Weekly Storylines

Five Storylines for the Week of January 6th

Happy new year, readers!

The Toronto Raptors continue to defeat subpar teams while struggling against elite competition. Still, the Raptors sit fourth in the East at 24-12, just two games worse than they were at the same time last season. 

The Raptors are 5-4 since Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, and Marc Gasol went down with injuries on December 18th. They have managed to keep afloat due to key contributions from a bench full of undrafted players and Kyle (freaking) Lowry, who at 33 years of age is playing some of the best basketball of his life as the true leader of the Raptors.

Here is a breakdown of the Raptors upcoming schedule:

  • Tuesday, January 7th at 7:00pm: Portland Trail Blazers (15-22) @ Toronto Raptors
  • Wednesday, January 8th at 7:00pm: Toronto Raptors @ Charlotte Hornets (15-23)
  • Saturday, January 12th at 6:00pm: San Antonio Spurs (14-20) @ Toronto Raptors
  • Combined winning percentage of 40.4

Let’s look ahead to the five most interesting storylines for the upcoming week:

1. Lowry upping his threes

In Saturday’s 121-102 win in Brooklyn, Kyle Lowry had 26 points on just six made field goals, five of which were threes. Over the course of the season, Lowry is shooting just 41.4 percent from the field. However, Lowry is learning how to be the best version of himself at a time when his team desperately needs him to provide scoring. 

This season, Lowry is averaging a career-high 8.8 three-point attempts per game (shooting 36.1 percent) along with 6.2 free-throw attempts (up from 3.0 last season). He is adjusting to a new style of basketball that favours threes and shots at the rim or, more specifically, free-throws. Like a toned-down James Harden, Lowry is taking basketball’s most efficient shots more often than not and it’s not just helping the team win, it’s helping his case to make his sixth All-Star game as well.

Lowry’s usage percentage has increased from 21.2 to 24.4 since the injuries, a number he hasn’t touched for a full season since 2016-17. Amazingly, he has a true shooting percentage of 59.3% this season due to the curated selection of shots he is putting up. That puts him in truly elite company:  

2. The Lowry-VanVleet backcourt

I’ll admit I had my arguments against starting Fred VanVleet alongside Lowry in the backcourt to start the season — the lack of size and rebounding, Powell’s outstanding play alongside the starters, and the idea that the bench needed VanVleet more than the starters did. Still, it was always easy to understand what head coach Nick Nurse envisioned for his dual-point guard backcourt.

Both Lowry and VanVleet — who are very similar players in so many ways — shoot threes, move the ball well, can run the pick-and-roll or spot up, and play bigger than their size on defense. It becomes very difficult to defend the Raptors when Lowry and VanVleets’ shots are falling because it opens up the floor for the rest of the players. If teams go under the screen in the pick-and-roll, the guards can pull up from behind the arc. If they go over, the bigs have an easy route to the basket. 

The Raptors backcourt finally clicked against the Nets on Saturday, combining for 55 points, 10 made threes, and 16 assists. Lowry and VanVleet are such smart players that they can not only be trusted to run the offense when the other is on the bench but also to make the right reads when both point guards are on the floor, which is something VanVleet is learning as the year goes along. The two can take turns running the pick-and-roll while the other spots up, which allows the point-guards to save much-needed energy and gives the Raptors different offensive looks that become difficult to defend over the course of a game. It’s easy to defend when you know what’s coming (unless you’re defending James Harden). Teams rarely do with Lowry and VanVleet sharing a backcourt.

3. The undrafted(s)

The Raptors are currently playing four different undrafted players who are all giving the Raptors good, meaningful minutes as the team battles through injuries. Even more amazingly, they might all continue to be in the rotation once everyone is healthy. 

VanVleet, Terrance Davis, Chris Boucher, and Oshae Brissett — along with Malcolm Miller and Matt Thomas, who aren’t currently in the rotation but are on the roster — all went undrafted in their respective draft years, which is as much a testament to the Raptors front office as it is an embarrassment to the other 29 front offices around the league. However, I’m always uncomfortable giving the front office credit and ignoring the hard work the players put in because although it is a part of the Raptors culture that encourages (and demands) that work, it’s the players making the sacrifice. For the four undrafted Raptors, it’s paying off. 

I can’t even begin to outline how rare it is for a team to have four different undrafted contributors, but the Raptors have had little choice given how few draft picks they’ve had in the last few years. They have used their resources about as well as an NBA franchise, creating a D-League team in the same city that plays a similar system as the Raptors and prepares players for the parent club.

4. Hustle-Man Chap

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — the greatest free-agent signing in Raptors history?

Probably not, but what Hollis-Jefferson is doing for the Raptors this season cannot be overstated. Without him, I’m not sure Raptors would not have an effective bench or upwards of 20 wins.

They say availability is the best ability, and since earning Nick Nurse’s trust a few games into the season, RHJ has played every game for the Raptors and been their most reliable contributor off the bench. He is averaging 8.6/1.5/5.3 on 20.4 minutes per game, shooting 48.9 from the field. 

Hollis-Jefferson isn’t going to put up huge numbers but he does the little things that make him a winner: He plays excellent defense, never failing to stay in front of his man; he boxes out and out-hustles bigger players for rebounds on both sides of the floor; he moves the ball extremely well, earning Nick Nurse’s trust to play in the middle and orchestrate against the zone; and he even has a developing isolation game, taking big-men off the dribble to get to the rim with an array of herky-jerky crossovers and changes of speed. We talk A LOT about shooting in the modern NBA and how important it is for wing players to shoot threes, but RHJ is a good example of someone without a reliable jumper that finds a way to impact games and stay on the floor. 

Take the Nets game, for example. Against his former team, Rondae put up a timid stat-line of 10-2-5 in 26 minutes. However, he was a game-high +21 and was unstoppable at the end of the game when he isolated multiple times in a statement to the front office that didn’t bring him back. 

Sometimes that isolation and will to win gets RHJ in trouble, as he’ll turn the ball over or put up low-percentage shots, but for the most part he plays his role. The partnership with the Raptors is also helping RHJ, who needed a rebound season and is having it in Toronto, meaning he will likely get paid once his contract expires at the end of the season. 

You can already envision Rondae having one of those playoff games where he comes off the bench and steals one for the Raptors. He is just that type of player that brings it every night and makes winning plays. What more could you ask for from someone making just $2.5 million this year?

5. Injury updates

According to Nurse, who spoke to the media ahead of Saturday night’s game in Brooklyn, the order of players returning from injury should be something like this: Matt Thomas, Norman Powell, Marc Gasol, and finally Pascal Siakam.

Thomas could make his return as soon as Tuesday against the Trail Blazers. He was listed as active against the Nets but did not play. His shooting (53.8 percent from three) would be incredibly valuable to a Raptors team struggling to score, even more so against the zone defenses recent opponents have been throwing out against the Raptors.

That Powell should return next is somewhat of a surprise given how painful his injury looked and considering he injured the same shoulder last season (keeping him out six weeks), but it’s good news for a player that was playing the best basketball of his career and would slide nicely into that starting three spot. 

Gasol and Siakam are still a ways away, which is concerning for Siakam in particular: His injury didn’t look bad in the moment — remember he played the entire game and most people didn’t know he was injured until after — so either the Raptors are being extremely careful with what was first labeled a minor groin strain or it is not so minor. Hopefully the former is true. 

Every game is an experiment for Nurse and the coaching staff with all these injuries and all these unlikely contributors, and it has been a true pleasure to watch for basketball nerds.

Go Raps!

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