Well, that was fun, and it feels like it’s been a while since we’ve been able to say that.
Over the first two-and-a-half months of the 2018-19 season, we’ve seen all the different sets of the Venn diagram for the Toronto Raptors’ rotation. There’s been Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry together, Lowry in but Leonard out, a multitude of rotation players fall victim to injury, and of course, the present set with Lowry and Valanciunas out, but Leonard leading the way.
Specifically, when Lowry has been out, the half-court offense has been in disarray. There has been the Leonard offense, and then the team trying to muster some kind of functional shot attempt when he’s off the floor. Pascal Siakam has helped some, but the difference in Serge Ibaka’s offensive game in the absence of Lowry is palpable. Fred VanVleet has improved as the season has gone on, and Norman Powell is looking every bit the playoff Norm fans have come to love, maybe better (more on him later).
With Lowry now absent of eight of the past nine games, the team has been forced and given an extended run at forging an identity without him. We’ve seen stretches of Siakam at the 5 work, some others where Leonard has carried them, and on Tuesday night against the Utah Jazz, it felt as though it all came together for the first time.
Leonard and Siakam both dropped career-highs of 45 and 28, respectively, Powell steadied the bench minutes with an efficient 14 and everyone else chipped in in their own little way to give the Raptors a more comfortable than the score suggests, 122-116 victory.
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) January 2, 2019
To be fair, it’s quite understandable that it’s taken some time to get here (assuming it continues). Lowry and Valanciunas have been the longest serving members of the franchise and the Philadelphia native, in particular, has a significant impact on the identity of the team as its point guard.
“They’re kind of like our two seniors on the team, they’ve been here the longest of anybody,” Nurse told the media after defeating the Chicago Bulls. “This is kind of their team and their investment in this organization has been the greatest and we’ve missed a little bit of that, I think.”
Being forced into these uncomfortable situations can reap benefits, though, and the growing pains of the previous games without Lowry finally delivered some fruit.
Don’t get me wrong, the Kawhisos very much had their own identity, but it’s the manner in which it blended with the rest of the offense that was most encouraging on this night. Nick Nurse felt that his team was getting a little stuck in mud when having to take the ball out of the basket and not pushing the pace in the victory over the Chicago Bulls, and admitted to wanting to address that.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to play a little faster, makes or misses tonight, it was getting a little bogged down and it kind of started midway through the last game,” Nurse told the media after the game. “I was just like, ‘Guys, when just because those guys score doesn’t mean we’ve gotta hang our heads and take it out and walk it up, let’s go, man’ and I think we did a better job of that tonight.”
You could see Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam consistently make that a priority and even Serge Ibaka had a play where he pushed the pace and found VanVleet for an open three.
While this is the identity that they will look to consistently build on in the absence of Lowry, it was good to see Nurse prioritize attacking the paint early on as well. Against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, it’s vital to set the tone that not only is there no intimidation factor, but that the team is looking to thrive in that area and the Raptors did that.
Contrary to several games we’ve seen this season, Toronto didn’t just look to manufacture the modern day shot spectrum, attempting just three 3-pointers in the first quarter and eight through the first half. Ibaka got looks early on and showed intent going at Gobert inside while also making the Frenchman think twice about leaving him open beyond the arc with an early triple. The Raptors jumped out to a 13-5 lead within the first five minutes and forced Quin Snyder into a timeout.
Jae Crowder checked in soon after and that sparked a turnaround for the Jazz, but the Raptors gave him plenty of help. Twice in the first quarter(!), he was fouled while attempting a three-pointer and calmly went to the line and sank all his free throws. Throw in some sloppy turnovers and some serious struggles keeping Derrick Favors off the offensive glass and Utah cut their deficit to just two heading into the second quarter.
Nurse has increasingly looked to prop up the bench unit with the services of Danny Green and Pascal Siakam and did so once again in this one. Although, if Powell continues to play like this, he may be able to afford giving the two aforementioned starters a bit more of a rest once Valanciunas and Lowry are able to return (sending VanVleet back to the bench).
There is just something very appeasing and soothing to Powell’s game off the bounce right now. It’s the composure with which he attacks — the broadcast alluded to John Wooden’s famous quote, “be quick, but don’t hurry” — and also the balance he’s showing when he rises to finish. Far too often a season ago, Powell was taking off too early or off the wrong foot and creating a far more difficult finish than necessary. Add the inability to find open teammates and it was all too predictable for opposing teams to guard.
That’s all changed now, and this hop-step into a lefty layup tells the story.
Having more players who can attack off the dribble is going to be essential in the playoffs, and no one is going to tilt the scales in favor of the Raptors more in those high leverage situations than Siakam. His seemingly daily steps towards becoming an all-star were highlighted by the type of plays that Toronto will need outside of their star duo as their burden increases.
Here, Donovan Mitchell and Thabo Sefolosha either miscommunicated between switching or committing to icing the ball handler off the pick, opening up space for Siakam in the middle of the floor. The Cameroonian’s eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store (kids still get excited about candy stores, right?) and went straight to the rim for an easy layup.
Lowry and Leonard are surely going to get trapped in the playoffs and while this may not be the greatest example due to the Jazz’s poor execution, it shows exactly the type of mindset and initiative that’s going to be required to make teams pay for doing so.
Of course, there was the patented spin move and soft touch off the glass…
But there was also a very surprising above-the-break three-pointer from Siakam early in the second half as well.
That’s the type of play that causes immediate gains with meaningful, shape-shifting spacing. If there is one thing teams are going to be willing to concede to Siakam, it’s going to be threes from that range, but on nights like these where the Raptors go up against a more traditional front-court pairing, that’s a back-breaker for the opposition.
It’s also the type of shot that should have told you the Raptors were going to have a ridiculously good third quarter. They dropped 44 in the frame, and with Leonard finding his range with both his isolation scoring and finally getting the benefit of the whistle from Tony Brothers, there was just nowhere to hide for the Jazz.
Leonard was starting to cook in the second quarter, but really seemed to find another level of focus once Brothers failed to give him a couple of foul calls. At one point, it honestly looked like Brothers was going to either have to blow the whistle or receive what Manchester United fans know as the hairdryer treatment from Leonard or Nurse, and he opted for the former on this drive.
Ingles was really no match for Leonard, and while he may have successfully defended Paul George this past playoffs by imposing his size on George, Leonard is a whole different weight class combined with the quickness and shiftiness.
We are all Serge with the hug. Watch the respect Favors has for Siakam, though. Is he following him that closely on the perimeter without the three triples Siakam made in the quarter? Most likely not. That just makes this team, even without Lowry, impossible to guard. There’s no answer for this, either:
One of the most impressive things about Leonard when he gets going like this is his incredible focus on continuing to get to his spots and executing his moves. We see stars time and again start to feel it and always feel like they’ve earned a heat check, but there’s none of that from him. The Man of Action is all business and is going to continue to attack and punish you in Terminator-esque fashion and no regard for any pleas for mercy.
All told, the Raptors carried a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter and Leonard tallied 16 points on a perfect 7-for-7 shooting in the quarter. It was special to watch.
The fourth quarter was fairly academic as the Raptors maintained a steady lead for its majority, but Crowder did do his part in making things interesting with some hot shooting. He finished with 30, but it was all about the Leonard and Siakam show.
There was another case of the Raptors taking every opportunity to push the pace at every opportunity, too, Siakam finishing the and-1 after the ball touched the ground just once getting up the entire length of the floor.
This insane finish from Leonard with the left is frankly, indescribable.
It’s getting ridiculous out here. Kawhi with 40. pic.twitter.com/s4nQzQ9Llj
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) January 2, 2019
Of course, when the going got tough right towards the end as the Jazz trapped Leonard and the threes were falling, Green found a way to make an impact. Nursing a four-point lead with under a minute remaining, Leonard was able to momentarily break free from a double-team and find Ibaka in the left corner. The shot was a bit short, but long-shot, long-rebound came into play and it was Green who made a spectacular run from the left elbow extended all the way to the weak side rebound and then saved it and found a teammate as he was falling out of bounds.
Danny Green with the game-winning rebound. Impeccable timing. Kawhi’s pass to find Ibaka is pretty awesome on its own. pic.twitter.com/f7AKVHzH22
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) January 2, 2019
While Green had a quiet game offensively as a result of constantly being chased off the three-point line, he still finds other ways to impact the game and was a major factor in limiting Mitchell to 2-of-10 shooting in the second half.
Throw in Ricky Rubio and Ingles’ struggles to release the pressure from the outside by shooting a combined 0-for-9 from three-point range, and the Jazz were always going to struggle to keep up with the Raptors’ offense. An offense that, finally, showed comfort in who they are in the absence of Lowry.
Sure, they may not be able to create open threes to the same degree or have that pull-up threat, but they can be very effective inside the arc and feed off that. They can still push the pace whether it be off live rebounds or inbounds, and when all else fails, pass it to Kawhi.
P.S. There’s probably more video than you’re used to and than I typically use, but two career scoring games on one night kind of necessitated it.