Jimmy still a thorn in our side | Terence Davis: undrafted beast | Ujiri leaving for Knicks keeps coming up; hope it’s not real
Nine — Perspective: Although it was a rough night for the Raptors, it’s important to not overreact. Ibaka and Lowry’s return was always going to cause a disturbance, as the rest of the team had to fit into a nice groove without them. There needs to be trust in the talent and in the coaching staff to strike a new equilibrium. Having said that, it’s a tough ask to figure things out on the fly against top competition in Miami and Houston, but the remainders managed to do just that in the double header against Los Angeles.
As Butler is to the Heat, the Raptors hope Siakam will become for them. At his best, he’s a versatile, long, multi-dimensional player, capable of guarding almost any player and scoring from any spot. Above that, he is a tireless worker. His defence has taken a dip this year as his offensive load has grown — not a surprise — but he has still given them as much or more so far this season as can be reasonably expected.
Tuesday was a stinker, though. He was going up against Miami’s Bam Adebayo, one of the few big men in the league who can get off the floor as quickly as Siakam. And after a rocky first half, he managed just four field-goal attempts in the final 29 minutes. That was not entirely on him, as the Raptors were working Kyle Lowry, who missed the previous 11 games, back into the lineup, and he was eating up a ton of possessions with his rusty shooting. Still, it was plain to see that Siakam could not quite figure out how to decode the Heat defence, or make much of an impact if he could not do that.
“I think I’ve got to understand I’ve got to be in attack mode all the time. That’s who I am,” Siakam said. “And being one of the leaders of the team, I have to expect to go out like that, 100 percent of the time, every single game.
“At the end of the day, I’ve gotta do a better job of that, making sure that I’m always aggressive and that once we get to overtime and things like that, I’m in a rhythm and not just feeling like I just started the game.”
Siakam went through an up-and-down playoffs as he tried to navigate a gauntlet of the league’s best defenders. No matter how well he plays this year — and again, he has been awesome — the question of his ability to dominate in the biggest games, game planned against by the best coaches, will linger over the Raptors in the playoffs. That is the reality of being a fourth-year player in his first season as a top option.
As the Heat teach us year after year with their offseason approach, and the Raptors taught us last year in their championship run, culture takes you only so for before talent has to do the heavy lifting when it matters most.
It might be a measure of how badly Lowry wanted to return to action for the first time in nearly a month that he decided to risk his thumb – the fracture not completely healed – against the Heat, where you know what’s coming before they get off the plane. He shot around on a near empty floor judged himself fit to play and went for it.
“We don’t have many practices or time to go out there so why not test it against a hard-playing team?” he said.
Lowry was some was some version of himself, throwing his body into harm’s way at every chance and even making a late steal by reaching with his left hand on Miami’s Bam Adebayo – a play very similar to how Lowry hurt his thumb in the first place.
He just couldn’t make a basket and it’s hard not to imagine a different outcome had Lowry shot better than 2-of-18 from the field, although his 11 assists and his perfect 8-of-8 mark from the free-throw line showed he can help his team without shooting it well from the floor.
“That’s terrible,” he said of his shooting line. That’s rhythm. I missed shots, I didn’t force anything, everything I shot came within the offense and honestly a lot of those threes [he was 0-of-11] went in and out, lay-ups.
“It’s just rhythm and a little bit of timing. Honestly I haven’t done basketball-type playing since New Orleans [where Lowry was hurt on Nov. 8th] so it takes a game, but I’m sure I’ll be better next game. It’s nothing to be concerned or worried about.”
But we knew that.
“Listen, I give, I give these guys a lot of credit,” says Nurse. “I think that there’s a group of guys here that, that when the ball goes up, they start really trying to figure out what it’s going to take to stop the team. And they make their adjustments along the way, and then try the same at the other end, they start trying to figure out: where are the openings and who can we go to, and things like that. And it’s just a competitiveness that’s within them: When we get into the midst of the game, they want to win. And I give them a lot of credit for that.”
Siakam was off Tuesday, and Lowry went 0-11 from three, and Fred VanVleet wasn’t on, and that defence and energy wasn’t there to save them. Which is a reminder: They’re talented, but not loaded. They’re deep, but not endlessly.
No, what has made this team special is the collaborative detail they play with, and the defensive ferocity that Heat coach Eric Spoelstra singled out before the game, and neither were at 100 per cent. Against good teams they will need to play their best. And some nights, not even playing Lowry 41 minutes and VanVleet 43 is enough. Some nights, it will be too much.
At some point, they will have to try to find a balance. Lowry and VanVleet have taken turns leading the league in minutes, but now that Lowry is back, and Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are useful, how do you balance the long-range rest that is sweeping the league, and the attempt to gather up games in a competitive Eastern Conference?
“It’s a really good question,” says Nurse. “It’s a tough one to answer — I mean I think that my gut is, I like to go get the next game. Right? You worry about everything else later; just go really focus on the next game. I think last year we’re in such a different scenario with Kawhi (Leonard) … I mean, I don’t think any of us knew how it was going to go.
In the final 38 seconds of regulation, Jimmy Butler missed a free throw and a potential game-winning 3 as time expired. The Toronto Raptors had gone on an 11-3 run to close the game and had seemingly all the momentum going into overtime.
Butler put a stop to that quickly.
In the first minute of overtime, Butler converted on an and-one opportunity, made a 3 and came up with a breakaway steal and dunk to put the Heat up 116-108. The Heat held on to win their best game of the season behind Butler’s fifth career triple-double, 121-110.
- Bam Adebayo was extremely effective on Pascal Siakam. Siakam was held to just 15 points, tied for his second-lowest scoring total of the season, on 5-14 overall shooting and 0-2 from deep.
- Justise Winslow seems back to himself after missing time with the concussion issue
- Kendrick Nunn is very streaky, mostly on the off-side of things against better teams it seems.
- Coach Spoelstra gave Nunn too much rope on Tuesday, should have gotten Duncan Robinson back in the game to close it on both attempts.
- The Justise Winslow, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Bam Adebayo unit is one I would love to see more. Five-spot is pretty interchangeable with who’s having the better night.
“He finds the advantages,” Winslow said of Butler, “and really just takes advantage of it. He was fantastic for us.”
Butler opened overtime with a 3-point play, followed with a 3-pointer and then another basket for a 116-108 Heat lead.
“In this locker room, in this organization, this is where we’re supposed to win,” he said of handing the Raptors this first home loss, at the Heat matched the franchise’s best 20-game start at 15-5.
The Heat earlier pushed to an 11-point lead in the third quarter and went into the fourth up 83-81, later expanding their edge to 105-97 on an Olynyk 3-pointer with 4:57 to play in regulation.
The Raptors fought back to a one-point lead before Butler closed out the scoring in the fourth quarter with a free throw to leave it tied 108-108 at the end of regulation. Butler was off on a 3-point attempt at the regulation buzzer.
Toronto surely vexed Miami throughout the evening as well, as they’re wont to do. A spritely second quarter run led by the latest in a long line of Lowry-plus-bench looks helped Toronto crawl back near even through a tasteful mix of defense, chaos and Lowry’s deft orchestration. But as would become a trend later in the evening, no Raptors run sustained for long.
Into the third and fourth, Toronto kept in touch, but pushing back against every potentially tide-shifting basket was chintzy off-ball foul or a bucket by, like, Duncan Robinson’s Twitch stream host looking ass.
As Miami frustratingly nursed its narrow lead into the fourth, the things that make the Raptors so exhausting to play against began to work against them. After a promising start in the first half, the group of Lowry, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka fell victim to its own zaniness. The drawback of employing so many chaotic maniacs is that sometimes they’ll push the unruliness past the point of effectiveness. RHJ had what will go down as his worst night since his joining the rotation — just 6-3-1 with a pair of turnovers and a handful of miscommunications on the defensive glass. Ibaka found his stroke in the middle portion of the game, but remnants of 10 games worth of rust showed up as crunch time inched nearer.
Of course, it was Kyle Lowry who helped settle everything down before things got critical. After a breakneck couple minutes, Lowry attacked and picked up a trip to the line, and followed that up with a no-nonsense drive into paint for a bucket through half a dozen lunging limbs.
Lowry’s calm set the table for a hypertension-causing home stretch. Rolling with the starting lineup, minus OG Anunoby, plus Norman Powell, the Raptors battled back from a mini Kelly Olynyk (?) onslaught to somehow force overtime. Many thanks belong to Norman Powell, who canned a pair of icy cold threes in the closing minutes, and was just about the only reliable Raptor on offense all night. He finished with 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting.
Coming out of regulation, Butler drilled a two-pointer from the baseline and was fouled. He converted that for a three-point Miami lead.
He came down on the next possession and drilled a three from the very top of the arc. Then, with the Raptors trying to set up their offence, Butler stepped in front of a pass off the hands of Pascal Siakam and went the length of the floor for an eight-point Miami lead.
Toronto never recovered, dropping its first game of the season at Scotiabank Arena by a 121-110 score.
“They were really flying around at both ends, much, much more than we were so that was kind of the first thing,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “Then I thought they made really great reads out. There’s kind of a bunch of pieces to that, they hit the right guy and that right guy made a lot of shots as well. Or they took it to the basket and made some good finishes.”
A lot of those right decisions came courtesy of Butler.
Jimmy Butler wanted nothing to do with reliving his last appearance at the Scotiabank Arena, a fateful Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal last May when he was still with the Philadelphia 76ers.
That game ended with one of the most memorable Raptors baskets in history, Kawhi Leonard’s four-bouncer at the buzzer that sent the Raptors on their way to the eventual NBA championship.
“You can’t hold on to it for too long, because you get stuck there,” Butler, now a member of the Miami Heat, said Tuesday morning. “I think we’ve all moved on. I think Philly has, as a whole. I have; this (is the) organization I’m with now. I’m sure Toronto has as well. You let the past be the past.
“I’m worried about (Tuesday’s) game right now. I’m not going to talk about it. I’m on a different team.”
And the present is pretty darn good.
Butler hung a triple-double on the Raptors and also scored eight straight points to start the overtime period as the Heat snapped Toronto’s nine-game home winning streak with a 121-110 victory.
On the first possession of overtime, the Heat won the tip, and a few seconds later had an inbounds play underneath the basket after the ball was deflected out of bounds. Butler came off multiple screens, curled to the corner and knocked down an and-one jumper over Marc Gasol. The next time down the court, Butler brought the ball up the floor, came off a screen from Bam Adebayo, and launched a bizarre, leaning 3-pointer from the top of the key. He didn’t draw the foul, but it went in anyway. A few seconds later, he jumped into the passing lane, stole the ball from Pascal Siakam, and coasted in for a slam.
In less than a minute he had eight points, and the Raptors were in big trouble. That run from Butler proved to be all the Heat needed, as they coasted the rest of the way, with Butler outscoring the Raptors by himself in the extra frame, 8-2. For the game, he finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists for his fifth career triple-double, and his first with the Heat.
With the win — their third in a row — the Heat are up to 15-5 on the season, and have moved ahead of the Raptors via tiebreaker for second place in the East. There are a number of reasons for their success, including the emergence of young players such as Adebayo and rookies Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro, elite 3-point shooting and a solid defense. But most of all they now have a true star in Butler.
They don’t win this game against the Raptors without him, and they definitely don’t get off to this kind of start if he doesn’t force his way to the team in the summer. He hasn’t shot the ball well — 41.6 percent from the field and 26.1 percent from 3-point range — but he’s been awesome in just about every other area.
The Raptors struck gold once again
Davis isn’t just good for an undrafted free agent, he’s been the most impactful rookie this season by several metrics. Davis is leading all rookies in PIPM and wins added. He also has the highest net-rating on the Raptors, who are 15 points better when he’s on the floor.
Davis found inspiration from Fred VanVleet before he ever knew they’d be teammates. After Davis went undrafted, he retweeted a video of VanVleet giving a speech to his draft night party after he also went unselected in the 2016 draft. It feels like no surprise the same franchise was able to discover and develop two talented four-year college players who the rest of the league missed on.
The Raptors might be the best run and best coached team in the NBA at this point. It’s created an ideal environment for Davis to flourish at the start of his pro career, and he’s already giving the team valuable contributions in his minutes.
This is only the beginning of what’s going to be a long NBA career for Davis. It might never have got off the ground without his unwavering self-belief.
It is not just that Pascal Siakam (25.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 39.0 percent from 3-point range) and Fred VanVleet (since Lowry’s injury: 21.2 points, 7.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.4 steals, 40.2 percent from 3-point range) have answered the call. It is that the early-season concerns about depth now look ludicrous. Terence Davis, an undrafted guard Toronto signed after one summer league game, has been one of the best rookies in his class. Chris Boucher, the 2019 G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, played a huge role in the Raptors’ road win against the Lakers and continued to produce like an above-average bench big after that. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had logged just four garbage-time minutes before Lowry got hurt and has become a reliable part of the rotation, defending all five positions and providing energy.
“I think it’s gonna be a big benefit for us,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said, via the Toronto Sun’s Ryan Wolstat. “I think we’ve developed some guys that we know we can use, that we aren’t afraid to use now, especially me. We’ve saved a few miles on some veterans’ legs, I keep saying.”
Nurse won Eastern Conference coach of the month on Monday, an easy choice given how the Raptors responded when tested. A fifth of the way through the season, they have exceeded every expectation even though they haven’t been close to full strength. When they are, the question will be just how far they can take this.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Toronto will eventually hit some kind of ceiling. As efficient as the Raptors are in transition, as pretty as it looks when their offense is humming, they relied on Kawhi Leonard’s individual brilliance to get them out of tough spots in last season’s playoffs. Siakam is putting up MVP-candidate numbers and genuinely could win Most Improved Player for a second straight season, but being the No. 1 guy against elite defensive teams in the playoffs will be a new challenge. If they meet the enormous Philadelphia 76ers, they likely cannot survive a poor series from VanVleet, who struggled against them last time. If they meet the Bucks, they will need their fleet of athletic forwards to approximate Leonard’s defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo, with the vastly improved OG Anunoby potentially leading the charge.
It is not unreasonable to be skeptical that Toronto will still have the statistical profile of a true contender after 82 games and be able to keep all this up beyond that. It is possible, though, that the Raptors haven’t even shown the best version of themselves yet. In the seven games before the one in which Lowry broke his hand, he averaged 39 minutes, with Nurse sometimes using only an eight-man rotation. He is returning to a different, deeper and even more confident team, one that could be a buyer rather than a seller at the trade deadline. Dismissing Toronto might not be a wise move. It certainly hasn’t been lately.
With Ibaka back from an ankle injury and Lowry returning from a broken thumb, the 15-4 Raptors hope to be getting close to full strength as they head into a tough stretch of December games.
The two were injured in the same Nov. 8 game at New Orleans and Toronto went 8-2 in their absence. Ibaka returned for Sunday night’s wild 130-110 win over Utah. Lowry could potentially play Tuesday when Toronto plays host to the Miami Heat (14-5).
“I would say he’s a possibility,” Nurse said. “I would say he’s questionable at this stage, but we will see how things progress. How he feels in the morning, all those kinds of things.”
The 33-year-old guard practised with the team Monday and summed up his injury as “better.”
“It’s been almost four weeks now,” Lowry said. “We had a target date and things didn’t heal as quickly as we thought they would. Now it’s just a situation of figuring out how much time it needs. It’s a day-to-day type of thing, honestly.”
Lowry has been a vocal leader on the sidelines, and jumping into drills to demonstrate in practice. But he said he’s “tired of that [stuff]. I’m ready to play.”
The Raptors backups have been a revelation in the absence of the two veterans, and Fred VanVleet has stepped in almost seamlessly as the team’s starting guard. It’s been a group effort, Nurse said.
“I think with any departure, like anybody, the usage and all that stuff needs to get spread around. It’s not like we just expect one guy to come in and be that guy … everybody’s chipped in,” Nurse said. “Fred has been great in filling in as the lead guard full-time, but I think Pascal [Siakam] has had a lot of playmaking, Terence [Davis] has, Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] has, Marc [Gasol] has.
Q: What has been the most underrated Raptors storyline this season?
Bennett: Terence Davis. Normally it takes the Raptors a while to develop their undrafted players as they use Raptors 905 to give them some seasoning, but Davis is so good already the Raptors can’t afford to waste his energy and enthusiasm in the G league. All he does is come off the bench, get buckets and show rapid improvement.
Nov. 10: Terence Davis sets new career-high with 13 points. Nov. 13: Terence Davis sets new career-high with 15 points. Nov. 18: Terence Davis sets new career-high with 16 points. Nov. 20: Terence Davis sets new career-high with 19 points.
If he continues to improve, the Raptors may have cultivated yet another building block that helps raise their ceiling.
Fay: Nick Nurse’s coaching. His adjustments to injuries and early season refusal to play guys that weren’t buying in defensively have been impressive.
Grange: Norman Powell’s production as a starter.
Loung: There have been so many good stories to follow with the Raptors thus far, but I believe the one most underrated — or maybe just overlooked — has been the incredible job Nurse has done to steer this ship through injuries and what he believed to be a lack of defensive focus and come out with one of the very best defences in basketball at the moment and one of the truly elite teams in the NBA. Nurse, in my opinion, is the front-runner for Coach of the Year right now.
Smith: Nick Nurse. We’ve all talked about VanVleet stepping up in the absence of Lowry, the rise of Siakam, the return of Anunoby and the impact of the bench from hustle and energy guys like Boucher, Hollis-Jefferson and rookie Davis, but has Nurse been given enough credit for how he has managed this team without two of his top six players, Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, as well? No, I don’t think he has.
He is creative both offensively and defensively and may be the leading candidate for Coach of the Year at the quarter-point of the season.
Zwelling: In a media-saturated market like Toronto, not much flies under the radar, but one thing we probably aren’t talking about enough is the fascinating decision the Raptors will have to make with unrestricted free agent VanVleet after the season. His stellar play is not only a tremendous present value for the Raptors, it’s also increasing the future cost to retain his services if the club chooses to do so this summer.
The Raptors are obviously trying to preserve as much cap space as possible for the big free-agent class of 2021. Can they find a way to do that and retain VanVleet?
No team can attribute this type of success to a single player and Toronto is no exception, but the way in which Siakam has once again blossomed to fill the Kawhi Leonard-sized hole in the offense is difficult not to single out.
Siakam is averaging career-highs across the board with 25.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. He’s shooting almost four more 3-point attempts per game compared to last season — 2.7 to 6.5, respectively — yet has bumped his percentage to a career-best 39.0 percent.
Only Karl-Anthony Towns is producing at a similar level to Siakam this season and only six other times has anyone else in NBA history done the same.
With improvement that nearly replicates last year’s breakout campaign, who’s to say the reigning Most Improved Player can’t become the first back-to-back winner?
More than elite-level production or the sparkling team record, the players who garner MVP consideration tend to bring with them a captivating backstory behind their stellar season.
Fans and voters want to invest in the player behind the numbers. It’s what helps differentiate between identical stat sheets and similar records to better serve their opinions, and the 2019-20 season is certainly not short on compelling options.
Matt: I saw you at a Toronto Life event, you were named most influential person in the city. You gave a speech and you talked about the opportunity and the responsibility of this city to bring more goodness and kindness and positivity to the rest of the world. What can we offer? What can Toronto offer?
Ujiri: Honestly the best thing that we can offer is just showing people more about our city, of our country.
We have this beautiful country here. And I just don’t think we’ve extended it enough to other people, to show other people that man, this is what you can do.
It’s great being here and other people come. We have incredible diversity and they are welcome. We have to extend it out a little bit more and teach these countries … being together, being kind, being loving, creating such a diverse community — I think there’s so much to that.
Matt: You could go anywhere. You could do anything. Why do you stay here?
Ujiri: My kids were born here. That’s a big draw. For me it’s been a great city. People have been unbelievable to me and and I appreciate that. I love that about the city, the organization, ownership.
There’s something special, unique. It’s a huge challenge for me to come here and to win. I want to prove to everybody that you know what, we can win too. And to have that following behind us, for me is truly special.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks joined Lead Off and spoke about the perception of the Toronto Raptors south of the border, and why they are clear contenders to add to their team at the trade deadline
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