Raptors have heart | OG sets new career high | Rondae is interesting
Hollis-Jefferson also finished Monday’s game with 15 points and a pair of assists. Charlotte doesn’t employ the type of offensive weapon Hollis-Jefferson tends to be deployed against, but he was the definition of chaotic good on defence once again. He has provided more than just rebounding, even if those — and some wild put-back attempts that followed — have been his defining contribution.
“I’ve gotta be honest with you, I’m impressed with his offense,” Nick Nurse said. “He’s been cutting in there, finding the right timing, he comes in, blasts in hard from what we call our dunker spot, and he does it with force and moves it around and makes a good share of layups, draws a good share of free throws. He’s been a high points-per-possession guy.”
Following a run-capping 3 in the third quarter, OG Anunoby walked to the bench with the same expression he always has on his face, which is to say none at all. Hollis-Jefferson half-hugged him, patting his chest for a job well done. In just 25 minutes, Anunoby had matched a career high with 22 points. Hollis-Jefferson, apparently, felt someone should be excited for him. (After Anunoby was poked in the eye for the second time in the past eight days, Hollis-Jefferson also suggested he begin wearing a Bane mask for protection. It is my journalistic responsibility to point out that Bane’s mask does not protect his eyes.)
That Hollis-Jefferson’s on-court energy has carried over to the bench now that he’s playing is unsurprising. He is usually a high-character player, the type of culture-builder the Raptors seek in their end-of-roster decisions, which is part of why he projected as such a natural fit in the summer. This is a player who once warmed up at Scotiabank Arena by jumping rope and yelling Muhammad Ali quotes about how great he is as a teammate tried not to laugh while being stretched nearby. Hollis-Jefferson is an energy guy through and through, but that was less obvious in a start where he oscillated between DNP-CDs and DNPs due to a nagging groin issue.
In finding a place on the floor, Hollis-Jefferson also seems to have begun finding his place within the team. For his part, he says he was always comfortable within a good group of guys, but that positivity now seems more outward, or perhaps just unveiled. Even the best locker room presences probably feel a little more settled in a new situation when they’re contributing, and Hollis-Jefferson has been able to pivot from self-motivation to self-deprecation in a hurry. For example, while Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are encouraging leaders, they’ve been able to do so with their own personality, telling Hollis-Jefferson he better shoot if they put him in the corner or joking that he better stay stationed in his position on the floor around their pick-and-rolls.
Two — Breakout: OG Anunoby scored 16 of his career-high 24 points in the third quarter to break the game wide open. Anunoby showed a bit of everything during that stretch: a pull-up three when the defense went under, Eurostep to finish between two defenders in transition, a sidestep corner trey, a deep pull-up jumper to beat the clock, and finally a backdoor cut behind the defense for a two-handed finish. Anunoby only showed flashes in his first two seasons, but the difference this year is his confidence. There’s a clear desire from Anunoby to broaden his role beyond the expectation of 3-and-D, and he’s earning the chance to expand his game.
To Siakam’s credit, he’s consistently found a way to rebound from tough performances. Two games into the second round of Toronto’s championship run last spring, when Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers were giving him all kinds of trouble with their length and paint-clogging tactics, Siakam responded with one of his best games of the playoffs in Toronto’s 36-point victory in Game 5.
A couple of weeks later, when Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks frustrated Siakam into fouling out of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he answered with a 25-point, 11-rebound night in Game 3 as Toronto won its first of four straight to take the series. Not long after that, he was posing problems the Golden State Warriors couldn’t answer on the league’s grandest stage.
So Monday’s performance wasn’t necessarily a surprise — it was what we’re coming to expect from Siakam as he takes his latest leap. Even if his 20 and eight snuck up on you, as so many of Siakam’s productive nights this season have.
While everyone was blinking their eyes in amazement at Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s first half, in which he scored 15 points and pulled down three offensive boards in 12 minutes off the bench, and shaking their heads in bewilderment at Powell’s, in which he alternated between athletic finishes through traffic and maddening mises on wide-open looks, Siakam just chugged along putting up numbers.
Marvin Williams had perhaps his best quarter of the season, leaving his mark in every aspect. He made great passes within the offense and off the attack, didn’t miss a shot, played formidable defense on Pascal Siakam (no small task), and was a presence on the glass, an area that was dominated by Toronto. 14 points and four boards in 15 minutes for the vet.
The Raptors didn’t shoot particularly well at any point in the first half, but took 50 shots to the Hornets’ 39, grabbed eight offensive boards, and were aided by 11 Charlotte turnovers. They went into the locker room down 60-56 after a back-and-forth, scrappy end to the half.
The Hornets have opened the second half pretty strong as of late, but to be frank, this third quarter was not good at all. Two turnovers in the first two-and-a-half minutes contributed to a 20-8 Toronto run over the first 5:20 of the second half. James Borrego called a timeout to no avail, and the Hornets quickly fell behind by 20 in a game that seemed winnable just a few minutes prior. The Raptors hustled for rebounds and loose balls and finally started hitting their threes after a sub-par first half from behind the line. With 2:53 left in the third frame, OG Anunoby hit his fourth three of the game to give the Raptors a 90-69 lead. Things truly hit the fan once Toronto blew the game open, and the Hornets limped to the end of the third after a lengthy coach’s challenge delay and found themselves down 92-74.
It’s established canon at this point that Gasol’s penchant for slinging it is contagious within this team. Gasol’s nine assists led the way, yes, but Toronto also finished the night with guys on eight (Fred VanVleet), seven (Terence Davis — a career high), six (Norman Powell — a career high) and five (Siakam) respectively, too. Of Toronto’s 50 made buckets on the night, a franchise-record 40 were assisted.
“Even though there were some long possessions early in the game I thought we kept staying with things and ended up getting good shots, even late in the shot clock,” said Nurse after the game, impressed by the team’s ball movement.
“Threes started going in like crazy in the second half, that always helps your assist numbers. “That’s awesome to see. So many guys with such big numbers and it was start to finish, really.”
As much as motion and sharing in the half court opened the game up for Toronto, it was its freaking deadly defense-to-offense transition game that made the second half sing.
Toronto didn’t have to deploy the star-focused, hyper-aggressive defense it used during its western travels. It couldn’t, really, because all of Charlotte’s players are bad. But after chilling through that opening half, they ratcheted things up for the requisite four-to-six minutes needed to blow it open
In the end, the only things in doubt were whether the Raptors would set franchise highs for margin of victory (not quite) and assists (yes!) in a game in the eventual 132-96 win. No, they didn’t win by the required 45 points, but the team’s 40 helpers were a new high, finally besting the old mark from way back in 1997 (shades of Damon Stoudamire, Oliver Miller and Zan Tabak).
The 2019-20 Charlotte Hornets came to town riding a two-game winning streak, which followed a four-game skid and the Hornets looked competitive for a good chunk of the contest, until the Raptors started nailing everything from long range. In all, Toronto nailed 20 treys, shooting 47%.
OG Anunoby scored a career-high 24 points, Pascal Siakam added 20, Marc Gasol had nine assists and eight rebounds, and the bench scored a ton, led by a new high for rookie Terence Davis (16).
Head coach Nick Nurse challenged Norman Powell a bit pre-game and Powell responded with five straight points to start the game. Powell took seven shots in nine minutes and just kept on going from there. He finished with 17 points and six assists in a strong effort.
“Threes started going in like crazy in the second half, that always helps your assist numbers,” Nurse said.
“That’s awesome to see. So many guys with such big numbers and it was start to finish, really.”
And when it was over, when the Charlotte Hornets finally got around to figuring out what hit them so hard and so fast, the Raptors were on their way to an easy 132-96 victory at Scotiabank Arena that included a rather brilliant second half.
At the centre of it, OG Anunoby.
The third-year forward, in his second game back after missing one thanks to an eye-poke from his buddy Kawhi Leonard last week in Los Angeles, had 16 of his game- and career-high 24 points to lead that dominant third quarter and give Toronto its fifth straight home victory.
“He jump-started us there in the second half,” coach Nick Nurse said. “I don’t know how many he made … four threes and a couple of them were dribble to the left late in the clock. Those were big. I think that helped us gain a lot of momentum.”
Anunoby did have to leave the game momentarily in the third quarter after he was elbowed in the eye by Charlotte’s Nik Batum, but he was all right.
“I wish they’d catch the guy who does it once in a while,” Nurse said after Batum wasn’t called for a foul, the same with Leonard in the Clippers game. “That’s two games he’s been hit in the head and nobody sees anything.”
He’s the heart and soul of the most successful era in franchise history, the engine that’s taken them further than they had ever been before, and the most important and irreplaceable player on just about every Raptors team he’s played for, regardless of what the counting stats tell you.
DeRozan put up gaudier scoring numbers, and then Leonard after that, but make no mistake; this has always been Lowry’s team.
Ever doubt Lowry’s value? Watch a game from his perspective. Don’t watch the ball. Just pay attention to Lowry and what he’s doing on both ends of the court. He never stops moving. He’s consistently thinking, using his body to carve out space, playing the angles, and even working the officials. He’s a maestro.
He shouldn’t be as good as he is. He’s a stocky, undersized point guard, now on the wrong side of 30. Even in his prime, he was never the quickest or most athletic player on the court. But if he can’t out-run or out-jump you, he’ll almost always find a way to out-think and out-work you. His game defies logic, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s now defying age too.
Lowry will be 34 in March but he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Over the years he’s blossomed into one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters. He’s routinely among the league leaders in deflections and drawing charges. He’s a fantastic passer and coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 8.7 assists. He makes everyone he plays with better.
He’s not always the easiest guy to get along with, whether you’re a coach, executive or in the media. He can be stubborn, prickly and even combative at times, but those that know him best will tell you that it comes from a good place. More than anything else, he just wants to win.
Lowry may have been at the top of this list even before the championship, though it would have been a tougher sell. Now, there’s little doubt that this is where he belongs.
9. Toronto Raptors
Week 4 ranking: 7
The Raptors just went 3-2 on a rough, five-game road swing that included wins over the Lakers and Trail Blazers but losses to the Clippers and Mavericks. They have continued to play well despite the injury absence of Kyle Lowry (thumb), in large part thanks to the excellent play of Fred VanVleet, who has averaged 22.8 points, 8.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game during the four games since Lowry went down.
5. Toronto Raptors (Previously 5th), 8-3 (+5.5 net rating)
The Toronto Raptors might have the best development program this side of the Miami Heat. Obviously, the biggest feather in Masai Ujiri’s and his staff’s cap comes in the form of Pascal Siakam. While they didn’t create something out of essentially nothing due to Siakam being a first-round pick, nobody had him pegged as being this type of player. He has even admittedly surprised himself. But look at the other components of this roster at the moment. The Raptors have some big injuries to Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry at the moment. It opens an opportunity for guys like Chris Boucher and Terence Davis to step up to carve out minutes for themselves.
Boucher is pretty remarkable. He was undrafted in 2017, spent a year in the Golden State Warrior’s G-League program, and then dominated for the Raptors 905 last season. He had a bit of time with the main Raptors squad and got himself a ring. This season, he’s earned a full-time roster spot with the big Raptors, and the Ibaka injury is giving him extra opportunities. In the two recent games in Los Angeles, Boucher scored 28 points, knocked down some open 3-pointers, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked five shots. This was one of the blocks when Montrezl Harrell tried to put him in the floor.
Boucher might weigh 200 pounds right now. He used two hands and punched the dunk attempt by Harrell back to the earth. The more chances he gets, the more he’s going to look like another diamond in the rough for this Raptors development.
Pace: 103.0 (12) OffRtg: 107.5 (15) DefRtg: 103.0 (5) NetRtg: +4.5 (7)
Pascal Siakam had another monster game on Wednesday, putting up 36 in Portland, with nine of the 36 coming in the Raptors’ game-deciding, 14-0, fourth-quarter run. But that game was sandwiched by two (in L.A. and Dallas) in which Siakam looked somewhat mortal, and without Kyle Lowry, the Raptors might not have enough to overcome an off night from their star. They did go 3-2 on their five-game trip and they’ll be home for the holidays. They play 15 of their 22 games between now and Jan. 1 at Scotiabank Arena, where they’re 4-0 so far. Siakam has a legit shot at a second straight Kia Most Improved Player award and he’s not the only Raptor who has taken a step forward. OG Anunoby has seen the league’s second biggest jump in effective field goal percentage (from 53.6% to 66.9%) among 210 players with at least 250 field goal attempts last season and at least 50 this season.
The Raptors’ offense sputtered as they dropped two of three games to finish out their five-game road trip. The team looked understandably exhausted this week, and you have to wonder if the extreme minutes played by offensive focal points Pascal Siakam (37.1 per game this season) and Fred VanVleet (38.5) have already started to take a toll.
Norm Powell as a starter has been too much of all-or- nothing for head coach Nick Nurse’s liking.
Two games ago it was a two-point night in Portland followed by a 26-point performance against Dallas.
He was well into double digits in Monday’s win over Charlotte as well.
Nurse would prefer he even things out.
“We’ve seen some really great play, right?” Nurse said before Monday’s tipoff with Charlotte. “A little bit up and down. I mean, listen, I’m more … I wish we could pencil him in for about 16 each night, rather than 26 one and 0 the next. 21 and 4, or whatever. But he’s certainly, he’s capable.
“Obviously offensively, he’s shooting the ball well, and he’s attacking pretty good, and he’s made some great moves,” Nurse said. “But he’s got to finish some of those off. He had a bunch of opportunities late in the game the other night (in Dallas), with some great drives that rolled off the front of the rim on him, but he’s been good. He’s been good. We’re happy with Norm. He can be an impact player for us this year, more impactful.”
And that’s the ask this year. Be more impactful. Be more consistent. Powell has been a guy at times who can make the really tough basket and then turn around and miss the bunny at the rim. Just cutting those down will help even things out.
Powell has about a week or perhaps two left in the starting five unless Kyle Lowry’s thumb injury keeps him out longer.
The minutes are still going to be there for Powell even after Lowry comes back but the more consistent he can become the less his workload will drop off.
Among the Raptors’ depth pieces, he’s played fewer games than Terence Davis Jr. and Chris Boucher, but almost as many minutes. Thomas was 11-for-19 from beyond the arc (57.9 per cent) and shooting 60.7 per cent from the field. He’d made more than half of his three-point attempts in seven of those nine games.
He spent the last two seasons playing in Spain, averaging 13.4 points, two assists and two rebounds per game with Obradoiro CAB and Valencia Basket of Liga ACB, while hitting 48.5 per cent from three-point range.
Playing in the NBA is another beast altogether, but he seems to be taking it in stride.
“This is great, man: less practice, more games. I think any basketball player can sign up for that,” he joked last month. “But no, you’ll have to come back to me and ask me that in mid-January. I’m sure I’ll hit a wall at some point, but so far it’s been great.”
In close games, Thomas knows he needs to focus on his defensive duties: communicating more, knowing the other team’s personnel, where his help is. He said Nurse’s early emphasis on getting stops encouraged him to focus on what the top seven players in the rotation do to accomplish it. The need is even greater with Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Patrick McCaw sidelined by injuries — giving newcomers to the roster a chance to step up and show what they can do.
“A lot of it just comes down to effort, especially on defence,” Thomas said. “How hard you’re going to play? We need that, you know. These guys come off the bench, we need to have energy when we come into the game, and that’s what’s going to keep us on the floor.”
Siakam’s pull-up game extends beyond the perimeter, too. While he does love to use pick-and-roll opportunities to get a head of steam and charge downhill (he is shooting 51.5 per cent on 10.8 drives this season), Siakam has occasionally also managed to punish opponents who see this threat coming and sag off of him, leaving space in the midrange.
Overall, his stats as a pull-up jump shooter (34.5 per cent on 4.8 attempts) aren’t quite as impressive as the ones specifically from distance, but this is an area of Siakam’s game that he’s taken advantage of less to this point and should only continue to grow.
The indirect results of Siakam’s sudden shooting prowess have also opened new doorways for both himself and the team. Now that defenders have to be at least wary of Siakam at the arc, they have sometimes chosen to smother him completely, not allowing him any space to breathe or get a potential shot off.
Adroitly, the Cameroonian-native has countered by blowing right past them and barreling into the paint where he has a plethora of options, including kicking out to an open teammate, attacking the rim in single-coverage (where he often goes to his patented spin move), unleashing floaters, or stopping on a dime to pull-up.
As games have passed and teams have begun to take note of where and how Siakam does his damage, double teams have become more frequent, something Siakam has seen relatively few of in his young career.
Unless he’s simply en fuego (in which case doubles will come no matter where he is on the floor), opponents typically swarm Siakam in the post, a spot where he has always been dangerous thanks to his superb footwork.
In these moments, Siakam has been patient, rarely panicking and instead often waiting to discover which of his teammates have been left alone before locking on to them and firing a bullet in their direction for a good look.
The Raptors are one of the best defensive teams in the league
They were last season, but the fact that they’re still this good without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green – a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a one-time member of the All-Defensive Second Team, respectively – is impressive.
It’s beyond the fact that the Raptors currently rank seventh in defensive efficiency. On this five-game road trip, they played against four MVP candidates and each one of them struggled. LeBron James finished with a triple-double in Toronto’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers, but he had his lowest-scoring game of the season with 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting from the field. It was a similar case against Kawhi Leonard – he came close to a triple-double, but he had his lowest-scoring game of the season with 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting from the field.
Leonard also committed a career-high nine turnovers.
The Raptors then held Damian Lillard to nine points, ending his streak of scoring double figures in 230 consecutive games. Finally, they limited Luka Doncic to 5-for-14 shooting in the team’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks although his ability to get to the line (15-for-19) led to his scoring 26 points.
Toronto’s defence on those players is a big reason why it finished this road trip with a winning record. If the Raptors can continue to make life difficult for the best players in the league, nobody is going to want to face this team in the playoffs.
The roster was built upon a plan based in the defensive versatility of the players. Namely, OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry may be the best defensive squad we will see this season.
They are “long”, they can guard multiple positions and some of them are great positional defenders,who know where to stand defensively on the court and they can switch… everything in defense without creating the usual mis-matches.
The prospect of having a great season so far and helping the defensive direction of the team is laid up on OG Anunoby. The young wing is averaging 11.1 points on 55% in FG% and 52% from the three point line, while averaging a 59% TS%,which is the 4th best in his team.
Moreover, the lineup of Siakam, Lowry, Gasol, VanFleet and Anunoby is averaging a +15.4, when they are on the floor and it was coach Nurse’s most used five-man lineup in the first 8 games of the season.
In the last game, the Raptors lost to the Mavericks in a close-fought battle, but the season is long and the team is not quite healthy as Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry are remaining in the sidelines.
The Raptors were the unanimous NBA champions last season and could easily become a great example of continuity, on how you keep being competitive after the departure of a superstar like Kawhi Leonard.
The Eastern Conference is as open as ever and the Toronto Raptors can become the “dark horse” of the East and claim a place in the NBA Finals by “crushing” their opponents with their defensive intensity.
You fled violence in India with your family, came to Canada, endured racism and bigotry here. After you were made general manager, several of your employees quit, refusing to work for a Sikh. How do you look back on that?
I’m a mechanical engineer by education, but nobody wanted to hire an engineer with a turban and a beard.
So I did odd jobs, you know, cleaning jobs, janitorial jobs, landscaping jobs. But finally I got a job as a car salesman. This is in ’84. I came to the dealership to work. I got people calling me names: Paki, towelhead. They called me the names, [but] I didn’t worry about it.
I just decided on that day, as a new immigrant, that I’m going to work. I have to be better than good if I want to survive in this country and thrive in this country. And I sold 127 cars in three months. It was a record then. And it is a record now. And here I am.
And that incident you are mentioning in 1987 or ’88 … there were 10 white people working [there], and as I was introduced as the general manager, nine of the 10 people quit on us. They said they don’t want to work with a guy with a turban and beard, and only one guy decided to stay. He’s still with me.
So, you know, I hit some speed bumps, I would say, in my life. But I’ve been able to cover those speed bumps and go pretty good.
Send me any Raptors content I may have missed: [email protected]