The Toronto sports scene is changing and you can blame the Maple Leafs as much as the Raptors for that.
This week showed a stark contrast between two Toronto sports organizations. The night after the Carolina Hurricanes utterly embarrassed the Toronto Maple Leafs by defeating the Leafs’ with their own minor league affiliate team’s zamboni driver, 42-year-old David Aires, in net (wearing a Marlies mask to make it worse), the Raptors went on to absolutely dominate the No. 6 seed Indiana Pacers, 127-81.
We can talk about roster construction, coaching, and star players all we want, but at the end of the day, the biggest contrast between what the Leafs and Raptors do on a night-to-night basis is how hard they play. The Raptors, coming out of the All-Star break with the No. 2 or No. 3 seed pretty much locked up, played about as hard as they have all season, led by their culture-setter Kyle Lowry. It’s impossible to quantitatively compare sports, but you just don’t see that effort from the Leafs (or most sports teams) despite them supposedly fighting for a playoff spot.
The Raptors reward their fans in so many ways that the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays don’t, and that’s a big reason the Toronto sports scene is changing, and it’s why you might walk into a bar on a Saturday night and see the Raptors game playing on the big screen with the Leafs game relegated to the corner these days.
Moving on, here is a breakdown of the Raptors upcoming schedule:
- Tuesday, February 25th at 7:30 pm: Milwaukee Bucks (48-8) @ Toronto Raptors
- Friday, February 28th at 7:30 pm: Charlotte Hornets (19-37) @ Toronto Raptors
- Sunday, March 1st at 6:00 pm: Toronto Raptors @ Denver Nuggets (39-18)
- Combined winning percentage of 62.7
Let’s look ahead to the five most interesting storylines for the upcoming week:
1. Hotter than DaBaby’s verse on the “Life Is Good remix”
The Toronto Raptors are 42-15 and have won 17 of their last 18 games… they have done so by a net-rating of 11.5 points per 100 possessions… they have also done so with Norman Powell and Marc Gasol sidelined.
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) February 24, 2020
So, what to make of this hot streak? Sure, it has come against relatively weak opponents, but the mental strength it takes to win 17 of 18 in January-February can’t be overlooked. It’s that mental strength that differentiates a good team from a great team come playoff time.
This is as well as I’ve seen the Raptors play in the regular season in as long as I can remember. They are so connected — playing on a string with all-around unselfishness that is so rare in the modern NBA. The Raptors beat you in a multitude of ways, scoring on cuts, three-pointers, and in transition, not to mention with their elite defense.
The Raptors are assisting on 62.8 percent of their buckets this season, eighth in the league, with plays like this with the extra pass becoming the new normal:
Another Chap x OG collab pic.twitter.com/GhTuaTezMU
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 23, 2020
2. Playing at their pace
The Raptors like to play fast. As long as Lowry is on the court, pushing the pace is going to be a priority for a Raptors team that has a bunch of elite transition scorers but can struggle in the half-court.
We have seen the Raptors struggle to get going in transition at different times this season as teams have made an effort to get back on defense instead of crashing the offensive glass. Due to a recent surge in transition scoring, the Raptors now rank first in the league in the frequency of possessions finished in transition at 21.4 percent and third in transition points per possession at 1.15 (despite not having Powell, who is one of the best transition scorers in the league). This is a textbook example of how to get out in transition after a blocked shot:
Perfect end to the half pic.twitter.com/bdQTQOdQ5C
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 24, 2020
Not only are the Raptors the best team at scoring in transition, they also defend the transition game about as well as any team. The Raptors big men rarely crash the glass, with the exception of Serge Ibaka, but even when they do, enough players are back playing safety to deter the opposition from scoring quickly. Whether it’s VanVleet, Lowry, Anunoby, or Siakam getting back first, the Raptors have a bunch of smart defenders who can defend the 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 situations expertly, forcing up tough shots.
The Raptors rank first in the league in transition defense, as teams are scoring just 1.03 points per possession in transition against the Raptors.
3. Roster versatility
Recently, Nick Nurse has been substituting Hollis-Jefferson in for OG Anunoby around the 4:00 minute mark of the first quarter. Let’s examine that for a second…
Hollis-Jefferson is a natural power forward who has been playing some center for the Raptors, notably when he outplayed Minnesota’s Karl Anthony Towns on February 10th. Anunoby, on the other hand, is a natural small forward who has played some shooting guard this season in mega-lineups with both Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
So, in essence, you have a guy who can play center coming in for a guy who can play shooting guard, and it works because Siakam is also versatile enough to slide to the small forward position while Hollis-Jefferson plays in his natural power forward spot.
We sometimes talk about the modern NBA being “positionless,” but it’s not. Coaches still have a baseline of what they want at each position, or at least of what they want on the floor at all times, although they are more flexible now than they were in the past.
The Raptors are not positionless, but they are versatile. Not only do they have multiple guys who can defend multiple positions — a necessity in the modern NBA — they also have multiple guys who can play multiple positions on the offensive end, too. Lowry, VanVleet, and Terrence Davis II can all play point guard or shooting guard (on ball or off). Powell and Anunoby can both play shooting guard or small forward. And Siakam, Hollis-Jefferson, Ibaka, and Chris Boucher can all play at least two of the forward positions.
It’s that roster versatility that makes the Raptors so unique and so well-equipped to match up with any team in the league.
Fred VanVleet will celebrate his 26th birthday on Tuesday when the Raptors play host to the Milwaukee Bucks, so let’s celebrate one of the most impressive parts of VanVleet’s game.
At 2.95 assists to turnovers, VanVleet has the fifteenth best assist/turnover ratio in the league among players who average at least 20.0 minutes per game. Only twice this season has VanVleet created more turnovers than assists. It takes most point guards years in the league to achieve that level of stability if they ever do, while VanVleet is putting up Chris Paul-like numbers in just his third full NBA season.
For someone up for the first big contract of his NBA career this summer, VanVleet has played unselfish basketball and made even more of an effort to get his teammates involved as the season has gone along. He is also shooting 38.9 percent from three, assisting on 27.8 of his teammates’ buckets, and defending better than he ever has. He is fourth in the league in steals per game (1.0) and second in deflections per game (4.1).
Also, Drake likes him.
5. Marc Gasol’s health
Gasol was originally projected to return to the Raptors after the All-Star break, but the Raptors are being cautious and continuing to keep him sidelined in an effort to not re-injure his hamstring. They seem to be in no rush to bring him back.
Gasol’s presence will be missed against the Bucks. He is the single most important defender the Raptors have against a team like the Bucks who are not only big but also like to get to the rim (either to score or to kick-out for a three). It’s imperative that Gasol returns to full-strength by the playoffs, because he will be needed, especially in series’ against the bigger teams like the Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers where the Raptors can match size for size by playing Ibaka at power forward and Gasol at center. Without a healthy Gasol, the Raptors are much more limited in what they can do.