The Raptors just keep on winning. Last week, it was Rondae Hollis-PutBackKing who starred and made the team in his image. This week, it was Terence Davis. Every day brings a new surprise, and the Raptors keep stacking wins in the column.
The explanation for this 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 underdogs finally being given opportunities, thriving in very unexpected ways, and hopefully having important places in our hearts forever, like Terence Davis. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This column 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. It’s also been brought to our attention that the Black Box Report reminds people of plane crashes. Well, we all need to remember our roots as Raptors fans. Times can be too good, and sometimes being a fan can be too easy. We need to remember where we came from.
Looking back – Zatzman
8:30 pm EST on Saturday November 16 @ Dallas Mavericks – 110-102 L
7:30 pm EST on Monday November 18 against the Charlotte Hornets – 132-96 W
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday November 20 against the Orlando Magic – 113-97 W
Step back and survey
Sometimes it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. But Raptors fandom has never been easier, and that statement includes last year. Truly, it’s paradise right now for a Raptors fan. The team is loveable, scrappy, and interesting. Every player has at least one flaw, which keeps them human and relatable, yet the team itself seemingly has no flaws. No matter who goes down, someone steps up. There have been countless stories, both heartwarming — think Terence Davis being mentored by Fred VanVleet, as both were undrafted — and inspiring — think Pascal Siakam continuing to improve at unprecedented rates.
Yes, we can argue about certain things. Should VanVleet be on the ball so much? Could Norman Powell be more consistent? But by and large, everything is productive, and the debates are nuanced, not general. In general, things are good.
The craziest part is that this year was supposed to be a write-off! The team was supposed to bask in the post-championship glow, and without Kawhi Leonard, contention was supposed to be an afterthought. And yet, this team… could be a championship contender again? It’s all too wonderful to believe, and the team is truly playing with house money. Things are good in Raptor-land, and even as players have gone down with injury, things have somehow become even better. There will be struggles and frustrations at some point, but for now, step back and enjoy how easy this team makes it to be a fan.
Analyzing Doncic’s dominance
Doncic beat Toronto in a way that LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and a ton of other stars couldn’t do this season. When he was on the floor, Toronto’s defense struggled to contain Dallas’ offense. That’s rare.
What Doncic did was first establish himself as a scorer, proving he could create shots in single-coverage almost at will. He dropped 14 points in the first quarter. Then Toronto sent help early, probably too early, and Doncic made his reads instantly. Even if he wasn’t the one passing for an assist — he only finished with seven — he got the ball to a release valve, and the Mavericks played 4-on-3 for much of the game. Doncic was excellent at hitting his release as soon as a help defender opened up a lane, not waiting until the double was upon him, when it could result in a high turnover rate. Steph Curry is excellent at that, although Doncic could already be better. James, Leonard, and Lillard all were too slow in their kick-outs once help came. Doncic was not.
That’s something Pascal Siakam could learn. He is a brilliant isolation scorer, and he frequently contorts defenses so that they need to load up his side of the floor. But Siakam often hits his release passes too late, and that can result in higher turnover rates, and it also can result in the advantage being lost. Defenses have enough time to recover if Siakam throws the pass once their forward momentum, coming towards him, slows. If he can hit his teammates while defenders are still lurching towards him, that’s when slashers like OG Anunoby and Norm Powell can really do damage.
What is Terence Davis, really?
Davis averaged 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists over the past week. He shot 53.8 percent from deep on a beefy 4.3 attempts per game. He is an excellent passer, considering he’s not a point guard (yet), and he’s a rookie. He’s a strong finisher, at 57.9 percent in the paint, though he’s not yet fantastic at using his size and athleticism to his own benefit against stronger contests. He’s had some good drives, and he showed some good touch on a floater against the Magic.
But what is he? He was supposed to be a defensive specialist, but he fouls like a demon and has made mistakes both of commission and omission. Nick Nurse has written that off as typical for a rookie guard, which is true.
Davis may be a shooter, and he’s launching all sorts of side-stepping, step-backing, multi-dribble mambo-jambo at the rim, and he’s hitting a bunch of it. Nurse said last week that Davis is a strong shooter because of his lower body strength, and Nurse said this week that they obviously don’t expect Davis to shoot this well, and he’s surprising them. Davis himself said that he had to make some form corrections to his shot coming into the year. So yes, he can shoot, but he probably can’t shoot this well over a long period of time, as he still needs countless reps to turn his new shot into second nature.
Davis may be a solid connectivity guy on the offensive end, passing, screening, cutting, filling to the corner, and generally doing the grunt work to make sure the offensive creates advantages, maintains them, and yields a good shot. He’s good at that stuff, and that doesn’t have too high a barrier for sample size to start mattering. If he’s a good cutter, he’s a good cutter, full stop. It’s hard to have a hot streak as a cutter.
So Davis does a lot of stuff well, but a lot of it could come back down to earth at some point. He will probably remain a useful player this year even if his jumper sinks back to the mid-30s where it probably belongs. In a 2-1 week, Toronto outscored opponents by 33 with Davis on the court and 48 total. It’s doubtful that Davis will continue to be second on the team in plus-minus, as he was this week, but it seems likely that he can continue to at least be a positive. He’s good enough at enough stuff that Toronto will still want him on the court once the full roster is healthy.
So what is he? For now, a good player who can fill a bunch of different roles. He has plenty of time to decide what else he’ll become.
Looking forward – Folk
7:30 pm EST on Saturday November 23 @ Atlanta Hawks
7:30 pm EST on Monday November 25 against the Philadelphia 76ers
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday November 27 against the New York Knicks
Maintain the New York Minute
The New York Knicks are a strangely constructed team, in that they are stacked at a position that has largely gone to the wayside in the NBA. Yes, the Raptors employ Pascal Siakam and he’s a major cog, but his ability to defend outside his position on defense and development in “guard” skills is what is allowing him to make his giant leap. The Knicks power forwards aren’t blurring the lines between positions, they’re firmly entrenched in their own.
Marcus Morris Sr., Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, and Bobby Portis combined for 112 minutes against the 76ers in the Knicks last game. There’s a bit of shooting in there, a bit of ball handling, but also, a substantial amount of bad defense and cramped spacing. The Knicks lean heavily on these four players – who have their redundancies – to win game in and game out.
So how do these Knicks find success? Well, when things go their way, the Knicks slow the game down to a glacial pace for today’s NBA (97.25 Pace) and trap teams in their own half-court. They’re a really big team – ‘Frankie Smokes’ at the 1, RJ Barrett at the 2, Morris Sr. at the 3 – and they gang rebound on the offensive end, snatching 40-percent of their misses. The Knicks cut their own fastbreak points in half in their wins. Almost looking to win games via possession time, like in soccer. More opportunities means more buckets (usually) and more buckets means the Knicks can set up their massive defense in the half-court. The Knicks are a poor defensive team, but anyone who’s played against a big defense knows that, if they’re set they can be good.
The key is to bump up the pace against the lethargic Knicks. If you speed them up they become far more turnover prone, and they start to give up a heap of points off of turnovers and on the fastbreak. Luckily for the Raptors they’re one of the best teams in the league on the break. And with the Knicks repping very little shooting ability from their ancillary pieces, the Raptors will have a lot of opportunities for their feisty guards to come down and swipe away at bigs, forcing turnovers and jumpstarting some easy offense.
Also, we’ll get to see RJ Barrett, which is cool. Wish nothing but the best for him.
Shaming the Rockets and an Ode to Analytics
It’s ironic that the Rockets have put their faith in supercharged analytics surrounding the game of basketball, but were also the team to trade away Kyle Lowry. The Rockets have spent their time with James Harden in tow, looking for a way to game the system and manufacture points in the most efficient way possible. This has led to a bit of monotony in their play and burnouts in the playoffs. For his part, Lowry is an NBA Champion, and has been effortlessly combining analytics with fluid on-court genius for the better part of five years. There’s no obtuse elements to Lowry’s game, he lets the analytics inform part of his decision making and manipulates the defense with that in mind, but never forgets his place on the court in real time. It’s that non-ironic galaxy brain of his that helped the Raptors identify him as a “top-10 point guard hiding in plain sight”.
Touching on this in tomorrow’s Black Box Report w/@LouisZatzman
The Rockets tried to become the analytics darling of the NBA, but before doing so they traded away Kyle Lowry, who has led the Raptors to the very moniker the Rockets sought.
KLOE, basically https://t.co/0GG2uwNiw5
— Samson Folk (@samfolkk) November 21, 2019
It’s this playstyle that led to the trade for Marc Gasol – which was one of the game-changers in the Bucks series – It’s Lowry’s success that has fostered VanVleet’s game, as it grows on it’s own, but also mimics Lowry’s in incredibly meaningful ways. It plays into their reverence for the 2-for-1. The Raptors have branded themselves as forward thinking off the court, and relied on Lowry to carry that torch on the hardwood.
The way the Raptors apply their offensive ethos allows for VanVleet to pull-up with impunity, Siakam to run wild, and when he’s healthy, for Lowry to organize all of the traffic. The fact that the offense is geared this way is what allows a guy like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to make a killing at the rim – posting a career high in attempts and conversion at the rim.
Lowry might be missing games right now, but his fingerprints are all over the team regardless. KLOE.
Very Small and Very Big
Trae Young has taken over the Hawks offense, and for good reason. The diminutive point guard genuinely sees the floor like few others league-wide, and his ability to space the floor allows for a slew of creative angles and lanes for his teammates. However, his creation only goes so far and an injury to Kevin Huerter and suspension for John Collins has led to a burden that Young can’t carry to a +.500 record. Simply because of the pace that the Raps-Hawks might play at, expect a big game off the bench from Chris Boucher – maybe even to the point where you pick him up in fantasy for a night.
The Raptors should handle Young and co. there’s no doubt about that. The big game remains between the Raps and the 76ers. A game that Serge Ibaka is apparently supposed to be back for. Considering how big an impact Ibaka made in the playoff series between these two squads last year, that’s huge news.
The 76ers huge defense will try and squeeze the Raptors into the mid-range, to shoot contested jumpers over the extended arms of Joel Embiid and Al Horford while Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson give chase. Not only will Ibaka provide much needed support on the inside defensively, but he’s a release valve on offense. And he adds an element to the Raptors shot-profile that they don’t have without him. VanVleet has done a decent job of finding Gasol on the short-roll this year – even though Gasol passes out of it every-time – but Ibaka will provide VanVleet with a target that’s looking to shoot and make teams pay in that play-type.
I have almost no belief in the Celtics as the Eastern Conference’s top team. The Milwaukee Bucks are of course great, but the playoffs will be the deciding factor for whether or not they can truly have Giannis do it all. The 76ers and their absurd size haven’t figured out all of their moving parts… but if they do it’ll be something to behold. With the Raptors included, you have what is likely the top-4 teams in the East, with Miami vying for a spot as well. We’ll see if the Raptors can thwart the 76ers once more.
A quick reminder that Louis has had an incredible week of writing, and you should check out at least one of his pieces.
Have a blessed day. – Samson