What have the Raptors learned from this stretch of injuries?

If you only read The Illiad, you would be forgiven for not knowing that Odysseus was the baddest hero around. Yeah, he was diplomatic, and he was fairly good at sneaking around during that one chapter, and everyone respected the hell out of him for some reason, but he didn’t do nearly as much cool stuff as Hector, or Achilles, or probably either Ajax, or maybe even Menelaus. Then The Odyssey rolled around, and Odysseus outwitted a Cyclops, and safely traversed a storm, and didn’t succumb to the Sirens, and to top it all off, when he finally got home, he had to drive off a horde of suitors trying to win his wife and his wealth. Odysseus had a hard go of it, but he was presented as far more heroic and more relatable — and those two things are hard to find in tandem — in The Odyssey.

All this to say: we learn who we are from the stretches that test us the most.

The Toronto Raptors, even if they sometimes don’t seem it, and wouldn’t confess to it, have been tested recently. They’ve spent the past 16 days, or eight games, playing without Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell. Those three players have been three of Toronto’s top seven players on the year. Such a stretch would surely constitute a test. A time of trouble. That the Raptors have gone 4-4 since December 20, when all three were injured in the same game, confirms that suspicion.

Aside from simple wins and losses, Toronto has changed their playing style quite a bit since December 20.

The Raptors’ pace has dropped from 101.7 to 97.1 over the last eight games. 97.1 is lower than the Charlotte Hornet’s season-long pace, and the drop of 4.6 in pace is about the difference between the first-ranked Bucks and the 17th-ranked Dallas Mavericks. Per Cleaning the Glass, before the December 20 injuries, Toronto added 3.9 points per 100 possessions in transition, which was second in the league. Since then, the Raptors have added only 1.4 points per 100 possessions, which is 23rd in the league. They’ve gotten into transition less often and been less effective when they have attempted fast-breaks. For a team lacking in high-end initiators, even at full health, losing those easy points is a big blow.

Much of that loss is, as you can guess, tied to the absence of Siakam, Gasol, and Powell. Per nba dot com, Siakam has fired up the eighth-most transition attempts per game in the league, and he’s been the fourth-most efficient scorer among high-frequency players (classified as 3.0 attempts per game or more). Powell has attempted the 16th-most transition shots per game, and he’s been the most efficient transition scorer in the whole dang league. Not only have the Raptors lost their two best transition players, but they’ve also lost Gasol, whose outlet passes are one of Toronto’s best weapons for starting the fast-break. And because the Raptors have also lost their most effective half-court scorer (also in Siakam), they’ve needed those missing transition points even more during this stretch. That those transition points haven’t been available has contributed to the Raptors’ offense often appearing to limp through portions of games.

Another element that has limited Toronto’s offense during this stretch of injury has been the team’s woeful distance shooting. The Raptors shot 37.8 percent from deep in games up to and including December 20, and that has plummeted to 33.1 percent on an almost identical number of attempts after the trio of December 20 injuries. Seeing as how Toronto was the best shooting team in the league until the beginning of December, they were due for some regression. It only makes sense that the regression came when three of Toronto’s best shooters, by the standards of both frequency and accuracy, fell out of the lineup.

There’s more to Toronto’s shooting woes than the team lacking some great shooters. Gasol’s addition to the Raptors last season coincided with a streak that saw the Raptors become the hottest shooting team in the league, and though there was some random variance in those numbers, Gasol’s passing, screening, and shooting do boost teammates’ accuracy. Siakam’s ability in isolation and the post create more space for teammates than any other Raptor can provide. Per pbpstats, Toronto has shot 40.0 percent from deep with Gasol on the floor and 34.1 percent with him off. With Siakam on the floor, the Raptors have hit 39.9 percent of triples compared to 32.4 percent with him off. Those are huge gaps, and they result from far more variables than Gasol or Siakam’s simple abilities to hit jumpers. It’s not just the missing trio whose jumpers have been missed.

Fred VanVleet, especially, has been on a cold streak during the past eight games, hitting 32.8 percent of 8.0 attempted triples per game. He returned from a right knee contusion in Toronto’s first game without the three of Siakam, Gasol, and Powell. VanVleet certainly hasn’t claimed to be fully healthy, and it’s possible that lingering issues to his knee, ankle, shoulder, or back (this guy plays through almost any injury, which means he is often affected by several) could be hampering his shot. However, there could be more to it. VanVleet has always been far better at catch-and-shoot attempts than pull-up shots, and since December 20, his diet of shots have tilted more to the latter than the former.

Numbers taken from nba dot com.

Without some of Toronto’s best initiators, VanVleet is forced to take more pull-ups threes, yet he hasn’t made any more of them. Many of his added shots come with little ball movement and no advantage created against defenses. VanVleet is taking harder shots against defenses that are better equipped to contest them. VanVleet’s catch-and-shoot percentage remains high, though not as astronomically brilliant, but his attempts there have plateaued. As a result, his overall accuracy has dropped. VanVleet, perhaps most of all, has been hurt by the absence of some of Toronto’s brightest stars.

However, VanVleet has still played alongside one star. As VanVleet and others have been limited without some of Toronto’s best players, Kyle Lowry has thrived. He’s played as well as he has over his entire career. As others have been limited without space provided by teammates, Lowry has risen to a new level.

Over the last eight games, Lowry has averaged 23.9 points, 7.5 assists, and 4.3 rebounds. He’s hit 36.9 percent of his triples while attempting 10.5 per game. Of course it’s only eight games, and not a full season, so the following stat isn’t really important at all, but it is fun: In the history of the NBA, only Stephen Curry, who’s done it three times, has launched 10 or more threes per game while making 36.9 percent or more. Lowry has also never averaged 23 points per game over a season, so suffice it to say that he’s on another planet right now.

For anyone who’s been paying close attention over the years, it’s been clear that Lowry can still be that guy when necessary. He was that guy in the closeout game of the NBA Finals, for crying out loud, by opening the game on a personal 11-2 run. This shouldn’t need repeating for people to believe it. But when it’s necessary, Lowry can turn back time. He can barrel into the lane almost at will, where he’s shot 56.0 percent at the rim — an unprecedented number for a player of his size and age.

Per nba dot com, he’s shot just as well when he’s tightly covered as when he’s open. He’s been as good in late-clock scenarios as early ones. He’s had some absolute masterpiece games during some of the wins, scoring 32 and playing the entire fourth quarter in a 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks, scoring 30 on 17 shots against the Boston Celtics after getting crushed by Boston in the game previous, and scoring 20 points in the second half of a comeback against the Brooklyn Nets. As Lowry has gone, so too have the Raptors, and he’s been as necessary during this injured stretch as chocolate to a chocolate cake.

Even though Toronto’s transition offense and three-point shooting have been wayward, Lowry’s brilliance has been enough to carry the team to a .500 stretch of ball during a fairly difficult stretch of schedule. That is pleasant information for the Raptors to have learned.

In a sense, the injuries, and the lessons learned, have only confirmed what the Raptors already knew; the season is 82 practices long. Winning isn’t the most important outcome of a practice. Therefore the presence of a team’s stars in practice, as Allen Iverson correctly stated, is not as important as their playing in actual games. So the Raptors have missed some of their best players during some high-leverage practices. It’s no great loss. They will still qualify for the playoffs, and they will hopefully have the entire team available when the games start to matter. As Toronto learned several times over during the last decade, seeding is overrated. Because the Raptors have missed players, Toronto has and will continue to learn a variety of lessons — some of which perhaps they wouldn’t have learned otherwise. All the better to beat opponents with when the real season rolls around.

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