A 5-game winning streak, a 4-0 week, and a roster that’s finally healthy and brimming with potential. The 2-seed looks like more of a certainty than a possibility and the brass over at the “Raptors r bad” dept. are throwing their hands in the air, shocked to find that their guru, Sam Mitchell, was wrong when he predicted the Raptors as the 8th seed. They’ve recently discovered the ‘Black Box Report’ and are learning more and more things that make the Raptors impressive. Zach Lowe picked Kyle Lowry as an All-Star starter, and the dept. nearly disbanded. However (comma) they have decided to hold out and see if the Raptors lose to the Spurs, which would bring more energy to their cause.
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 sprinters outrunning any and all opponents, like Norman Powell. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This column is for myself and Louis Zatzman 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.
LOOKING BACK – FOLK
January 17th vs. the Wizards – 140-111 W
Saturday, January 18th @ Timberwolves – 122-112 W
Monday, January 20th @ Hawks – 122-117 W
Wednesday, January 22nd vs. the 76ers – 107-95 W
Sweet, sweet variation (my only topic this week, but it’ll have sub-headings)
In last weeks terrific 4-0 showing, the Raptors flashed a lot of different looks offensively. They had 23 different instances of a player hitting double-digits in scoring (7 different players) and 5 of them eclipsed 20 points. On top of that, their leading scorer over the four games, Siakam, didn’t eclipse 20 points in a single game. The Raptors “next man up” philosophy this season hasn’t only extended to the defensive side of the court, as their ability to develop players has allowed for similar growth on the offensive side, and their proficiency in transition has provided space for anyone who’s willing to get out and run to score in bunches.
Outside of the transition though, there’s a few things that are driving this type of quality of depth and production.
Ibaka, the throwback
Serge Ibaka exists in a unique space in the NBA. He came in as a monstrous presence when he was prowling in the paint defensively, and he had to work hard to develop skills on the offensive end. The most interesting aspect of this, is that he didn’t skip steps in building himself from the inside, out to the 3-point line. He steadily added the in-between game, the repertoire on the block, the short-roll, the pop, and finally the three. There was no expedience to the way that he did things, and in doing so, one of the the league’s rawest big men in 2009 has developed into one of the most well-rounded bigs in the game.
We’re so quick to idealize a player that has taken one of the skills that Ibaka has to the max, and we forget that his ability to impact the game in a myriad of ways is what allowed for:
A) The Raptors to amass a sterling record last year (with him starting) and home-court advantage in the Finals.
B) Ibaka to humbly accept a bench role, and to provide markedly good bench scoring, spurts of All-NBA defense, and a back-to-the-basket game/mid-range game/3-point stroke/plus rebounding that made him a nightmare for any bench big in the league to contend with/the size to compete with super-sized teams like the 76ers.
C) All of the above, just this year, minus the home-court advantage in the Finals (maybe).
The well-rounded game he shows off on offense is a huge reason of why he’s such a perfect complement to this team off the bench. For the same reason that DeMar DeRozan is averaging 25.6/5.7/5.9 on 60-percent (!) shooting over his last 16 games, Ibaka has hit double-digits in 14 of the last 15 games. Defenses will concede soft-spots inside the arc, and instead of phasing out players who can exploit that, the Raptors have utilized that part of his toolkit, and with great success. He fits in snugly around so many of the Raptors main guys, and that makes him a constant threat to make other teams pay for their lack of attention to him.
Wonderful Gasol things
It would really be something to see Marc Gasol play with a guy like Klay Thompson. I know we’ve already seen Draymond Green (a fantastic passer) with Thompson, but still. Gasol has this wonderful knack of creating offense without necessitating a dribble from himself or anyone else, and there’s perhaps no better player at scoring without the dribble than Thompson. With that said, the Raptors have plenty of guys who are willing to use their legs to score instead of their handles, and Gasol’s re-entry into the rotation has made use of that skill. Lowry, of course, can provide the same types of passes, but it’s hard for him to apply his offensive gravity as a shooter when he’s on ball. Gasol manipulates that very quality of Lowry’s and turns it into rim-runs for Siakam, Powell, Davis II etc.
There was a point in the 76ers game – in the first half – where it looked as if the Raptors couldn’t get anything going in the half-court without Gasol involved in the action. The size of the 76ers does make things look like a hell-scape for diminutive guards – Lowry and VanVleet deserve credit for figuring it out in the second half, particularly VanVleet – and so we watched the Raptors switch gears and run the offense through Gasol, to the tune of 12 points on 5-5 shooting (2-2 3-pt) 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
They’ve won 5 games straight since he came back, they’re shooting 42-percent from downtown (on 15 makes a game) and nearly 30 assists a game. The offense is humming.
Oh yeah, and the chaos that the split-action creates:
Watch Freddy shoot
If you do yourself the favour of watching VanVleet’s 7 triples, you’ll see something miraculous.
1st Triple: Anunoby drives in, and dishes to Siakam who swings to VanVleet for 3.
2nd Triple: Siakam snakes a pick n’ roll, draws the ‘D’ in and dishes to VanVleet for 3.
3rd Triple: ‘DHO’ with Hollis-Jefferson and pulls up for 3.
4th Triple: Nurse runs his favourite hammer play, with Lowry hard charging to the baseline to make a bowling ball pass to the corner where VanVleet sprints to receive the pass and cash a triple.
5th Triple: A ‘DHO’ with VanVleet operating as the pitch guy and popping afterwards, Siakam sinks the defense and finds the relocating VanVleet for 3.
6th Triple: Lazy defense, quick trigger in the corner.
7th Triple: ‘PU3IT’ from VanVleet.
Incredibly, there’s basically no overlap in any of these plays. Yes, VanVleet was the shooter, but the ways in which the Raptors got him the ball were unique every time. No reliance on an easily schemeable framework, just smart players making smart plays. There’s few better ways to show off the adaptability and finesse of the Raptors offense than this.
Powell + a self plug
Norman Powell has been an incredible contributor for the Raptors, and he’s a huge part of their offensive diversity. But, I don’t want to retread so much of what I’ve already written so I’ll leave a link to the Powell piece I wrote earlier this week.
I think this is the best piece available right now if you want to know what’s making Powell go – and here it is, Understanding the Grind.
LOOKING FORWARD – ZATZMAN
7:30 EST on Friday, January 24th @ New York Knicks
4:00 EST on Sunday, January 26th @ San Antonio Spurs
7:30 EST on Tuesday, January 28th vs. Atlanta Hawks
7:00 EST on Thursday, January 30th @ Cleveland Cavaliers
Wins wins wins, nom nom nom
The Raptors are going to gobble up some wins this week. They won plenty of games when they were at a talent deficit for much of the season, and they will decidedly not be at a talent deficit at any point this upcoming week.
The Knicks are losers of four of their last five, beating only the Cavaliers. Marcus Morris Sr. has evolved into a nice scorer this year, and certainly New York’s best and most efficient, but he is the exact type of player upon whom OG Anunoby feasts on the defensive end. The last the two teams played, it was a blowout, and the Raptors were missing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.
The Spurs are heating up at the moment, and they topped Toronto the last they played, but the Raptors should be fully healthy and on a hot streak. The Spurs, like the Raptors, are excellent at cycling their scoring responsibilities through as many players as necessary. Though DeMar DeRozan dominated whenever Toronto used smaller players as his primary defender, both OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam were fairly successful when they had opportunities against him. The Raptors should throw size at DeRozan, trust Ibaka and Gasol to chase LaMarcus Aldridge off of the three-point arc, and that ought to be enough. The Raptors were a few missed Siakam layups away from topping the Spurs last time around, and that’s a good sign for Toronto. Siakam isn’t going to stay in a shooting funk for long.
The Hawks are fun, much like Trae Young, but they are not good. If their full court press hadn’t exposed the Raptors in the fourth quarter of the two teams’ most recent matchup, it would have been a blowout win for Toronto.
The Cavaliers are perhaps the worst team on this list. Their guards can’t pass, and their best player, Kevin Love, is friendlier with the Raptors than he is with his own teammates.
Toronto doesn’t need a few breaks to go 4-0 this week. They will be heavily favoured in each game, except perhaps against the Spurs. To be honest, the Knicks, Spurs, Hawks, and Cavaliers could probably combine their rosters to form one mega-team, and the Raptors would still win. Just for fun, the starting lineup would most likely be Trae Young, DeMar DeRozan, Marcus Morris Sr., Kevin Love, and John Collins. I say Toronto scores 150 points against that team.
Trae Young and Fred VanVleet
The last time the two teams played, there was a gasp-inducing moment between Young and VanVleet. VanVleet guarded Young closely, deep behind the arc, and the upstart Young seemed to be dismayed. He pretended to go backwards, taking VanVleet with him, before Young jetted to the side and dribbled the ball between VanVleet’s legs. It was impressive, though it would have been far more impressive had he actually, you know, made the ensuing shot.
There used to be a code governing these things. If you did something humiliating like this to another significant NBA player, one of the victim’s teammates, usually a gigantic one who rarely actually played basketball, would say something to the perpetrator, or perhaps even lay hands on the man. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Instead, VanVleet used the following possession to run as fast as possible into Young and draw a blocking foul. It wasn’t poetic vengeance, but it was something. At least the Raptors did end up winning the game, after all.
But you can believe that this won’t be the end of the story. VanVleet is one of the proudest players in the NBA, and he is exceptionally confident in his defensive ability. Young is a brash young star, now an All-Star starter, who has continually displayed disrespect for any and all opponents. That he exudes such visceral joy when he plays is probably the only reason he gets away with it. But the two of VanVleet and Young are on a collision course, if not literally, at least metaphorically.
The nutmeg dribble probably isn’t the most important reason why VanVleet wants to best Young. Young scored 42 points and recorded 15 assists against Toronto, although nba dot com’s matchup data asserts that not one single solitary point was scored when VanVleet defended Young. VanVleet will want to best Young because that’s what will be required for Toronto to win. Redeeming his bruised personal pride would simply be a cherry on top.