It finally happened. The Raptors lost a game. They played about as poorly as they possibly could, and they were still within a possession of winning in regulation, at least against the Heat. And then they lost another, and it was worse. Still, a 2-2 week does not mean the sky is falling. It does mean there are some negatives, at least more than there were before this week.
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 giants coming out of hibernation and starting to look out for themselves, like Marc Gasol. 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. Furthermore, this column is now the top hit when you google ‘black box report.’ So whose column is a plane crash now?
LOOKING BACK – Zatzman
7:00 pm EST on Friday November 29 @ Orlando Magic – 90-83 W
6:00 pm EST on Sunday December 1 against the Utah Jazz – 130-110 W
7:30 pm EST on Tuesday December 3 against the Miami Heat – 121-110 L
7:30 pm EST on Thursday December 5 against the Houston Rockets – 119-109 L
It’s not often I get to do this, but it’s time to reap the fruits of my victory. Specifically, every factor I predicted in my ‘looking ahead’ section of the BBR last week came true. Reinforcements came back in the form of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and they were both rusty. They shot poorly from the field, especially Lowry in his initial return, and the team had some trouble integrating them. While focusing on themselves, their defense slipped as they had to defend teams with varied offensive styles. All of that added up to some losses this week. It happens, but it’s still fun to be right.
Marc Gasol, looking out for number one
Amidst a poor week there can still be positives. And one great positive: Marc Gasol finally launching from deep. He took 18 triples, which is the most of any four-game stretch yet this year for him. That he connected on six is a bummer, but there’s a long history of him being an accurate shooter. Don’t let a poor shooting week from Gasol — and, really, it was a poor shooting week from almost everyone — detract from the positives here. The Raptors need Gasol to be aggressive from deep. He’s a terrific release valve, but if defenders leave him open and he doesn’t shoot, he gives any advantages right back to the defense. Him shooting from deep was a huge element in Toronto beating Utah. A three-pointer from Gasol is an incredibly efficient shot, and he needs to let fly when it’s available. It’s been great to see that happening.
What’s an identity, really?
Toronto has made its hay with flexibility. They can shape-shift into anything, but if you can change into anything, what is your base form?
Houston is a team with an identity set in stone. James Harden attacks and attacks and attacks and… then when he’s not in, his teammates can create some for themselves. I asked Nick Nurse before the game about that identity quandary for Toronto, about whether you can be too flexible, in a sense. His words were worthwhile.
“Well, I think that we certainly like some flexibility, right, to be able to do some different things against different opponents and different lineups and rotations within a game. I think more your problems probably come, it really doesn’t matter sometimes, like, we talked pregame last game about well, we’ve been so good behind the double-teaming schemes, and then we weren’t the other night. That’s one thing we talked about yesterday. We’ve been so good behind getting it out of the primary guy’s hands and the other night we just were not. We weren’t protecting the rim well enough, we weren’t getting out to the shooters well enough, we weren’t chasing the misses well enough. You can say well what are you doing to stop these guys from scoring? Well, we’re taking the ball out of their hands but we were doing a really good job behind it and out of it. I guess to answer your question, the danger is it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, there’s pieces that need to be done. For us, they’re ball-pressure, they’re trying to contain the dribble, they’re contesting shots, and then obviously tagging and pursuing the rebound.”
Basically, Nurse is saying that beyond some key elements present in every defense, like contesting shots, a flexible identity is the identity. There is no base form. The Raptors are like Mystique but without the weird blue scaly aesthetic upon which to fall back. Toronto’s defensive rock met an offensive hard place in the Houston Rockets on Thursday night.
Mike D’Antoni, when asked before the game about whether his team’s identity changes based on defensive scheme, was equally informative: “We play the way we normally play. James, he’s seen it all. If we see the triangle-and-two or zone, he’ll pass. He’ll figure it out. We’ll just keep the spacing and the ball will move and hope we knock down shots. It doesn’t really affect what we do.”
So the Raptors, who only adapt, faced the Rockets, who never change. What did it look like? Well, the Raptors double-teamed Harden whenever he dribbled beyond the half-court line. Harden dished the ball immediately to a cutter at the nail, almost every time, and the Rockets spent almost every half-court possession playing four-on-three. Toronto’s wing defender, usually Pascal Siakam, was left scrambling between shooters at the elbow extended and in the corner, and most possessions ended with corner 3s from Houston. They shot 22-of-55 from deep, both of which are records for Raptors’ opponents. On the other hand, Harden attempted only 11 field goals, his lowest since 2016-17, before the Rockets experimented with Harden soloing the entire offense. Practically every half-court possession in the game was identical, and it looked like a match between two chess grandmasters grinding the same opening to dust over a long match. It was bizarre, and I’ve never seen anything like it on a basketball court before.
So what happens when a rock meets a hard place? An original style of basketball. Love it or hate it, the Raptors defending the Rockets was unlike anything you’ve seen before in the NBA. To Nurse’s credit, the Raptors’ defense was actually fine, statistically, and their offense was where they lost the game. The Raptors may have won the battle, but the Rockets won the war.
Despite the loss, Nick Nurse in the post-game conference showed pride in the uniqueness of the gameplan: “So,” he opened, “what did you think of that?”
LOOKING AHEAD – Folk
6:00 pm EST on Sunday December 8 @ Philadelphia 76ers
8:00 pm EST on Monday December 9 @ Chicago Bulls
7:00 pm EST on Wednesday December 11 against Los Angeles Clippers
Kawho is that guy?
There has been an established attempt from the Raptors this year to remove Kawhi Leonard’s presence from most anything regarding last year. They’ve shown the shot in highlight reels of the playoffs, and little else, but they had to show the shot. I understand why they’re doing it. It’s tricky right? How do you properly thank this man for helping the team to a championship while also carving out the current Raptors team as contenders and defending champions? How do you accurately portray his contributions without kneeling somewhat to the tired narrative that he “carried the Raptors”?
It seems as though the Raptors fanbase and the Raptors themselves can carve out a path forward without including any part of the Raptors game ops or PR team. When he comes out, cheer for him as loud as you can. Show him all the love he deserves for helping to Shepard an NBA Championship into the city of Toronto. Then, let the team suffocate him on the court, and make a statement that his presence on the team doesn’t dictate it’s ceiling. Whether or not the Raptors can win a championship with this team remains to be seen, but vs. the Clippers they can make part of their case.
The blueprint for how to slow down the Clippers is changing as well. Earlier in the season the Raptors loaded up on Leonard (to great success) and forced the ball into the hands of players like Patrick Patterson, JaMychal Green, and Maurice Harkless. All of which are serviceable players (especially Harkless) but none of which attack close-outs exceptionally well, or shoot very well out of rhythm. The Raptors forced these players to find space or shoot on the move, and the Clippers offense grinded to a halt. The saving grace for the Clippers that night was the Lou Williams & Montrezl Harrell pick n’ roll, and they’ll be going back to that once again in Toronto. Only this time around, Paul George will be in a Clippers jersey to space the floor for all three of Leonard, Williams and Harrell, not to mention he’ll be looking to create some havoc on his own. The defensive gameplan becomes much tougher.
The Williams/Harrell duo attempts 30-percent of the Clippers shots on average, and half of their free throws. While Leonard and George remain the stars of the team, the aforementioned duo remains their most consistent force, and a workhorse for regular season wins. Trae Young is the only player in the league who runs more pick n’ roll -relative to his own possessions – than Williams, and ice-ing that action is one of the surefire ways to cause trouble for the Clippers offense. The Raptors are uniquely equipped to switch across the top of their defense, and as such should be able to morph Williams back into an iso-heavy player. Remove a chunk of the Clippers offensive efficiency (.94 PPP to .71 PPP) and flex your bench strength against theirs.
If the Raptors can manage what I mentioned above, they’ll have a great opportunity to lean on OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Pascal Siakam to stymie Leonard & George. Which all things considered, is a pretty decent look to have against one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
LOL Embiid & Lowry – Making statements
The Raptors will clash with the 76ers for the second time this season. Both Joel Embiid and Kyle Lowry were absent in the first game of the year – Lowry out with a fractured thumb, and Embiid’s soulless husk was slumped against a disaffected Marc Gasol.
Embiid is coming off of a monster line against the Wizards (26 & 21) in a loss, and Lowry is coming off of a quiet, but uber-efficient night in a loss as well. Both players factor into this game in a big way. Embiid, for the express purpose that the whole league knows how child-like he looked trying to score against Gasol. Lowry, because while he remains an incredibly cerebral and wonderful player, the Raptors found a certain groove and pace – one that very well could’ve been unsustainable for an extended period of the season – that was predicated on their ability to outwork teams in the open court, out-game them defensively, and conjure up surprising scoring bursts from what were thought of as fringe bench players, in Lowry’s absence.
So, while Lowry is certainly capable of playing with the pace and defensive tenacity of the Raptors we’ve seen recently, there is without a doubt a shift in how the offensive possessions are doled out. To be clear, I am not anywhere near the opinion that the Raptors are better without Lowry, I think that’s outrageous. However, the Raptors just lost their first pair of back-to-backs of the season, and Lowry will be looking to assert himself as the Eastern Conference’s best point guard (the moniker he was earning before his injury) against a division rival, and his hometown. This is a big game.
The Raptors stole a victory earlier in the year – finishing the game on a 13-2 run – but the 76ers are a real threat for the chip this year (as are the Raptors) and their defense can suffocate some of the leagues best offenses. There’s a certain creativity that Lowry brings to the offense that isn’t replicated by anyone on the roster, and that ability to create unique shots is exactly what a team needs to manipulate defenses that takeaway the first and second options.
Have a blessed day. – Samson