.5 percent and Chris Paul at 30.5 percent top the list). As Nurse said, Kawhi going into repeated isolations can get a bit predictable, so it’s not hard to understand why the ball moves more freely when Leonard is on the sideline. The Raptors average 25.4 assists for the season, and have dished out 28 per game in the eight contests without Leonard.
VanVleet’s current injury is a back problem that extends from his lower back into his hip. It locks up at times. It spasms at others. It hurts almost all the time.
Pre-game, the Raptors trainers and medical staff do what they can to loosen it up, but there’s no getting around it. It’s bad right now.
“They can loosen it up,” VanVleet said. “Make it feel good before the game and then I go out there and get hit by a screen, fall to the floor. I run up and down and sit on the bench for 20 minutes and it feels how it feels. There’s ups and downs to it and you just try to play through it.”
We know it’s bad now because VanVleet is actually talking about it.
“I have dealt with it through my career,” the point guard said of the back problems. “This is probably the worst it has been just because I have had a plethora of injuries. It started with a hamstring in training camp and then a foot and then a toe and all of those things go together, but it is what it is. Hopefully, it’s nothing major or long term but right now I’m in the thick of it and trying to play through it.”
Pre-game on Wednesday night was simply a case of ignoring the pain and making the decision his body was telling him he shouldn’t make.
“It’s a tough stretch right now,” VanVleet said. “Probably the worst it’s been the last few games. Just something I am trying to work through. If you can go out there and lay it on the line and go to war with your teammates, you try it and try and play through it. I just made the decision before the game I would go out there and lay it on the line.”
What do the Raptors have to prove before the postseason?
Thirty games is a reasonable sample size, but can the team produce like this all the way through?
Lowry’s been brilliant, and this could be his best season ever, but we’ve already seen a small blip where he fell off the Earth. He scored no points on 0-of-5 shooting in a blowout loss to the Bucks, and seven or less in the three games before that. Is the 14-point, 10-assist, good-defense-playing Lowry the real deal?
Ditto newfound star Siakam. He’s doubled his points per game to 14 on 10 percent better overall shooting, including 13 percent better three-point shooting. He’s getting to the line nearly twice as often by attempt rate, swooshing those tries 15 percent more often. He’s having a third-year explosion to say the least, but we know not to grade young talent on a curve. There are hiccups on the way to becoming an established player. How will 24-year-old Siakam handle his?
For now, everything is beyond smooth-sailing for the Toronto Raptors. They look and act the part of the best team in the league. The question is will we — and the Warriors — be saying the same in May?
The Raptors Are Not Better Without Leonard
I saw this sentiment a few times after the Clippers game, and I understand the thought at least a little bit: The Raptors are 7-1 without him with six double-digit wins and the schedule for those games has now grown impressive enough that it’s a thing.
Really, though, Toronto’s performance without him speaks to how good and deep the team is anyway and, at worst, highlights that even an MVP-level Leonard still isn’t fully worked into the offence yet. The Raptors’ passing and assist numbers are stronger when Leonard sits, as they have to rely more on the offence itself rather than individuals to create scoring, whereas Leonard can kind of operate as a secondary offence unto himself. Before his hip bruise, he seemed to be making real progress finding that balance and becoming a more ingrained part of the Raptors’ attack. It’s still relatively early for a new superstar to be working his way into an established setup.
Take the Raptors playing so well without Leonard more as a sign of what the ceiling could be down the line, rather than a worry he’s not fitting.
The value of teachable moments
The Warriors post-game quotes showed the appropriate respect for the Raptors. Durant dismissed the suggestion that the Raptors are on the rise, saying “they’re not an up-and-coming team. They’re here.” Curry focused on their versatility, recognizing “they got a little bit of everything.” Green straight up admitted that “they played better than us.”
That level of respect is something the Warriors never quite managed to muster for the Houston Rockets last year and may have led them to take that series a little too easily at times.
All of which perhaps explains Steve Kerr’s relatively relaxed demeanor. When asked who would have the edge in a potential NBA Finals matchup, he said “I would think we would have the edge at this point, now that they kicked our butts twice. If that were to happen I know we’d be ready to play”.
This defeat definitely represents what Kerr loves most in the regular season – a teachable moment. One of the early Warriors most impressive stats was that they went 146 regular season games without consecutive losses. The four-game losing streak the Warriors went on amidst all the drama last month was the first time they had lost that many games in a row since March 2013, an incredible stretch spanning 450 games.
For a team that wins so much, a good loss can be gold dust in the long run. And under Steve Kerr, the Warriors have rarely let a good loss go to waste. Against the Raptors there were no injury or schedule excuses. The Warriors got beaten and understand they got beaten. But they also know that the regular season is not where championships are handed out.
The towering Lithuanian center dislocated his thumb during the second quarter of the Raptors’ 113-93 win over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night in Oakland.
The 26-year-old has averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in just 18.8 minutes per game, mostly off the Raptors’ bench. He’s currently scoring at a career-best 59.3 effective field-goal percentage.
The Raptors have already called in the reinforcements, calling up man Chris Boucher, the G League’s leading scorer. In 14 appearances with the Raptors 905, Boucher has averaged 29.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks per game, emerging as one of the top talents in the development system this year.
Monroe isn’t a flashy player — “he’s so slow, he’s fast,” Griffin joked — but he’s not some lifelong backup finally getting a chance to be a regular. The six-foot-11 left-hander has played in 602 games in his nine NBA seasons, starting 415.
“I feel comfortable playing with the pace everybody’s playing with,” Monroe said. “It’s just about staying ready, continuing to work. That’s all I’ve been focusing on. Once I’m in between the lines, controlling what I can control … that’s the only thing I focus on every time, every day.”
The recall of Boucher from the G League to fill the roster spot is the next chapter in one of the most wonderful Raptors stories of the season. The 25-year-old, raised in Montreal, didn’t even start playing basketball until his late teens but has blossomed in unexpected fashion.
After spending last season on a two-way deal with the Golden State affiliate in Santa Cruz, Boucher earned his spot with the Raptors through an intriguing Summer League and training camp run.
He is raw, no question, but he has also exploded offensively with the Raptors 905, including posting a 47-point game Wednesday, a franchise record and a G League best this season.
Boucher is averaging 29.3 points and 11 rebounds per game in the G League. It’s folly to think he’ll be given the opportunity to come close to having that kind of an impact on an NBA game but having him practise every day against Monroe and Ibaka and get a few minutes here and there in lopsided games will likely hasten his development.
At 23-7 the Raptors have the best record in the league, and are worthy of it.
Lowry’s response has been particularly impressive. He tallied 21 in Los Angeles and 23 at Golden State, assuming control in the absence of Leonard and taking the team’s record in back-to-backs to 6-0.
Winning consistently without Leonard may not be possible in the postseason, but the squad has coped admirably on the occasions the former San Antonio Spur has been missing so far. Despite going 7-1, they’re not better without him, but it does speak to the true depth of the line-up and its extra parts.
Serge Ibaka is showing power and hunger, Pascal Siakam is having a transformative year, Fred VanVleet has blossomed into a master provider and Lowry, his temporary lapse notwithstanding, offers scoring power either with his own hand or as a facilitator.
It is a fun place to be around, joking and clowning in the locker room being the norm in the relaxed environment preferred by Nurse.
“Winning is always fun,” Siakam said. “We’re having a good time.”
Monroe has been an afterthought for years, but he played ably in Valanciunas’s stead, which I suppose speaks to Toronto’s greatest strength: depth. A healthy Raptors squad can go 11-deep with real NBA talent, and it’s hard to find too many minus-defenders in the bunch. Lowry is the clear floor general, and they have two backup point guards who can run the offense when he sits. All their wing dudes are switchy terrors who can play on both ends of the floor, and they can stagger OG Anunoby, Leonard, Siakam, and Danny Green such that they have a tremendous wing defender to harass an opposing star on the court for all 48 minutes.
The bench was a big part of Toronto’s rise to the one-seed last year, though the limitations of the team’s depth were exposed when they were utterly humiliated by the Cavs in the playoffs. Who cares about your ninth man when LeBron James can obliterate your entire team? Leonard changes that calculus, as does James’s fortuitous exit. Kawhi’s two-way brilliance snaps the rest of the team into place. The defense is just as good as it was last year, but it looks significantly more aggressive. Curry chalked up his 3-for-12 shooting night to Fred VanVleet’s relentless pressure.
As for Curry and the Warriors, they looked either unwilling or unable to cope with Toronto’s energy. Steve Kerr seemed to think his team was just sort of tired and unmotivated for a regular season game after going to the Finals four years in a row, saying, “I can’t really explain it other than we’re now in a place where we’re defending a title and defending sort of a mantle that we’ve had for several years and it’s a different vibe, it’s a different feeling than when you’re on the climb than like Toronto is, like Milwaukee is, like we were a few years ago.”
Kevin Durant seemed to be the lone Warrior who got up for the game yesterday, as Draymond Green managed two points in 25 minutes and Klay Thompson missed all five of his threes. Thompson’s poor three-point shooting this year aside (he’s only shooting 35.3 percent, easily the worst of his career), the biggest change in this year’s Warriors team seems to be their startling lack of depth. With Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston slowing down, it’s hard to find a non-star Warriors player who can do more than one productive basketball thing.
Jonas Jerebko runs around a bunch, Quinn Cook can spot up, Kevon Looney is tall, but nobody can be a consistent plus on both ends of the floor. The Warriors’ stars look, now more than ever, surrounded by a group of undeveloped specialists, pegs who can fit precisely into a round hole alongside Durant and Curry. However, they get DeMarcus fucking Cousins back soon, and their stars are all clearly coasting right now, so there’s no need to worry or anything just yet.
But that doesn’t put an asterisk on the Raptors’ regular season sweep of Golden State. They became only the second Eastern Conference team to sweep the Warriors during the Steve Kerr era, and the first to do so against a Warriors team that was not resting their stars before the playoffs. They earned it, and all I can hope for now is that they meet again, this summer, at full-strength.
Nick Nurse inherited a team that went 59-23 last season and has done a great job with elevating the team’s play. A big reason for the Raptors strong start has been the addition of Kawhi Leonard who was traded to Toronto in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, and other pieces.
The Raptors have the leagues second best offense and 7th best defense. On the nights that he’s active, Kawhi Leonard has looked every bit like the favorite for the NBA MVP award. This team has been consistently the best in the league.
Given how much DeRozan meant to the team and culture for Nurse to keep things not only afloat, but to have them as the NBA’s top team by record is very impressive.
Home-court advantage? The good news: despite their recent overall struggles, the Blazers are still a good at home. They have a 10-4 record this season at the Moda Center. They score nearly eight points per game more at home than on the road (114.9 vs. 107.1) and are giving up seven points fewer (106.3 vs. 113.3). The bad news: the Toronto Raptors are the best road team in the NBA. Toronto actually has a slightly better record on the road (12-3; 2 of those losses were in OT) than they do north of the border (11-4). This can mostly be attributed to their defense which seems to switch into another gear away from Scotiabank Arena. They own the league’s 2nd-best defensive rating on the road (with only the 18th best at home), and just held a healthy Golden State team to their lowest score at home this season (without the 2-time Defensive Player of the Year).
AT THE LINE: The Trail Blazers rank third in the NBA in free throw percentage (81.7%) while the Raptors are fifth (80.6%). Portland averages 23.1 free throw attempts per game while Toronto gets to the line 20.8 times per game.
• In two games against the Raptors last season, Damian Lillard averaged 34.0 points (56.1% FG, 40.0% 3-PT, 88.9% FT), 2.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.00 steal. Lillard has averaged 26.8 points per game against Toronto for his career, which is his second-highest scoring average against any team.
• CJ McCollum averaged 18.5 points (43.8% FG, 36.4% 3-PT, 71.4% FT), 2.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.00 block in two games against Toronto last season. McCollum has made at least three three-pointers in four of his last six games against the Raptors.• In two games against Portland during the 2017-18 season, Kyle Lowry averaged 17.0 points (40.7% FG, 41.7% 3-PT, 87.5% FT), 7.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Lowry has scored 20-plus points in five of his last eight games against the Trail Blazers.
• Kawhi Leonard has averaged 26.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.50 blocks and 1.25 steals in his last four games against Portland.
Green vs. McCollum
Keeping Portland’s prolific backcourt (Damian Lillard, 27.0 points per game; C.J. McCollum, 22.0) in check is a key to beating the Blazers and Danny Green has his work cut out with McCollum. Green may not be as quick as his Portland counterpart but he’s a savvy defender.
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