One trade deadline up, and one trade deadline down, and no changes for the Raptors. Oh yeah, and a 12-game winning streak.
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 wild carnival comebacks, like Toronto’s win over Indiana. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This column is for myself 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.
Looking back – Folk
7:00 pm EST on Friday January 31 @ Detroit Pistons – 105-92 W
3:00 pm EST on Sunday February 2 against the Chicago Bulls – 129-102 W
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday February 5 against the Indiana Pacers – 119-118 W
The threes come fast and they come furious
Last week I talked about how I played NBA 2k as the Bulls (I’ve since moved on to trying to build the Timberwolves through KAT’s incredible post-game) and had fun doing it, but that it also made me realize just how terrible a team they were – a theory that I expected to have affirmed when the Raptors played them. The Raptors thoroughly smacked the Bulls, using a second half onslaught to fuel a nearly 30-point win. Terence Davis poured in 31 points, it was fun. But, the first half of the game was a little bit stress inducing because of the Raptors porous three-point defense. That was the case for all three of the Raptors games this past week.
The Bulls, who average 12 made threes a game, poured in 11 in the first half. Big deal right? Sometimes teams shoot the ball well. But, the Pistons who average just under 12 made threes a game hit 9 in the first half. The Pacers who average a smidge over 10 made threes a game hit 9 in the first half, and finished with 19. The Raptors defense that requires turnovers to feed into it’s offense, has been made to pay for their aggressive schemes far more often as of late. Since January they’ve been allowing nearly 14 threes a game, and after allowing less than 33-percent of 3-pointers to drop before the new year, that number has started to creep over 35-percent.
In a 17-game stint (one that features a 12-game win streak and a lot of sub-par teams) the Raptors have been getting scored on from downtown every game like they’re playing a top-5 shooting team. It’s troublesome to say the least, and the Raptors deserve heaps of credit for getting over the hump in these games where they get rained on early and often, but going forward you’d like to see the Raptors opponents trending down as far as their shooting goes. Keep your eye on this going forward, because the Raptors aggressive scheme can profile as boom or bust at times, and it’s important that it remains as the former far more often.
“I always think of the games that I play him (Terence Davis II) about six minutes and I wonder what the hell I’m doing, that’s the first thing I think of when he’s playing like that,” – Nick Nurse after Davis II’s 31-point explosion against the Bulls.
One of the beautiful features of the Raptors coaching staff is their recognition of the fact that to be rigid is usually a bad thing, and their ability to operate with fluidity has been a huge advantage over other teams. Whether it be ego, fear of failure on the coach’s behalf, or just intellectually lazy decision making, a lot of coaches don’t operate this way. Nick Nurse is anything but intellectually lazy or afraid to fail with these Raptors. It’s what makes the quote above so interesting. Nurse is usually great at recognizing how to maximize players and he seemed to be missing a little bit with Davis II, but he also doesn’t seem to have the hubris that would get in the way of correcting decisions.
Davis II poured in 31 points (Bulls), Nick Nurse said the quote above, and then proceeded to use him in all 12 minutes of the next fourth quarter the Raptors played (Pacers). A fourth quarter in which the Raptors made an incredible comeback. A lot of teams would’ve probably stuck with OG Anunoby, the starter, but Nurse put his faith in Davis II. It’s a cool thing to see for Davis II, an encouraging decision from Nurse, and another disappointing game from Anunoby.
Anunoby is well loved with the Raptors. The fans adore him, the organization seems to revere his potential and upside, and both of the aforementioned groups seem to be patient with him. Progress has never been linear, but Anunoby getting booted from closing lineups recently for one of Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, or Terence Davis II isn’t what anybody wants to see. It’s terrific to watch Davis II close, but most people well acquainted with the Raptors know that if Anunoby can insert himself as someone that you can’t imagine closing without, that’s a big deal for the Raptors. Especially come playoff time.
Even though Davis II is a rookie, Anunoby could stand to benefit from emulating some of the aggressiveness we see from Davis II. Anunoby’s shot attempts have gone down, and you can see just how awkward he looks on offense sometimes. If Anunoby loses the jab-step and makes quicker decisions he’ll find that his athletic body will take him to the rim more often, and his muscle memory will have him dangerous from beyond the arc again. He plays on a team with Kyle Lowry, he should know just how important the brain is to being a successful player. He just has to sort out how he wants to apply his physical gifts to this team. And when he does, the Raptors will be all the better for it.
Looking forward – Zatzman
8:00 pm EST on Friday February 7 @ Indiana Pacers
7:30 pm EST on Saturday February 8 against the Brooklyn Nets
7:30 pm EST on Monday February 10 against the Minnesota Timberwolves
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday February 12 @ the Brooklyn Nets
It pains me to say, but at some point during our meek, faded time on this earth, the Raptors our going to lose a game of basketball. It doesn’t have to be soon. Then again, it very well could be.
The 12-game winning streak has been unbelievable, but my money here says it will probably end at twelve. First, it’s extremely difficult to win a home-and-home against a very good team. And the Pacers are an extremely good team. They made 19 triples against the Raptors, and if they had remembered how to dribble the basketball against a full-court press, Toronto wouldn’t even have reached the 12-game mark in the first place.
Furthermore, it’s impossible to give maximum focus to all 82 regular season games. Some slip by the wayside, as we’ve seen in a few games already this year. It’s easy to focus on the game that sets a winning streak. It’s hard to focus on the next game after.
Finally, gigantic comeback wins use a lot of emotional energy. It’s difficult to rise to the same peak in the game following a large comeback. The Raptors themselves, for example, lost their game following a 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks. That loss just so happened to come against the Pacers. This time, it will again be the Pacers Toronto plays after a huge comeback. On Indiana’s side, it’s easy to fight for vengeance after giving up a large comeback. The Raptors blew out the Oklahoma City Thunder after playing them in the game following a comeback loss. The Mavericks, after letting Toronto come back from a 30-point deficit, won their following game.
All this adds up to one fact: Toronto will be hard-pressed to win against Indiana.
If it’s felt like I’ve been hammering away at Siakam’s passing in this space, week after week, it’s because I have. He has improved dramatically. Nick Nurse has complimented him game after game, and he’s deserved it. He sucks so many defenders into his orbit that he always has open passing lanes, and he’s done an enviable job of finding them at exactly the right time. In a season when Siakam’s shooting has improved in a historic manner, I’m starting to think his passing has become the biggest and most important development.
The crazy thing is I asked Siakam about his passing against double-teams, his reads when teams sink in against him. I meant the question as a compliment, a softball, lobbing an easy question about what he did do well in a game when he shot poorly. And he criticized himself needlessly! He said he needed to work on it more, get faster at those reads, learn when to be patient and wait out the double-team and when to be aggressive and drive before it reaches him. It was surprising.
More importantly going forward, Siakam is going to make a lot of reads this week. Why?
For one, Siakam is going to play Brooklyn twice. The Nets’ best defender for Pascal Siakam is Taurean Prince who is, by quite a large margin, too small. The one time Siakam played the Nets, Siakam attempted 10 free throws, the second-highest total of his season. Siakam is going to see a whole plethora of defenders, none of whom will have a chance against him in isolation. He will see double-teams and triple-teams and sometimes even more. Siakam will have to pass through thickets as grasping as the Whomping Willow. If he does, the Raptors will win. It’s that simple.
Add in the fact that Brooklyn will be without Kyrie Irving, and Toronto could turn these both games into blowouts, sweeping the season series. It will depend on how Siakam reacts to Brooklyn’s swarming defensive efforts.