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Five Storylines for the Week of March 2nd

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The Raptors lost three games in a row and all hell broke loose. Are there no rules anymore!?

Seriously, I was shocked to see the Twitterverse (and my dad) explode after the Raptors lost to *checks notes* the No. 2 seed Denver Nuggets on the road without their only two reliable centers and a starting guard. It would have been a minor miracle for the Raptors to win on Sunday, and even keeping it close was impressive. 

And for the record, because I don’t want to spend an entire storyline talking about this, Pascal Siakam is going to be fine. He has had a couple of off games since the All-Star break, which is perfectly fine and normal for someone taking on this much responsibility for the first time in his career. With that being said, Siakam needs to figure out how to be the best version of himself by the time the playoffs get here — which is a guy who can score inside and out every night — but that is still several weeks away.

Here is a breakdown of the Raptors upcoming schedule:

  • Tuesday, March 3rd at 9:00 pm: Toronto Raptors @ Phoenix Suns (24-37)
  • Thursday, March 5th at 10:30 pm: Toronto Raptors @ Golden State Warriors (13-48)
  • Sunday, March 8th at 9:00 pm: Toronto Raptors @ Sacramento Kings (26-34)
  • Combined winning percentage of 34.6

Let’s look ahead to the five most interesting storylines for the upcoming week:

1. On the road again

The Raptors began what will match the longest road trip of their season Sunday evening, falling to the Denver Nuggets, 133-118. They will play four more games on the road, all on the West coast, including the Suns, Warriors, Kings, and Jazz, all of whom are competing for a playoff spot, with the exception of the Warriors, who will likely have Steph Curry back.

It’s a big test for this Raptors team, injuries be damned. The Raptors are in a tight race with the Boston Celtics for the all-important No. 2 seed in the East, currently just a half-game ahead of Boston. Every upcoming game on their road trip is winnable, yet none will be easy, especially if Serge Ibaka and/or Marc Gasol don’t return soon.

“I think we’ve been home for a long time,” Nick Nurse said, expressing excitement at the opportunities a road-trip presents. “I think you guys understand that sometimes home is really busy. There’s a lot of things going on. It seems like stuff everyday. It’s almost like you get a chance to actually regroup on the road.”

“Those games are really important, test games, on the road, and we’ve got to go out there and stick together no matter what’s happening, who’s injured, who’s out there, we’ve got to find a way to put a good game together, find a way to win,” said Pascal Siakam. “I think that’s the most important thing.”

The Raptors boast the third-best road record in the league at 19-8. In order to have success this upcoming week, though, they will need consistency from their leader, more from their bench, better rebounding, and more of the same from OG Anunoby. 

2. Kyle Lowry, setting the tone

Lowry has not been great since the All-Star break, shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from three and 3.6 turnovers per game in the five games since, which include three losses. If you are going to blame Siakam for those losses, you have to blame Lowry, too.

After all, a lot of Raptors fans believe that Lowry is the most important player on this team, and I think a lot of that comes down to his leadership role (as well as the intangibles he brings). 

While there’s no doubt that Lowry is the undisputed leader of this team, leadership comes with responsibility, and Lowry needs to score consistently for the Raptors to succeed. Lowry has taken 71.4 percent of his shots from behind the arc in his last five games, settling for three-pointers even when they’re not falling, setting a tone for the rest of the players to do the same. 

It’s not that I’m betting against Lowry — that would be unwise — but this road trip is as good a test as any for the Raptors’ leader to step up to the plate and set a tone for the rest of the team.

Lowry loves playing on the road and his stats prove it. He loves a challenge. He is going to find his stroke. In the meantime, go to the basket, big fella.

3. Bench, we need you

In the Raptors last six games — excluding their blowout win over the Indiana Pacers — the bench is averaging just 19.8 points per game, which would rank last in the league over the course of the season by more than 6.0 points. This season, the Raptors have the 24th best bench in the league in terms of points per game, averaging 33.2.

Injuries are skewing some of those numbers, especially considering Norman Powell has been stellar since returning from injury but is starting instead of coming off the bench due to Fred VanVleet’s injury. 

Terrence Davis, Patrick McCaw, Chris Boucher, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have given the Raptors great minutes off the bench over the course of the season, stepping up in big moments and providing key contributions as the Raptors have been decimated by injuries. However, their production has slowed down since the All-Star break, which is cause for concern, especially as the Raptors head out West where it becomes even harder for role-players to find their rhythm. 

Getting VanVleet and Ibaka back soon should help, allowing Hollis-Jefferson and Powell to slide back to their normal roles on the bench. Still, Nurse should look to tighten up his rotation or give Matt Thomas another look if the Raptors bench isn’t getting it done. 

4. Boards (now and in the playoffs)

Ahead of the trade deadline, I wrote about whether or not the Raptors had enough rebounding to repeat as champions. I argued that although the Raptors have plenty of good rebounders on the roster, most of their skill resides in smaller players, which could be troublesome in a playoff series where finding the balance between skill and size could prove difficult. 

The last three games have not been encouraging on the rebounding front, although they have been without Ibaka for two of them and without Gasol for all of them. Still, the Raptors are only grabbing 47.3 percent of rebounds, including in their contest against the Milwaukee Bucks where the Raptors were outrebounded 53-43 with Ibaka playing 28 minutes. 

Nick Nurse and his coaching staff have to make rebounding more of a priority until Gasol returns to the lineup, especially against teams with dominant centers like the Utah Jazz. If Hollis-Jefferson is going to continue playing center, the Raptors have to team-rebound and box-out every possession. Nurse should also consider playing Boucher instead of Hollis-Jefferson at center, but that would hinder the Raptors ability to switch all screens and Boucher is prone to more mistakes on the defensive end. 

Once Gasol and Ibaka are back in the lineup, the Raptors should be fine on the boards, especially when the two of them are playing together, which they can do against the biggest teams in the East. 

However, what happens when only one of Ibaka or Gasol is on the court? Will the Raptors have enough rebounding to survive against the Bucks, Heat, and 76ers — three of the best rebounding teams in the league? That will depend largely on Anunoby and Siakam replacing the 9.1 rebounds Kawhi Leonard averaged last postseason, a test that begins now. 

5. OG *give me that* Anunoby

Anunoby has been arguably the most consistent Raptor since the All-Star break, averaging 15.6/6.0/2.6 on 56/37/87 along with 3.4 steals and 1.0 blocks in five games.

Anunoby has had an up and down season, showcasing his unique skill set on some nights while going largely unnoticed on others. He is a huge x-factor down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs, because maintaining this consistency would do wonders for the Raptors.

We know Anunoby is an excellent defender, and he has proven himself capable of slowing down even the best players on Earth, including Giannis Antetekounpo. Offensively, too, Anunoby is finding his rhythm, but he cannot allow the eventual return to a fully healthy roster drastically diminish his offensive input. He needs to continue exploiting mismatching and shooting threes with confidence, along with cutting towards the rim with aggression. His free-throw attempts are even up to 3.0 a game over the last five, an encouraging sign for a player who has historically struggled to get to the line.

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