RHJ/Davis pick n roll is unstoppable | Kawhi tonight
Three — Impressive: Lowry’s injury doubles as an extended showcase for Fred VanVleet, and he looked every bit like a starting calibre point guard against the Lakers. VanVleet was precise in getting the Raptors into their sets, he was aggressive with his offense both off drives and on the pull-up three, and his heady defense created easy points for the Raptors in transition. VanVleet has been inconsistent this season, but it’s clear that he is deserving and capable of an expanded role.
Of all of the surprise performances, Hollis-Jefferson’s was maybe the most commendable. Davis shone in the preseason and has been on the fringes of the rotation all season. Boucher is an agent of chaos, a player who has never met a shot attempt or contest he has not adored.
Hollis-Jefferson, on the other hand, had played just four minutes this year — partly because of a groin injury, and partly because he never gained Nurse’s trust in the run-up to the season. To quote one of the great poets of our time, he had to go from zero to a hundred real quick. With OG Anunoby in early foul trouble, he got ample opportunity to guard James. The results were hit-and-miss, but the gusto with which the fifth-year player accepted the challenge in some makeshift lineups was substantial.
Sunglasses on in the locker room, Hollis-Jefferson seemed affected by the enormity of the performance, even if it is November. He was a rotation player on a playoff team in Brooklyn last year. He surely wasn’t expecting to come to Toronto and not play.
“It was tough. I’m human; I have feelings and I’m a competitor,” said Hollis-Jefferson, who had 10 points, including a few nifty finishes, and three rebounds. “I’m emotional. I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it was definitely tough. People will tell you that. I’m not one to shy away from it. But for the most part, I always thought about my son, just what he would think and how he would feel if he were older. So that kind of helped me get over it.
“I feel like at the end of the day, it comes down to the type of players you have out there. Me, Chris, Pascal — we have a bunch of guys who know what they are supposed to do. For me and Chris, we just play hard. If shots come our way, we are fine with that. If not, we are going to get back, play defence, grab rebounds and do those things. That’s what makes it easier for guys like Freddy and Pascal when they are out there with us. They know we aren’t expecting much, but if they need us to do something, you know, we are going to do it.”
The official Las Vegas line had the Lakers as 10.5-point favourites, which seemed a little unambitious given that the Raptors had one NBA point guard, one NBA center and were counting on significant contributions from – at minimum three undrafted free agents – not including Fred VanVleet.
But after rolling to regular seasons of 59 and 58 wins the last two years in part due to outstanding roster depth, it seemed to be acceptable to wonder about how this all could conceivably work.
“Yeah. I am curious,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before the game. “We all didn’t think we were very deep at all a couple of weeks ago.
“I’ve been saying we got eight guys I really like and three of those are missing now,” he said.
“Pretty significant injuries, three guys out of that eight. I’m going to have to start liking a few more guys pretty quickly. So this is their chance, this is their chance to get out there and play.
“There is some fun to it. I’ve been in this situation as a coach 100 times where guys have gotten called up on me when I was coaching in the minors and it’s fun to see a new guy with a new opportunity. You never know who is going to grab that opportunity and run with it.”
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Safe to say they ran with it. Players who have been dying for moments to shine grabbed the spotlight and thrived in the light.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the fourth quarter involved little-used Boucher stopping the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma at the rim and the Raptors going the other way to watch rookie Terence Davis – off a beautiful pass from fossilized Rondae-Hollis Jefferson who finally got some minutes – step into a corner three that put the Raptors up 12 with just under four minutes to play.
Incredible. More incredible? They won. They didn’t fold. Even after the Lakers launched a quick 8-0 run to cut the Raptors’ lead to four with two minutes to play, Toronto figured it out. A pair of Pascal Siakam fastbreaks put the Raptors back up eight with 1:18 left and the Lakers crowd began leaving so they could go sit in traffic.
Although there were smiles going around afterward, the game started getting a little chippy with players jawing back and forth after whistles. All in all, the Raptors held the Lakers to only 18 points in that frame, and by its end the game was tied at 78.
To start the fourth, the Toronto bench continued to show life and Nurse stuck with them for the majority. As a result, the Raptors somehow built their largest lead of the game — 12 points. But LeBron and Davis weren’t going to go quietly. It was LeBron, notching another triple-double on the season, who made numerous plays with dribble-drives and finding open players on the wing that got LA back into it. Toronto’s lead got as small as four with two minutes to play.
But then Nurse reinserted the starters and they used the spark from the bench to close out the fourth with a couple of breakaway baskets that sealed the game for the Raptors. Overall, it was a heroic effort from the entire team, and one of the more fun regular season games we’ve seen in awhile. Now we just have to wonder if this is an aberration or a sign of things to come while Lowry and Ibaka are out.
At the end, the formerly thin Raptors bench scored 43 total points with 38 coming from the Boucher-Hollis-Jefferson-Davis trio. And while Siakam had a rough start to the night, he proved to be a steady hand down the stretch, making big plays when it mattered on both ends of the court.
Now the Raptors have to prepare to take on Kawhi Leonard and the L.A. Clippers tomorrow, which should prove to be another emotional game. If nothing else, we’ll get our answers about the bench sooner than later against another Western Conference favorite.
Until then, the Raptors can relish in the grit and resiliency they showed tonight against a quality opponent.
“I’m going to have to start liking a few more guys pretty quickly,” Nurse said laughing at the situation before getting serious again “So this is their chance, this is their chance to get out there and play.”
Nurse then gave them their chance.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson went from can’t get on the floor to LeBron James stopper. He wasn’t on him all night but when he was he made life difficult for King James in a way life is rarely difficult for James.
Then there was Chris Boucher standing in against the likes of a charging Anthony Davis or on a couple of occasions James himself disrupting a pair of guys who outweight him by well over 50 pounds each. Offensively Boucher, who has never been shy shooting the ball had 15 off the bench.
Boucher and Hollis-Jefferson were two of those guys Nurse was waiting on to show him enough defensively in practice and earn the minutes on the court. They both showed him plenty on Sunday night and they weren’t alone.
Terrence Davis II, the rookie in the group and a guy who has had maybe a few more minutes than some of the others, stepped up his game at both ends as well chipping in with 13 points including a huge three with 4:00 left to stretch the lead to 12.
Between them, Boucher, Davis and Hollis-Jefferson had a combined 38 points on a night the Raptors put up a season bench high 43
Obviously that trio didn’t do it by themselves but it was their contributions that were the big difference.
Pascal Siakam, who got off to a miserable start to the game going 3-for-13 in the first half joined the fray in the second half and wound up with a team best 23.
It meant that despite the depleted roster, VanVleet only had to play 38 minutes and Siakam went 43 — which is a lot, but he’s young and fully healthy.
While much of the media attention on this trip to California was centred on the Raptors seeing Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers on Monday, the “other guy” in the trade that fuelled a Toronto championship was central to Sunday night.
Danny Green, who simply led the NBA in three-point shooting in his one regular season with Toronto after coming over with Leonard in the DeMar DeRozan deal, got a chance to catch up with his old teammates before and after the game. Green was the consummate pro in his one year as a Raptor, a fact not lost on the coach. He may not have had the very obvious impact that Leonard did, but the Raptors don’t win a title without him.
“Danny was a real glue guy for us, tremendous leadership, just a real winner. He came, he practised all the time, he played in every game, he had the championship under his belt,” said Nurse.
“He was a super individual and enjoyable to coach. You can’t have enough guys like that, that have been around for a while, and on top of it he only shot 45 per cent from three for the season. I shoulda got to that earlier probably. He’s awesome. Great person, great player. He’s a tremendous winner.”
Green was a non-factor against his old team, though, missing all five shots he took in the 18 minutes he played. But he’s the kind of player who would be an incredible asset for the Raptors right now, since they’ll have to rely on unproven and untested talent to hold things together for as long as Lowry and Ibaka are out. That’s going to be at least two weeks — a truly optimistic time frame — and the cumulative effect on the guys left to play extended minutes has to be a concern.
VanVleet can’t play every minute of every game, Marc Gasol is 34 years old, and teams are going to be able to load up even more on Siakam without the threat of Lowry or Ibaka on the court with him. Nurse always puts on a brave front and is supremely confident in his ability to figure things out on the fly, but this is some challenge indeed.
“There is some fun to it,” he said. “I’ve been in this situation as a coach 100 times, where guys have gotten called up on me when I was coaching in the minors, and it’s fun to see a new guy with a new opportunity. You never know who is going to grab that opportunity and run with it.”
“You miss all those little things.”
Ibaka: I miss (Leonard) because he’s a superstar, and we all know that. It’s not something I’m making up. We know, like, if he was here with us, we (would) have a chance to go back with him to the Finals at a high level. That’s what I think. As a friend, knowing him as a person and hanging out with him off the court, and now he is not here, you miss those moments. He used to come before the game or the practice, and we would make some jokes on the plane. You miss all those little things.
Nurse: I think (Green) leaving opens up some opportunities for players to be leaders and be Danny Green-type guys. A hundred percent (that’s something to aspire to). Fred is a Danny Green-type guy. He’s won two fewer titles and he’s been in the league 15 fewer years, or 12 fewer years, whatever it is. But you cannot replace a pro, a high-IQ guy, a guy who shoots the lights out, a guy who desperately wants to win and a guy who has been there a few times.
Ibaka: Danny is a real leader, a vocal leader. Like I said (earlier), we know that no matter what, win or lose, Danny is going to stay the same. He is going to act the same. He’s going to be vocal. That is something we miss from him.
Siakam: The way (Leonard) is, his demeanour, the way he approaches the game, that’s something that’s always going to stay with me. I’m an emotional player. When things are not going my way, I tend to kind of get emotional a little bit. Seeing him, and he never got down, he always had that same mentality, that killer mentality, that steady game and no real emotion like that, especially when it’s going bad. That’s something I’ll take from him. For me, it’s something I looked at. It’s something I’ve been working on, too. After missing shots, not showing that you’re (frustrated that you’re) missing shots. I used to cuss a lot after missing a shot because I want to make every single shot. Those are the things I want to work on.
Ibaka: It’s hard not to talk about all the great moments we had on the court. And the good moments we had off the court. Him coming on (Ibaka’s cooking-centric online series, “How Hungry Are You?”), that is something I will never forget (laughs). The talk we had on my show is something I will always remember.
VanVleet: Overall, I look at playing with those two guys as a great experience for our team, obviously winning a championship, but personally, for my career, to have that knowledge going forward.
Gasol: (A championship) creates a special bond (between former teammates) because of the highs and the lows that you go through, especially. The lows are really low, but you kind of help each other keep it together. Don’t point fingers and keep everything in. And then the highs are obviously really high because what you accomplished was really unique, obviously, and special for everyone. Everyone had a special story with how we got there, but the only thing that matters is how we stuck together through the tough times.
Now, this new Raptors team has been enjoyable and admirable, but was also dangerously thin before Kyle Lowry fractured his left thumb in New Orleans Friday, and before Serge Ibaka badly sprained his ankle. The bench could have included cheap buys like Willie Cauley-Stein or Justin Holiday, but the wait for Kawhi killed all that. Lowry was playing magnificent load-bearing minutes, and VanVleet has been holding up the ceiling alongside him, and it was always a growing worry one or both would pop eventually. Now Lowry’s out at least two weeks, and the roaring Ibaka maybe longer.
With Gasol running on fumes and Powell often looking like a deer lost in the forest, the lack of depth will show. Maybe head coach Nick Nurse pushed so hard early because there were so many winnable games at home; squirrels gather acorns before the long winter, and Raptors apparently do, too.
Still, Siakam is blossoming into something ever more electric, able to devour more challenges, heading for superstardom; OG Anunoby is finally arriving, with his brute physicality finally fuelled by confidence. He’s going to be bullying people at both ends for a long time. They are lightning and thunder.
Watching the Raptors it’s hard not to realize that, healthy, they are one player away. That’s the cruelty of seeing Kawhi again. You could say Philadelphia is one player away, or Milwaukee, or maybe even Boston or Miami. None are inarguable favourites in the East. Maybe that’s all it would take.
Still, the reunion will be unlike any Clippers coach Doc Rivers can remember. Matchups between a player and his former team often can be fueled by hard feelings. Monday is notable for the apparent lack of that. Days after Leonard departed, Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he “can’t blame a guy for wanting to go home.” In August, Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry said he was “happy for him. Truly. I am genuinely happy for him.”
“It’s one of those leave-good situations, not one of those leave-awful situations, and let’s be honest, in our league it’s usually the other way,” Rivers said. “He’s had the benefit, the rare benefit, of being able to leave in a happy state. That’s rare. Has it happened?”
Leonard has told Kabengele he found his year in Canada to be “insane” because of the support he felt from the entire country, which considers the Raptors — Canada’s lone surviving NBA franchise — a de facto national team. It also didn’t hurt that some Toronto restaurants offered Leonard free food as an incentive to stay.
Leonard on Saturday called Toronto “amazing,” and added that he “never went in with a negative mindset” after arriving.
“Playing with Cory Joseph in San Antonio, him being from that area in Toronto, I knew what the city kind of brought, just going out there and playing games, hanging out with him and his friends and him taking me and showing me the city,” Leonard said. “So it was never a negative thing; always open-minded about it.”
Leaving in free agency was in part about what Los Angeles could offer that Toronto could not. For one, he is paired with Paul George, the All-NBA forward who practiced fully for the first time Saturday in anticipation of his likely Clippers debut in the coming week.
The warmth Leonard hoped to feel in playing close to home also has been as fulfilling as he’d hoped.
“I’m able to see my family after the games,” Leonard said. “I’m in Southern California, beautiful weather.”
Kawhi does not seem like a particularly sentimental type, but he won a championship with many of the players on the Raptors just five months ago, and that bond lasts forever. He clearly still has affection for Toronto, the Raptors, and his former teammates, and some of that might shine through in a way it rarely does with Kawhi. Maybe he won’t exactly get emotional (at least in Los Angeles), but we might see a slightly different Kawhi than normal.
That familiarity is a two-way street, however. Kawhi knows the Raptors, but they also know him in a way no other team does in the NBA outside of maybe the Spurs (though he was a different player for most of his tenure in SA). The Raptors know his moves, they understand his tendencies, and will certainly have a great gameplan in place against him on both ends. Whether said gameplan works is another question, but there’s no doubt the Raptors will be better prepared for what Kawhi can do than any other team in the NBA.
Not only that, but the Raptors have two of the players in the NBA best suited to cover Kawhi in Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Siakam is a breakout star, the type of player the Raptors will be able to build around for years to come, and he has the perfect size, length, and quickness to match Kawhi step for step. Anunoby doesn’t quite have Siakam’s size, but he’s long and strong as well, and should certainly be able to give good contests at the very least. Kawhi can score against any player, anywhere. He is going to get his. But the Raptors are going to make him work for it through both scheme and individual defensive talent.
For the Clippers, the Raptors will be another good test of their smarts and execution. The Raptors are down Kyle Lowry, their leader and second-best player, as well as Serge Ibaka, another starter. They are also playing on the second night of a back to back after a close contest against the Lakers, a team that plays a physically taxing style of play. However, the Raptors are also hyper-competent: they rarely make mistakes, and constantly play to the fullest of their abilities. The Clippers might have rest, and certainly have a talent advantage, even without Paul George, but if they don’t watch out, the Raptors will steal this game away from them. While the Clippers have mostly played well to start the season, they’ve been sloppy at times on both ends, and they just won’t be able to get away with that against this Raptors team.
This game should be a lot of fun. Apparently, a bunch of Raptors fans flew into LA to see Kawhi play against the Raptors for the first time, and they will assuredly be quite loud. Kawhi will be on his A-game (though isn’t he always?), and the Raptors will be eager to take Leonard and his new team down. It won’t be as emotionally impactful as Kawhi’s first game back in Toronto, but there might be some fireworks, and everything is shaping up for a tight, exciting contest.
With everyone healthy and still fresh to start the year, head coach Nick Nurse was willing to ride his best seven or eight while the remainder earned his trust with their practice and shootaround performances.
That was coming to an end anyway with Patrick McCaw ruled out for at least a month following surgery on his left knee.
But now with Lowry and Ibaka also sidelined, Nurse has no choice.
He’s got to choose and play significant minutes a few from the group of Chris Boucher, Terrence Davis II, Matt Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson.
He’s also got Dewan Hernandez up from the 905’s to augment his frontcourt after he was recalled on Friday night.
But there’s no help yet in the backcourt where it’s really going to be needed.
How the Raptors address that will be the most important part of these next few games.
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