Four wins, the third-best plus-minus in the league, improved performances from a variety of players, and a seemingly sure-fire all-star in Pascal Siakam… it’s a little too early to make sweeping claims, but the Raptors sure look like a team out to defend its championship.
The explanation for this new weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report, is fairly simple. Is it a literary journal? Maybe; it sure sounds like it. If it were, I would probably read it. There would be stories about young heroes meeting dragons in the field of battle and winning, like OG Anunoby. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This idea is for me and Samson Folk to simultaneously look forwards and back, explicating the under-examined and trying to explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board.
Looking back – Folk
7:00 pm EST on Friday October 25 @ Boston Celtics – 112-106 L
8:00 pm EST on Saturday October 26 @ Chicago Bulls 108-84 W
7:30 pm EST on Monday October 28 against the Orlando Magic 104-95 W
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday October 30 against the Detroit Pistons 125-113 W
Whose Fault Is It Anyway?
The defensive rebounding has been the objective pit-fall of the Raptors game so far. And since the last 4 games fall under my purview, I thought it might be constructive to dig deeper into that problem, so I did. I watched every offensive rebound they gave up, and determined who was at fault for most. Not all of the rebounds can be accounted for as one players fault, sometimes the whole team does a poor job of rotating, or most players are caught back in transition. Fault can vary, of course, sometimes you get mismatched, sometimes a guy like Andre Drummond or Wendell Carter Jr. perform an impressive array of counters and moves to get after the ball. So we have different groups for the offenders.
Repeat Offender and Poor Form – Fred VanVleet
“Responsible” for 13 of the 52 offensive rebounds, VanVleet can’t help it when he’s rotated onto a big, but nine of the rebounds he gave up were to guards and four of those included objectively blown box-outs. His defense has been terrific this year, and will continue to be, but he’s got to be more diligent when shots go up, especially since his inclusion in the starting line-up has him guarding players who are more dangerous with more possessions.
Oh, the Damn Proximity – Serge Ibaka
Ibaka was “responsible” for nine of the 52 offensive rebounds. Whereas Gasol usually stunts at players taking shots outside of the restricted area before jumping back to box out, Ibaka is a far more active with his shot-contests. The activity sometimes leaves Ibaka out of position, but he’s genuinely making easy shots very difficult for the opposition. One would hope that if the Raptors were playing at their peak, that rotations would be sharp enough to cover his man as soon as he leaves for help-side action.
Bright spots – Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby
Gasol was “responsible” for four of the 52 offensive rebounds, which, all things considered, is pretty great. It’s even more impressive when you consider that three of them came in the first two quarters of the Celtics game. Outside of that stretch he’s done a pretty great job of limiting players like Wendell Carter Jr., Nikola Vucevic, and Andre Drummond.
Lowry was “responsible” for one (!) of the 52 offensive rebounds. This is remarkable, because he does a lot of rotating in the Raptors defense and more often than not can hold off a big man when he’s boxing out. That large rumpus of Lowry’s does a lot of work pushing away big men from the rim, where one of Siakam, Gasol or Anunoby can come collect the rebound.
Anunoby was “responsible” for four of the 52 offensive rebounds. He had one objective gaffe on a missed box-out, and he’s been in the vicinity of forfeited boards, but it is rarely ever his man. Perhaps the craziest thing is that four of the offensive rebounds he was “responsible” for came after he got a block. Anunoby has stepped up on the glass this year for the Raptors, and we can hope he’ll continue improving in that area. If you want a deep-dive on Anunoby’s defense specifically, I wrote a big feature on it, which you can find here.
Two steps forward, with one much larger
In last week’s BBR (Black Box Report) I mentioned my excitement for the looming Jonathan Isaac/Pascal Siakam matchup. Citing their epic exchanges of spirited defense and immaculate offense in the first round of last year’s playoffs – the playoffs in which the Raptors became the NBA Champions.
This is going to be anticlimactic, but Isaac performed in a different way than I thought he would. The step was on offense, as he paced the Magic with 25 points. He was terrific and looked like a player that the Magic could build around for a long time.
The step that Siakam took relative to Isaac, and the step he’s been taking this whole season, has been enormous. After watching last year’s first round where Kawhi Leonard and Siakam laboured against the combined length and grit of the Magic, I expected a similar type of back and forth in this one. However, what I saw was Siakam out-smarting and unraveling the same outstanding Magic defense, only this time as the focal point of the Raptors attack.
Seeing Siakam – who’s specialized in recalibration this year – dismantling top defenses and All-NBA defenders with regularity this season has been one of the most rewarding parts of this early season. Bill Simmons is looking for his MVP Odds, players and pundits alike are taking notice. Siakam is gunning for an All-NBA spot, an All-Defense spot, and an All-Star spot.
Grimy, Grubby, and Gross V2
There is maybe no worse feeling than losing to the Celtics. Not only because the Raptors are a much better team, but because the Celtics do not play appealing basketball. For years, Brad Stevens has been praised for coaching an ugly team to ugly wins, and lauded as one of the league’s best bench bosses.
Stevens is not a great coach, the Celtics are not a great team, and the Raptors shouldn’t have lost. So maybe this provides us with a road-map to how the Celtics won’t beat the Raptors the rest of the season. Grant Williams out-muscling Gasol in the post for a large part of the game doesn’t seem replicable – even though G. Williams looked really good and impressed me – over the season series. The Raptors, while still not world beaters, have cleaned up their situation on the defensive glass, and I wouldn’t expect them to surrender 21 offensive rebounds in another game this year, especially to as small a front-line as the Celtics.
Don’t expect a repeat in the offensive foul portion of the game either. The Raptors were called for 11 offensive fouls in the game against the Celtics – which is an insane amount – and that contributed heavily to the turnover problem.
When it comes time for Festivus, and the airing of grievances begins, I’ll have a hefty amount for the Celtics.
Looking Forward – Zatzman
8:00 pm EST on Saturday November 2 @ Milwaukee Bucks
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday November 6 against the Sacramento Kings
I dreamed a little dream
In the weeks following the Toronto Raptors’ ungentlemanly sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, Marc Gasol entered the daydreams of Giannis Antetokounmpo. And not in a good way. Gasol and Kawhi Leonard were integral in creating a wall in front of Antetokounmpo whenever he drove the lane, but not the static kind of wall, instead one that weighed 550+ pounds, pushed and jostled, and used its four bear paws to inflict pain on the reigning MVP.
During Toronto’s first five games, Gasol has had some of the biggest swings from game to game of anyone on the roster. In early ones, he looked rusty and slow. But against the Magic, he resumed his continued punking of vanquished playoff foes; Nikola Vucevic saw Gasol as his primary defender for the majority of the game, and against Gasol he shot 0-for-6. It was the exact time of situation for which Gasol is best suited: taking paint scorers and putting them on the ground in frustration. Fred VanVleet gave Gasol love for the performance after the game, and Steve Clifford was prompted to say that at a certain point, Vucevic just needs to be able to score against Gasol.
“He’s getting the ball now, and there’s always things that you can do better for all of them as a coach,” Clifford said after the game. “The coach has responsibility, but players have to figure things out, too, if they want to play well and that goes both ways.”
Will Gasol do the same damage against Antetokounmpo? OG Anunoby will offer a stout first line of defense. But if the Raptors are going to continue to beat the Bucks, it will start on the defensive end. Anunoby will have to funnel Antetokounmpo into help while still staying in the play, Gasol will have to swallow the paint whole, and the other three Raptors will have to rotate like fidget spinners.
Loads will be managed… or better be
Right now Kyle Lowry is averaging 39.0 minutes per game. VanVleet is at 37.1. These are players who Toronto cannot replace in the rotation. These are also players who play at full tilt, with their bodies frequently hitting the floor. Injuries are part of the game, but Toronto needs to start working to minimize the chances of injuries being part of their game.
Pascal Siakam is just as important to the team, but he’s only averaging 33.6 minutes per game. That’s partially because of extended foul trouble in this early season, but also because Toronto has multiple options at power forward: Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson if the team needs defense, or Chris Boucher if it needs some chaos energy. Because the team is deepest at the forward spots, Siakam’s minutes are lower than the other stars. Thus the star least in need of load management is the one most available for it. As a side note, last year’s Raptors had great fortune that Kawhi Leonard needed load management and that they were deep enough at the wing spots for it not to matter too much in the regular season.
This year is different. Lowry and VanVleet are the least replaceable players on Toronto’s roster. They are the only creators at the guard spot Toronto has available. Pat McCaw and Terence Davis can play spot minutes as guards, but Nurse wouldn’t trust them without one of Lowry or VanVleet alongside. If one, or – horror of horrors! – both Lowry or VanVleet were on the shelf, Toronto’s offense would plummet. The Raptors could try to limit their minutes in blowouts, but Lowry somehow still played 37 minutes in a rout of the Pistons. Of course, sitting them would also mean the guards aren’t available to play, but it would at least be on Toronto’s terms. My guess is load management is the in-between solution. The Raptors have five games in eight nights coming up, with a game against the Kings the only home game before a long stretch on the West Coast. Perhaps Lowry could be best used on the road trip if he sits one out at home beforehand.
The Bucks are not great so far this season. They’re 2-2 with just a +1.4 net rating. Even worse, they’ve shot just as well – and turned the ball over just as little – as they did last year. Despite gaudy numbers from Antetokounmpo, the Bucks only have a net rating of +3.7 when he’s on the floor. The team’s defense has slipped. Even though the Bucks will be motivated for sweet, sweet revenge, the Raptors have just as much fire this season to prove they’re still contenders without Kawhi. No need to overthink this game; the Bucks aren’t a great team right now, and the Raptors are fantastic. Oh yeah, and the Bucks will be coming off a back-to-back in Orlando.
The Kings are even worse. They’re 0-5, and their flaws across the court are too many to list. They were primed for some slippage this year, but 0-5 is worse than could have been expected. Don’t expect a struggling Kings team to right the ship against Toronto, even if load management factors into it.
A 2-0 week is not out of the cards for the defending champs.
Have a blessed day — from Sam.