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Black Box Report

Black Box Report: Matt Thomas, LeBron James, and Parity

That long week was short on games, but there’s an exceptional amount of basketball to come. The Raptors have the easy part of their early-season schedule in the books, and now it’s on to the most challenging road trip of the season.

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 players being given one shot, one opportunity, and seizing everything they ever wanted, like Matt Thomas. 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– ZATZMAN

Games:

8:00 pm EST on Saturday November 2 @ Milwaukee Bucks – 115-105 L

7:30 pm EST on Wednesday November 6 against the Sacramento Kings 124-120 W

How to spend a long break?

It’s been a favourite quote of Nick Nurse since he became Head Coach that game scenarios are impossible to simulate. They’re too meaningful, too high-leverage, with too much at stake for both sides. It can’t be done in practice, the same way that playoff hoops are near-impossible to mimic in the regular season. Well, the Raptors sure tried. On Monday practice, square in between the Bucks and Kings games, the Raptors had as many emotional moments as I’ve seen. Players were intense, and they cared. Serge Ibaka was stuck in a shooting drill for some time, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was furious after a wasted offensive possession in a scrimmage. The Raptors may not have played tons of basketball under the lights, but they still made sure there was high-intensity basketball to be played. At least, tempers flared, whether the basketball was high-intensity or not. Nick Nurse, for his part, said he got a little bored with the long, three-day break in between games.

Matt Thomas is here to stay

Matt Thomas only played eight minutes against the Bucks, but he was solid. Teams that are so deadly in transition, like the Bucks, require counter-intuitive defensive strategies. Namely, good offensive players are perhaps more important for good defense than good defensive players. As I re-read that sentence, I know it’s a hard sell, but I’m going to forge ahead. Giannis Antetokounmpo is so unstoppable in transition that Toronto needs to score at a good rate when he’s on the floor; disorganized offense, turnovers, and long missed rebounds are defensive suicide against the Bucks. It doesn’t matter how elite your defenders are when Antetokounmpo beats them down the floor for a dunk.

Thomas did a great job settling down the offense. In his short stretches, he shot 2-of-3 from the field, including one triple. He scampered around screens and drew defenders, and he has as much shooting gravity as anyone on the Raptors. He got lost a few times on defense against the Bucks, but the Bucks in general were forced to play lots in the half-court.

Against the Kings, Thomas was actually great on defense! De’Aaron Fox put him in jail a few times in the pick-and-roll, keeping Thomas on his back while he maneuvered in the pick-and-roll, but Thomas was great at staying in the play and affecting what he could. He poked the ball away from Buddy Hield from behind, and in general, he understood and played quite well within the schemes. The defense is a cherry on top; Thomas’s ability to hit shots with almost no space is why he’s on the floor, and he’s shooting 5-of-8 so far this season from deep. Thomas’s presence, even when he himself isn’t scoring, can help somewhat boost the scoring of offensively starved bench groups, and if he isn’t too big a negative on defense, he should see plenty of time. He’s averaging just over 10 minutes a game when he plays, but expect that to rise and rise over coming weeks. My guy Sam will get to it later, but Lowry and VanVleet’s minutes so far are unsustainable on this road trip. Thomas, Terence Davis, and Chris Boucher have all seen minutes off the bench, and Thomas has been the only one to consistently shine.

How to judge a 1-1 week?

Well, the Raptors dug a gigantic hole against the Bucks and then climbed most of the way out of it. Is that progress? Then they couldn’t create separation against the Kings, although Sacramento hit 20 3s, which is tough for defenses to control, and 20 made 3s almost always means a win. Is that development?

It’s hard to say. We learned that Kyle Lowry will be over everything forever, and that OG Anunoby can do anything. As far as the team goes, it wasn’t an ideal week, even if there are tons of positives to take away. I expected a 2-0 week, and it very well could have been, but the Raptors played fairly uninspired basketball for the first half of the Milwaukee game and the second half of the Sacramento game. It’s far, far too early to say anything damning, but at a certain point, Toronto’s inability to play full games is less a championship hangover and more a consistent problem. One thing’s for sure; Toronto is exceptionally thin, and they’re giving their starters the most minutes in the league, so unless something changes, an inability to play full games is not going away anytime soon.

Looking forward – Folk

Games:

8:00 pm EST on Friday November 8 @ New Orleans Pelicans

9:30 pm EST on Sunday November 10 @ Los Angeles Lakers

10:30 pm EST on Monday November 11 @ Los Angeles Clippers

10:00 pm EST on Wednesday November 13 @ Portland Trail Blazers

Playing Big

It’s been a long time since LeBron James was the driving force of league-best defenses. His effort on that end was waning for some time, and his teams had followed that trend to some degree. Early on in this season, though, the Lakers have not only relied on their defense, but led with it. Bucking the trend of going smaller, the Lakers abandoned the archetype of the power forward on their roster, and instead roll out a litany of centers. The super-sized front-court of Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and Javale McGee has transformed the Lakers defense into something formidable. The payoff has been the league’s best defense by some margin.

The Lakers sheer size and tenacity at the rim allows players like James, Danny Green, and Avery Bradley to gamble on the perimeter, racking up steals and jump-starting transition. They’re also top-5 in the league in defensive effective field goal percentage – as are the Raptors.

The early tradeoff has been an obscene dependence on Davis and James’ creation on the offensive end. Both players have usage percentages north of 30-percent, and there’s very little else on the roster that could even optimistically project as something in the way of a creator. However, if you were going to lean on two players for that they’re about as good a duo as you could find.

There’s a reason Kawhi Leonard did damage against the Lakers on opening night, and it’s the same reason why Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam will have to be diligent in their decision making on offense to influence the Lakers defense. The worry is that the Raptors offense will struggle out of the gates against the Lakers the way it did against the Bucks. The Lakers will push on the perimeter, and corral the Raptors players toward the larger-than-life help-side defense. A lot of players can make a living in the mid-range area, if that’s what’s being given up, but very few reside on the Raptors roster.

It might be wishful thinking, but Gasol and Ibaka can crack the safe on the Lakers defense. Most of the league is missing shot-makers in the front-court, Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert have become the mold of the modern front-court player. Gasol’s stroke from downtown, and ability to initiate post sets from either the block or the elbow can engage the Lakers defense away from the rim. Opening up the floor for a guy like OG Anunoby, who, if the game is being played strictly in the mid-range, won’t factor in heavily on offense. Ibaka, for his part, is a sniper from mid-range and spent the better part of last year killing teams who play “drop” defense. The formula for him is pretty simple: if the Lakers are going to drop, pour it in from mid-range.

Similar to the Lakers defense, the Raptors defense has jumped out to a better than projected start. One will look to break the other, and there’s plenty of intrigue in Sunday’s game.

A Battle of Supporting Casts, and Strange Parity

It might not be the wisest thing to imagine plugging Kawhi Leonard into this Raptors team and running hypotheticals. It’s perhaps better to view this team as it’s own collective and leave Leonard out of it completely. But sometimes there’s no kicking it – seeing the Raptors now; the ascension of Siakam and Anunoby, the brilliance of Lowry, and knowing how Leonard fit in, he left what would have been the heavy title favourites.

On the other end of things, we haven’t yet seen Paul George suit up for the Clippers, and outside of proximity to warmer weather, he was supposed to be the piece that assured Leonard’s move south. But the Clippers have been underwhelming so far, and now that the assertions of “no load-management” have been abandoned with how the Clippers deploy Leonard, the road-map to a high seed looks murkier by the day. The Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell pick n’ roll is as dynamic as they come, but is that enough to carry the Clippers for extended periods of time?

Likewise for the Raptors, the question of load-management might come into play. Louis predicted load management last week, and it didn’t work for him, but it might just work for me. Four players are coming in at 34+ minutes a game, with Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry both very close to 40. That isn’t particularly sustainable, and one has to figure Nick Nurse is brainstorming how to keep the well-performing starting line-up together, while also tapering the minutes to healthier levels.

We really don’t have a clue what the Clippers will look like fully healthy. However, it’s notable that Leonard’s insistence on “teaming up” with a fellow star, the player movement experience that has defined the last 10 years of basketball, in actuality deprived himself of a “super team” with Lowry and Siakam in Toronto. Instead, his pursuit of dominance created ripple effects league-wide and ushered in a year of parity.

From the Logo

The nickname of ‘Logo Lillard’ for Damian Lillard is remarkably apt, and swimming in alliteration. The same alliteration could be applied to ‘Logo Lowry’ if it had ever become a thing, and probably should have. Lowry has been pulling from deep since his days with the Houston Rockets, and continues to do so at the age of 33. If we’re being honest though, Lowry’s most absurd logo-esque attempts are usually reserved for 2-for-1’s at the end of quarters, and Lillard attempts them with more vigor and reckless abandon. All things considered, I’m okay with Lowry’s nickname remaining as ‘NBA Champion Kyle Lowry’. Even if Lowry is hitting from deep more often than Lillard.

Lowry and Lillard both have a spot in the NBA’s top-3 in made 3-pointers per game (the other is miraculously Karl-Anthony Towns at number one). They’re the top two 3-point shooters after 3+ dribbles have been taken, they’ve both been the best point guards of their respective conferences thus far.

Wednesday’s game against the Trailblazers figures to be a full-on display of the genius and shot-making of both Lowry and Lillard. The Trailblazers are dealing with a myriad of health problems on their roster, though, and it should be exciting to watch Lowry work the pick n’ roll against the lethargic Hassan Whiteside and his new front-court partner, Anthony Tolliver. On the other side of things, while they aren’t at the ceiling they established against the Warriors in the Finals, watching the Raptors try to contain the best point guard in the league (to this point) will be a great litmus test for where they are defensively.

Have a blessed day, and I’m sure Louis also wants good things for you – Sam

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