Three — Confidence: Nick Nurse joked that Siakam would respond to his uncharacteristic 4-of-22 effort against the Orlando Magic on Friday with 36 points in his next outing. Siakam tallied 35, and he was so confident that to end the first half, he waved off his teammates and peeked that the Raptors were up 37 before drilling a pull-up 3 right in Bogdanovic’s eye for the 40-point advantage. Siakam already has four games with five made 3s in 19 outings this season after failing to hit that mark once last year. There is no ceiling, no limit to what Siakam can do in the coming future.
Gasol and Conley were each other’s rocks for the better part of a decade, so at least they are still getting to go through similar, if not identical, experiences. It had to be weird for the two to play against each other for the first time in the NBA on Sunday, and the game did not help — the Raptors built a 40-point lead at halftime and Utah cut it to 16 barely more than midway through the third quarter before things finally settled into a normal rhythm. Gasol, a reticent shooter with the Raptors, figured prominently in his team’s good start, and Conley scored 13 of his 20 points in Utah’s 49-point third quarter, which the Jazz started by scoring 18 times in 19 possessions.
The season is much longer than one game, however, with Gasol and Conley learning that throughout many compelling playoff runs in Memphis. Ultimately, Gasol and Conley were the last two members of the “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies who remained in Memphis, before last season once and for all revealed the era was over.
“I think we both wanted to stay there. At the end of the day, we’re both happy that we moved on and both got traded,” Gasol said. “It was the same situation for both. I remember, we had a meeting with management there. And they presented, not kind of that they wanted to trade us, but, ‘OK, what do you want to do?’ We were like, ‘We can fix it. Let’s go. We’re not that far. Blah, blah, blah, blah.’ They traded both of us.”
Beyond that, both players have had to figure out a slightly altered way to play. Gasol joined the Raptors having to fit around Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, and so he turned into a distributor and a 3-point shooter instead of a post presence. Even with Leonard gone, Gasol hasn’t been tempted to revert. Before Sunday’s game, Gasol’s usage percentage was at 11.9 percent, by far the lowest of his career.
That is why it was so amazing to see Gasol let it fly early on against the Jazz. Before you start to think Gasol might have been trying to show off to his old friend, it was completely a product of Utah’s strategy. The Jazz called for some of the most aggressive early double-teams Siakam has seen all year, trying to turn the forward into a passer and some of the Raptors’ more tertiary scorers into primary pieces. With the Raptors, Gasol just has not liked to do that.
“I play unselfish basketball, maybe to a fault sometimes,” Gasol said. “That’s what I believe in.”
When absolutely forced, Gasol will get aggressive. He scored eight of the Raptors’ first 10 points and was one point shy of his season high of 12 within the first eight minutes. (That he finished with just 11 fits perfectly within the framework that is Gasol, taking only one shot after the first quarter.) The most stunning sight was a dunk, started with the type of off-the-ball cut his teammates so often make to get him assists. Gasol called it remarkable, pun definitely not intended.
“I knew he was going to do that, somehow,” said Conley. “I’ve watched a lot of the [Raptors’] games and I told the guys ‘I guarantee you he’s going shoot a lot more tonight, whether he’s playing me or whatever, he’s going to be aggressive. With him stretching the floor like that early it really threw off what we were trying to do, but that’s what makes him so dangerous. He’s capable of doing it any night and doing whatever it takes for his team.”
For Gasol, it was what the Raptors needed as they were looking for a way to neutralize Jazz big man Rudy Gobert, arguably the best rim protector in the NBA.
“Having the ball out there pulls him away from the basket because they want to put pressure on me, make those passes at the elbow harder to see,” said Gasol. “There are different ways to get him away from the basket. Once he goes and collapses, spacing and moving without the ball, it’s kind of important.
“I got a dunk too, which is pretty remarkable.” .
Gasol reverted to form after that. He took one shot and didn’t score again. He’s made his mark as a Raptor not as a scorer – even though he averaged a career-high 19.5 points two years ago while working the pick-and-roll with Conley – but by doing a little bit of everything else.
Fortunately, his first-quarter spurt was all the scoring the Raptors needed from him on a night when everyone else was doing damage, led by Siakam, who led all scorers with 35, while Fred VanVleet had 21 points and 11 assists and Norm Powell chipped in with 15 points as the Raptors shot 19-of-36 from the three-point line.
Conley had 20 points in his 25 minutes, but the Jazz had dug themselves too big a hole for him to truly enjoy and bragging rights.
2. Stop dribbling into traffic without a plan
Tonight, the Jazz seemed almost excited to flaunt those absolutes in the first half. Here’s a nice summation play where they fail twice in 10 seconds:
Share the ball? How about a Donovan Mitchell isolation drive into the paint, where four players wait? Get back on transition D? How about loafing and just allowing a wide-open corner three? I know the margin was already big at this point, but why?
Mitchell isn’t alone in his tendency to dribble into traffic for all risk and no reward. Like here, Bojan Bogdanovic dribbles surrounded by three players at the free-throw line, meanwhile Royce O’Neale is wide open with his hands in the catch and shoot position.
Let’s say Bogdanovic gets through this. What’s his plan, to go towards the hoop, where rim protection waits anyway?
Every time the Jazz are about to dribble into this kind of traffic, they need to realize what it means: that someone is likely open. Like, as much as Mitchell is capable of the bad floatery stuff we saw in the first video, he’s also capable of incredibly beautiful assists:
It’s not that Mitchell looked over and saw Conley open. He knew Conley would be open because he attacked the paint, and there was traffic. He attacked the paint with a plan: to find his teammate. And it worked.
For Toronto’s part, they came ready to play. The much-improved Pascale Siakam had 19 of his game-high 35 points in the first quarter. He was one of eight Raptors to reach double figures, as Toronto racked up their second-highest assist total of the season. So credit Nick Nurse’s squad: they were ready and they played well.
But Utah certainly helped them out, both with a lackluster defensive effort and with a curious choice of defensive schemes. In order to mitigate the challenge of having Rudy Gobert chase Toronto’s stretch center Marc Gasol around the perimeter, the Jazz got clever with their defensive approach — maybe a little too clever. Early on, they had Gobert helping way off of Gasol, and then would send extra help toward the Spanish center. The problem is that Toronto has a number of good ball movers and high-IQ players, starting with Gasol himself. So after the Raptors spent a few minutes figuring out what Utah was doing, they were able to simply pick apart the defense with relatively easy passes.
The Jazz did fight back after the half, with a protracted third-quarter run that made things feel briefly interesting. They outscored Toronto by 24 (42-18) in the first nine and a half minutes after the break, cutting the Toronto lead to just 16. It was part of a 49-point third quarter for Utah, a franchise record for any quarter. Mike Conley led the way for Utah with 13 in the period on perfect 5-of-5 shooting, and Mitchell added nine points and four assists.
But it was too little and too late for Utah. Toronto responded by converting 3-point plays on each of their next four possessions, and the lead ballooned back to 23.
The Jazz briefly got the deficit as low as 15 in the fourth quarter, at 94-109. Then the Raptors re-inserted Siakam, Gasol and Fred VanVleet (11 assists) back into the game, and they reeled off a 9-2 run to put the game away. Utah called timeout and came back with a “white flag” lineup that made it clear they had conceded the game.
Thanks to the steady play of Fred VanVleet, the Raptors weren’t going to be shaken for long. Behind his 21 points and 11 assists (with zero turnovers), Toronto was always ready to bounce back from whatever swing the Jazz took. It didn’t hurt of course the Siakam also continued to cook, finishing the night with 35 points on a comical 14-for-22 line (plus 5-of-9 from deep). Toronto’s leading duo had help of course — no one can run a score up like that without it.
For one, the Raptors’ bench unit got a boost from the return of Serge Ibaka. While the veteran big man definitely looked rusty to start, his return was a success overall. Ibaka had 13 points (on an excited 5-for-14 shooting) to go with four rebounds. For two, the pair of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis continued their strong run of play, both affecting the game in their preferred way. For Rondae it meant operating out of the post and making some canny passes; for Davis, he attacked from the top of the circle and hitting open 3s. For their efforts, RHJ had 10-6-2 to Davis’ 13-4-3 as the obvious mainstays of Toronto’s bench. And for three, let’s not forget the contributions of Norman Powell, with his efficient 6-of-12 night for 15 points, and OG Anunoby who terrorized the passing lanes again for four steals.
The Raptors’ lead did shrink to as low as 15 points in the fourth, but for the final 12-18 minutes of the game, the only thing to do was name-check who was getting minutes for both teams. Eventually, thanks to Ibaka’s return, Chris Boucher got some burn for Toronto later in garbage time, along with Malcolm Miller, Dewan Hernandez, Oshae Brissett, and Shamorie Ponds; the Jazz, meanwhile, rolled out lineups featuring players only dedicated Jazz-heads could care about. Is anyone outside of the state of Utah eager to know what Tony Bradley or Nigel Williams-Goss were up to in this game? I submit: no, no one outside of the state of Utah cares.
So that does it. The Raptors win in a laugher and move to 15-4 on the season. The Jazz, despite their aspirations, are now 12-8 and are probably asking themselve some questions. Toronto is only wondering when Kyle Lowry gets back and just how much better this team can get then. Giddy up.
He sees Hollis-Jefferson as an important defensive cog now, because he can guard three different positions, but it will be more challenging to find time for Boucher, given the depth at centre.
“Chris, probably, has to wait a little bit tonight because Serge goes in there and replaces him as the first big off the bench. I mean, Chris was the only big off the bench, so he was locked into some guaranteed minutes,” Nurse said.
“Tonight, it just depends on what we see out there. Can we play Serge and Chris together? Probably. But (Utah) play off of guard and wing at times, and they’re great matchups for Serge and Chris when they’re guarding it. You know, a guy that can take it off the bounce or shoot threes or run off screens, or whatever it is, so we just have to take a look. But I’m playing them. Chris has deserved and earned minutes, so I’m planning him some tonight,” Nurse said.
With Lowry unable to play on Sunday, the rookie Davis continued to be the first guard called upon off of the bench. Once Lowry is in though, Powell, coming off of a career night in Orlando, will return to that role and Davis might only play sparingly.
Davis and Hollis-Jefferson have become crowd favourites, but they can’t touch Ibaka popularity-wise. When he made his first appearance on Sunday, a large chunk of the fans on hand gave Ibaka a standing ovation.
Boucher only checked in for the first time with the game in hand and about four minutes remaining.
It was as good as the Raptors have looked in any half this season, at the very least.
“Yeah, for sure,” coach Nick Nurse agreed after Toronto won its seventh straight overall and improved to 9-0 at home. “Shots were going in, defence was tough each possession … and yeah, those things feed each other. The defence feeds the offence.”
The Jazz made an inevitable run — paring the deficit to less than 20 midway through the third and scoring 49 in the quarter — but that was just regression to the mean and the nature of basketball. Teams make runs. It happens all the time.
“I don’t want to really talk about that third quarter, if that’s all right,” Nurse said. “I’m happy that we get a 20-point win against a quality team like that. You take that every day of the week.”
Siakam finished with 35 points to lead the Raptors, VanVleet had 21 points and 11 assists, and six other players were in double figures.
Everyone was expected to fall in line, and it was up to the new guys to accept their roles and learn what was needed. Understandably that took time, even for a guy like Hollis-Jefferson who has been around the league since 2015. In Toronto’s first eight games, the product of Arizona was limited to three minutes and 59 seconds. Nurse didn’t start regularly calling his number until Lowry and Ibaka went down in New Orleans and OG Anunoby suffered an eye injury the next day.
Suddenly, the Raptors had no choice but to use Hollis-Jefferson and the scrappy defender started proving his worth. This isn’t the type of guy you run many plays for on the offensive end, but he’s a player who will find different ways to contribute: steals, diving for loose balls, keeping rebounds alive, whatever it takes. The attributes that got Hollis-Jefferson drafted were the ones that helped the Raptors thrive without their best players on the floor.
Davis and Boucher still have their moments when they get lost in the system. Hollis-Jefferson does too, but they are becoming far less frequent. The 23rd pick of the 2015 draft seems comfortable and confident in his surroundings.
“A little different, a little different,” Hollis-Jefferson said recently when asked about Toronto’s system compared to the one he was used to. “But being a defender, I kind of catch on to things on the fly. Understanding how (Nurse) operates and how his mind works, I feel like it helps me because that’s my mindset. Defence first, so whatever it takes.”
Hollis-Jefferson was once viewed as a key piece of Brooklyn’s future — not someone the Nets were planning to build around, but an important cog nonetheless. He peaked in 2017-18 with per-game averages of 13.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and one steal. Last year, injuries got in the way and he lost his starting job before getting pushed out to clear room for the max signings of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
The Raptors don’t script an awful lot of offensive plays, and outside of Pascal Siakam they really don’t have one go-to player to feed the ball to when they need a basket the most.
It is an effective strategy given the makeup of the team, and a successful one. No one knows for certain who might carry the scoring load on any specific night.
Already in this still young season — Toronto has yet to play a quarter of its games — four players have scored more than 30 points in a game. The Raptors have a top-10 offence using the standard points-per-100-possessions metric, and they’re 12th in the NBA in points per game.
They have six players — Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, Norm Powell and OG Anunoby — averaging at least 10 points a game, plus Rondae Hollis-Jefferson within half a point a game of that statistical standard. They also rank among the top 10 in the NBA in assists per game, and are slightly improved over last year.
It may not always be pleasing to the eye, but there’s no doubt it’s effective.
“I don’t see a lot of, ‘Wow that’s beautiful and pretty.’ That thing’s pinging from side to side, side to side, side to side, side to side, and then we’re getting a shot,” coach Nick Nurse said before Sunday’s 130-110 home win over the Utah Jazz. “But what I am seeing is pretty good decision-making.
“There are some possessions where we’re just really playing and popping, and hitting the paint and kicking and swinging, and hitting the paint again and kicking and swinging again. And then there’s several possessions in a row where we get the ball to where we think it should be going, that guy makes a play, a bucket, or he makes the right read out to one pass and the next shot.”
While Siakam is the team’s most prolific scorer and has posted at least 30 points eight times in 19 games, it’s not like he’s central to every game. VanVleet has had two games with more than 30, Lowry did it once before he was lost for almost a month with a broken thumb tip, and Powell posted a career-high 33 on Friday in Orlando.
Join the guys on location at Dome Studios as they sit down with the Superfan, Nav Bhatia and president of Push Marketing, Rinku Ghei.
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