When Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was asked about the ESPN NBA Power Rankings, his response was direct and to the point.
“I don’t know and I am not sure that I care,” said Nurse. “We’re not trying to prove anybody wrong we’re just trying to prove ourselves right. We’re gonna go out, try to play ya to the best of our ability & figure out how to get the win. That’s all we’re trying to do, get results.”
Into the third month of the regular season, the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors have generated sizeable results. With a 15-4 record and winners of their last seven games, the Raptors are second in the eastern conference, behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
Besides the Bucks, the Raptors are the only team in the NBA to rank in the top five for both offensive efficiency (5th—111.2) and defensive efficiency (3rd—102.3).
All of this has been achieved without starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka missing time due to injury. Demonstrating that whoever they put out on the floor, the Raptors believe that they can win.
“It’s kinda funny because at this point I’m just laughing,” said Ibaka when asked about people who doubted the Raptors before the season. “My first year it’s like, yeah, you say something back to them, but at this point I’m just laughing because we’ve been there before.”
Coming into the season, questions were swirling about the Raptors roster depth, particularly at the guard position. Sure, Lowry and Fred VanVleet are a dynamic duo at the 1 and 2 spots. But through eight games played, Lowry was averaging a team high 37.5 minutes per game. An unsustainable target that was halted due to Lowry’s hand injury.
The injuries to Lowry, Ibaka and Patrick McCaw presented an opportunity for the players deeper in the Raptors rotation to get more minutes. The performance of the Raptors bench has been one of the critical factors for the team’s overall success. Quashing the preseason critics questioning the squad’s roster depth.
Undrafted guard Terence Davis has been impressive coming off the bench. Through 19 games played, Davis has a true shooting percentage of 64.5 and is leading the team in net rating (15.0) despite averaging 15.9 minutes per game. Seven times this season, Davis has recorded double-digit points, including a 13-point performance in the Raptors 130-110 victory over the Utah Jazz last Sunday. Whether it is developing a three point shot (44.2 three-point percentage) or moving the ball with pace (5th on the Raptors in assists per game—2.1), Davis has exemplified a complete game that is going to get better.
“He is a good shooter, a deep shooter, he’s got a strong body, strong legs, he’s not afraid to take shots, and he can be explosive like that,” said Nurse.
In this winning streak that has propelled the Raptors to possessing the third best record in the NBA, they are proving to be an elite defensive team once again. In addition to being third in the League in defensive rating, the Raptors are fifth in the NBA in defensive rebounds per game (37.0) and 10th in steals per game (8.1).
When one of the Raptors primary defenders Serge Ibaka went down to an ankle injury, it paved the way for more minutes from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher. Averaging 22.4 and 12.9 minutes per game respectively, Hollis-Jefferson (6.3) and Boucher (4.7) are both in the top six amongst Raptor players in rebounds per game. Both were critical in holding LeBron James to 33 percent shooting when the Raptors beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-104 on November 10th. And combined for 13 rebounds when the Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 101-96 in their first meeting since Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
But it is Hollis-Jefferson and Boucher’s fearlessness, locking down defenders and hustling after loose balls, that have made these two critical assets coming off the bench.
“I’m a competitor,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “So, whenever my number’s called, I’m going to go out there and compete hard. That’s what I do.”
The Raptors wouldn’t be as successful in the standings if it weren’t for the positive progression of their starters. Pascal Siakam’s three point shot has demonstrated steady improvement, coming in at 39 percent beyond the arc. With a higher usage rate given Lowry’s absence (21.9 percent), VanVleet has assumed the chief facilitator role with a high effectiveness, averaging 18.6 points per game on a 56.2 true shooting percentage.
And OG Anunoby, with all the time he missed last season, is second among the Raptors starters in defensive efficiency (100.7), bringing a fervent energy to his defense in the post.
But what makes this Raptors team a contender has been their depth and the ability to win games in a variety of different ways. Whether it is Norman Powell putting up a career-high 33 points in a defensive 90-83 victory over the Orlando Magic last week or relying on Davis, Hollis-Jefferson and Boucher when the starters are struggling, the Raptors can thwart any opposition’s game plan with their all-around production on both ends of the court.
“It’s fun to play when everyone is running around and they don’t know what they are doing, forgetting plays, but they are just playing hard, hard as they can, and that’s all you ask,” said VanVleet.
Depth is a wonderful thing. And when the Raptors take on the Miami Heat Tuesday night, they will execute a strategy that has emulated their entire season thus far.
To “get results.”