Raptors built something special | Folks in media are finally catching on | 16 games in a row on the line | That’s a lot of scarves
The Raptors of Toronto, who made zero trades but have zero losses in their last 15 games, clearly intend to meet up with Milwaukee again in the Eastern Conference finals
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) February 11, 2020
There’s a tenacity to what Toronto is doing. The Raptors are showing a different kind of IQ on court when it comes to being able to pull off repeat wins despite injury or playing tired. One of the benefits to the team operating a little bit like a hive mind is that everyone on the floor is open to opportunities.
When Terence Davis hustled hard to grab the rebound off VanVleet’s missed three mid-game against the Nets, he could have stopped and turned, taken a quick pull-up shot and counted on the velocity of Brooklyn’s defenders blowing by him in transition. Instead Davis, barely looking, flipped it fast to Ibaka for the chance at another three-pointer. The shot didn’t end up falling, but in the split-second Davis had to decide—remembering where Ibaka was on the floor, knowing the game was close, seeing the best opportunity for a higher-yielding field-goal—he went with a decision that was unselfish. The team could have pulled ahead and Ibaka would have further flexed on his recently sharpened 3-point threat. This is the added element of care Nurse was referring to when it came to the team’s intelligence. The generosity in this crew has become so second nature, it’s habit.
Part of that now intrinsic knowledge, the constant awareness of one another on court, comes out of deficit. The strain that Toronto was put under early in the season due to injury forced the team to get comfortable fast in a mess of rotations that shifted constantly, one game to the next. It’s given the Raptors the next man up mentality that has made them such a threat. As Bulls head coach Jim Boylen put it, “They plug guys in, they compete. They can play big, they can play small. Their speed and quickness at both ends is a concern.”
Roster versatility has also leant to shrinking individual player limitations. In a league where role definitions are becoming more and more blurred, the Raptors are further altering the blueprint, but for what playing positionless can look like for an entire team. With Marc Gasol currently out, and out for stints earlier in the season, Ibaka and Pascal Siakam have stretched to adapt—Siakam with subbing in at centre and Ibaka with his shooting and passing.
“Serge has been forced into a lot more reps right now,” Nurse said following the Nets game when asked about Ibaka’s increasing versatility, “He works on things very diligently… and I think he’s seeing the game a lot better. That’s why his passing has been much improved.”
That the Raptors have stayed among the league’s elite while having six of their top-seven rotation players — all returnees from their title team — miss an average of 13 games due to injury – feels like a minor basketball miracle.
Role-playing specialists Matt Thomas and Patrick McCaw have missed big chunks of time too.
But nothing is perfect. A quick scan of the Raptors statistical profile reveals one significant shortcoming: Toronto ranks 26th in defensive rebounding percentage on the season.
They rank 28th during their winning streak, so it’s not like they can’t win as they are, but eight of the league’s 10 best defensive rebounding teams project as playoff-bound while only three of the bottom 10 teams do.
It makes sense. Limiting an opponent’s offensive possessions by rebounding their misses at a high rate can’t hurt.
“There’s been a couple of games where the defensive rebounding hasn’t been as good as we would like it,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said Monday. “And that’s just a combination of making sure we’re blocking out a little better, but then chasing them down and trying to sense where the long ones will fly to, with all the threes there’s a lot more long rebounds and we struggled with that early in the year, and it (has) kind of reared its head a bit again.”
Getting Marc Gasol back from his hamstring injury — likely after the All-Star break — will help. Getting more rebounding contributions from the likes of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby at the wing positions will help. Making sure the guards are locked into chasing down long rebounds will also help.
But any hopes the Raptors might have of getting Thompson to come home and help solve their problem seems unlikely.
With the Raptors riding a 15-game win streak, are they the biggest surprise in the NBA this season? Should Nick Nurse be a front runner for coach of the year? Sam Mitchell joins SportsCentre to discuss this and more.
Toronto can actually generate max cap space this summer in theory … but only by losing VanVleet, Gasol, Ibaka and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, which would be painful, and stretching Stanley Johnson, which would be far less agonizing.
In any realistic scenario where any of VanVleet, Gasol or Ibaka stay with the Raptors, you’re looking at scenarios where Toronto has the full MLE or less. Toronto has about $43M to play with on those three before the hard cap knocks the Raptors down to the taxpayer MLE, which could lead to some tough choices if they want to use the full mid-level.
Siakam, Anunoby and Patrick McCaw are the only members of Nick Nurse’s eight primary rotation guys that have not missed time over this winning streak.
But as Siakam mentioned, it’s been this way all season.
“It’s never been perfect,” he said. “We’ve barely had our team and we’ve always had to adjust and figure it out. And I’m sure guys know now that you have to be ready every day. You never know what’s going to happen. Today, you might be sitting on the bench and the next day you’re starting. That’s just got to be the mentality and I think everyone knows that.”
So depth and versatility have played a big part in this run.
Another element that gets overlooked is the overall high basketball IQ on this team.
It starts at the point guard spot with Lowry and Fred two of the more elite thinkers of the game. Gasol, on the back end, is another guy whose sheer knowledge of the game makes things easier for himself and his teammates.
But, really, it’s a team trait up and down the lineup from McCaw to Anunoby and on though the roster.
The Raptors don’t always begin the game knowing exactly what will work against a team, but the ability to adapt and change on the fly has made them extremely tough to hold down. An opponent might have Toronto’s number for a quarter or two, but invariably the Raptors figure it out and turn the tables.
“I would say that something I’ve always given this team a lot of credit for is their compete level,” Nurse said prior to Monday’s game. “What goes into that is figuring out what’s the best things we can do to make things difficult for them on the defensive end, and then they’re trying to figure out and exploit the open areas, or the open guys, or the best matchups, or whatever on the offensive end and that kind of starts turning for these guys once the game gets going.
“So, yeah, it’s good. We do have smart guys and the care factor is up there and they’re competing almost every night to try to win and figure out, one way or another, try to figure it out.”
So, how does a 40-14 team riding the longest win streak in Canadian major pro sports history get better? It’s a question the Raptors continue to ask themselves in pursuit of a return trip to the NBA Finals.
A seemingly endless spate of injuries to key players makes it difficult to find the answer. It’s hard to tell exactly what you’ve got when regulars such as Marc Gasol (hamstring) and Norman Powell (broken finger) are sidelined for long stretches.
Rebounding, however, has been a weak spot regardless of the lineup options. The Raptors concede an average of 14.1 second-chance points a game, 26th in the 30-team league. It’s a trend Nurse would like to nip in the bud before the post-season rolls around.
“Defensive rebounding hasn’t been as good as we would like it,” the coach said, “and that’s just a combination of making sure we’re blocking out a little better, but then chasing them down and trying to sense where the long (rebounds) will fly to.
“With all the (three-point attempts) there’s a lot more long rebounds, and we struggled with that early in the year. Kind of reared its head a bit again (lately).”
In 2016, in a gym watching Siakam work out before that year’s NBA Draft, Ramasar, a former UCLA basketball player-turned-agent, saw the promise— the length, the grace, the motor and the determination to do what it takes to become an All-Star. Ramasar told him so, and as part of his pitch to become his agent, Ramasar also told Siakam about a training and health monitoring ecosystem he was going to make available to his clients, at Ramasar’s expense, that would incorporate the latest developments in sport science and accelerate Siakam’s future development.
Siakam bought in. Ramasar was a former player whose own basketball career was cut short by injury, and from this experience, he demonstrated an interest in improving Siakam as a player first, and not worrying right away about endorsement deals. Ramasar had credibility due to his decade-plus experience as an agent, first on his own out of college — after interning with Arn Tellem, Kobe Bryant’s then-agent and now vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons – and having represented his UCLA teammate Baron Davis.
It has worked out for Siakam. After being drafted by Toronto late in the first round, splitting his first year between the NBA Development League, where he was the Finals MVP, and the Raptors as an off-the-bench player, Siakam’s career since has risen. Last season, his third year, he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, while helping to lead the Raptors to their first NBA championship. Before the start of this season, the Raptors wanted to lock Siakam in for the long haul, which they did by giving him a four-year, $130 million maximum salary contract extension.
Ramasar is the first to claim that the lion’s share of the credit for Siakam’s remarkable rise goes to Siakam himself and the hard work he has put in, as well as to the Raptors organization, especially president Masai Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster and vice president of player health and performance Alex McKechnie, who guided Siakam’s improvement. Indeed, Ramasar is grateful to McKechnie in particular for teaching him how the Raptors are using techniques drawn from sports science to help their players.
It’s not hard to see what the Raptors like in the six-foot-seven swingman. The organization has a type — long, athletic wings that play energetically, guard a variety of positions, and shoot from distance. Watson satisfies all of the above, adding a work ethic and quiet professionalism the franchise values in young, developmental projects. And his G-League play this season has been off the charts.
So now he’s splitting time between the G League and the NBA, where he’s always wanted to be, waiting at the end of the Raptors bench for an opportunity that’s merely an injury or a lopsided score away. Watson always thought he’d get here. His journey just wasn’t quite what he envisioned when he was a high-school standout winning an Arizona state championship and choosing from six NCAA Div. 1 offers.
“Being a top-ranked player and stuff like that in high school, every guy’s dream is to come out and go one-and-done. Hear your name called. Things like that,” Watson says. “But you learn that everybody’s path is different.”
Watson’s took him through four full years at Fresno State, where he was named his conference’s freshman of the year, led his school to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 15 years, and participated in the College Slam Dunk Contest at the 2017 Final Four. Then, it took him to Europe.
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Send me any Raptors related stuff I may have missed: [email protected]