Toronto’s loss to the Bucks was a cipher. Some were encouraged, and some were disappointed, and both were right, in their own ways.
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 upstarts who just can’t stop dunking on the best player in the world, like Chris Boucher. 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
7:30 pm EST on Friday February 21 against the Phoenix Suns – 118-101 W
6:00 pm EST on Sunday February 23 against the Indiana Pacers – 127-81 W
7:30 pm EST on Tuesday February 25 against the Milwaukee Bucks – 108-97 L
Plug for my guy
Let’s get this out of the way. Louis wrote a huge piece about the Bucks-Raptors game; it’s in-depth, insightful, and has all the little flourishes that come along with a typical Zatzman piece. It’s immense and you should read it if you haven’t, so here it is.
Bend them to your will, Spicy P
It was a little bit disappointing to see Pascal Siakam relegated to doing damage almost exclusively from beyond the arc against the Bucks (although his shot-making was impressive). He otherwise had an expansive and dominant week of basketball. We’ve rarely seen him exhibit the level of control he did as a post-passer and fulcrum of the Raptors offense below the free throw line. Of course, we’re used to seeing him eat mismatches alive in the post, but he showed significant progression with his vision and patience.
It’s not that easy to see the floor from a post-up. Most people reading this would’ve played as a guard (just statistically, I think, based on average height?), I played as a guard, and making plays with your back turned away from everyone is far from intuitive. Siakam utilized escape dribbles, pass fakes, and that unbelievable flair that we’ve seen in his pivot packages. Nick Nurse recognized this, and sent him out as a wrecking ball to smash the Pacers and the Suns into smithereens.
*For one, it’s really nice to see Ibaka recognize a soft-spot and help Siakam here. Their 2-man game has been a little lackluster (they’re good on the floor together, just not a bunch of inter-play). And secondly, Siakam lets this thing go as soon as Sabonis commits to the help. Props to Siakam for using the half-spin to goad Sabonis into help-side. That read will make the play every time.
*And this one is even more impressive. Siakam knows he can take Sabonis off the dribble, and he sees Turner point Warren into help-side defense (which is perplexing, he had an opportunity to switch). He beats Sabonis baseline, Turner shades to the corner (lol) and Warren makes a half-hearted rotation to the baseline, Ibaka shoots the gap (hell yeah, Serge) and Pascal puts it right on the money. Easy stuff, because Siakam is a walking mismatch.
A week of offense from Siakam that showcased so many things: Post-up playmaking, 3-point potency, terror in transition, munching on mismatches, and readiness as a roll man. He didn’t make the Bucks pay for their drop defense the way we might’ve liked, and 14 shots against that defense likely isn’t enough, but he’s one of the most unique players in the league and showcased a boatload of offense this week. There’s clear intent from the Raptors to stretch his legs as the go-to guy, and the returns have been dynamite so far.
The real top tier
Coming into this year and for a good portion of the season, the Bucks were perceived to be a cut above the rest of the Eastern Conference teams – and to be fair they’ve been historically great. However (comma) after certain chapters of the media have eagerly awaited the moment they can proclaim the Heat, 76ers or Celtics as the true competition to the Bucks, the Raptors have coolly and calmly ascended to level of contender, and quite frankly in an undeniable fashion.
Whether it’s the Raptors’ proclivity for beating up on below .500 teams, or their recent turn of fortune against above .500 teams – they’ve arrived. Three straight wins against the Pacers (who are quite good), each more convincing than the last. Wins against the 76ers and the Thunder. And maybe most importantly, a continued excellence at identifying the core tenets that make opposing offenses go.
After holding the Bucks to a meager 38-percent from the floor, and Antetokounmpo to 19 points on 5-14 shooting, it’s never been more clear that the Raptors can consistently lock down whatever comes their way. The ‘Greek Freak’ has joined LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, and Karl-Anthony Towns on the laundry list of Superstars who have been vexed by the Raptors defense. The adaptability (which is well covered) of their defense will reach its crescendo in the playoffs, and after a well fought game against the Bucks (sans Gasol and Powell) it’s never been more clear that they’ll throw weight in the playoffs.
Looking forward – Zatzman
9:00 pm EST on Friday February 28 against the Charlotte Hornets
6:00 pm EST on Sunday March 1 @ the Denver Nuggets
9:00 pm EST on Tuesday March 3 @ the Phoenix Suns
10:30 pm EST on Thursday March 5 @ the Golden State Warriors
Not all Finals’ rematches are made the same
Usually, when two teams who last met in the NBA Finals play one another for the first time the following regular season, it’s a big game. There’s much hype surrounding the rematch. Both teams are usually angling for playoff position. People care about the outcome.
Well, Toronto’s game against the Warriors will not be made like most Finals rematches. For one, the Warriors, at 12-46, are officially the worst team in the NBA. They are 16 games out of a playoff position with only 24 games remaining. The game will be broadcast on TNT, but because of injury, the two teams are not of the same caliber. The last time two former Finals opponents played one another with such disparate win-loss records, the Warriors trounced the LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers 129-105 in December of 2018. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant combined for 67 points, and Collin Sexton led the Cavs with 21. Fast forward to the present, and Golden State has become the Cleveland of the equation. How the turn tables.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be excited for the rematch. For one, Curry will most likely be back in Golden State’s lineup. He alone brings excitement and glitz to any game. Though the Warriors will certainly not have Klay Thompson, and obviously not have Durant, and perhaps not even have Draymond Green, who has been in and out of the lineup with a variety of injuries, it’s Curry who runs things in San Fran. He’ll be out for vengeance in for a variety of reasons. Still, Toronto will have Golden State out-manned and out-gunned. This matchup, star-studded and glamorous less than a year ago, will be fairly one-sided.
All this to say: Toronto closed down Oracle with three straight Finals wins. They’ll likely open franchise history at Chase Center with a win as well.
A big week for VanVleet
It’s time for Toronto to defend some difficult and disparate guards this week. With the Warriors getting Steph Curry back this week, Fred VanVleet is about to guard four consecutive opponents’ primary initiators. With Devonte’ Graham in Charlotte, Jamal Murray in Denver, Devin Booker in Phoenix, and Curry in Golden State, VanVleet has his work cut out for him. He will likely be Toronto’s primary for all four stars. It will be all the more difficult because of the disparate ways in which each team uses each player. Like a video game, with the final boss coming last, each guard will be an improvement upon the last.
Graham is something like VanVleet himself on offense. He is an absolute gunner from deep, shooting 36.6 percent from behind the arc on 9.2 (!) attempts per game, but he can struggle at the rim, shooting only 43.5 percent from five feet or fewer. He’s quick, with a tight handle, and is incredibly slippery in isolation. He’s unpolished, but he can put points up in a hurry. Graham plays much like his predecessor in Charlotte, Kemba Walker, before Walker learned to finish. Of course, it could all be a mirage because of Graham’s hot shooting to start the season; Graham is shooting less than 30 percent from deep over the month of February. VanVleet will overplay his jumper, forcing Graham into a paint that Toronto loves to fill with arms. If the young guard makes perfect decisions, it will be on Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier to beat rotating defenses. More likely, Graham will be forced to settle for difficult step-back jumpers and pull-ups against Toronto.
Murray offers a far deeper skill-set than Graham. He is as accomplished a shooter, and a much better finisher, but his real value comes off the ball. Murray is wonderful at jetting around screens, setting his own screens, moon-walking away from picks, running the baseline, and altogether causing havoc as soon as a defender looks the wrong way. He is built to orbit the singular star of Nikola Jokic. VanVleet will have to keep Murray out of the paint, where he is a 61.6 percent finisher at the rim this year. It will be on VanVleet to duck around screens, keep his arms in the passing lane, and stay physical with the Denver guard. If VanVleet sniffs out the right plays, he could force a lot of turnovers from Denver.
Booker, unlike Graham or Murray, is one of the best individual scorers in the NBA. He is very efficiently scoring 26.1 points per game this year. Booker loves the mid-range, and he’s shooting 46 percent this year from 10-19 feet. Toronto loves to play fast and force opponents into quick decisions, but Booker is content to slow down, throw a few jab-steps at his defender, and move at a confident, glacial pace. He is built to score when bothered. VanVleet will have to keep Booker’s lower body off-balance and use his strong hands to bother Booker during his gathers. Doing that without fouling is tough, but that’s Toronto’s best chance at stopping him in isolation. It’s possible that OG Anunoby will see time on Booker, but it will likely be VanVleet that gets the start. Of course, double-teams will likely be a big part of the defensive game-plan as well; if Booker’s teammates can make the Raptors pay, that would be trouble.
Last and most certainly not least, VanVleet will face Curry. Curry combines the individual scoring chops of Booker with the off-ball entropy of Murray. And he’s a better shooter than any of the three. He will also be motivated to prove both that he’s healthy after the hand injury and to prove that VanVleet bothering him in the Finals was a fluke. I imagine we see some box-and-one, as a throwback to VanVleet’s excellent job during the Finals, as well as some blitzes, traps, and double-teams. VanVleet is one of the best guard defenders in the league, but even he can’t handle Curry alone. Good thing Toronto is elite at helping and recovering.