Five Storylines for the Week of March 9th

After defeating the surging Sacramento Kings on Sunday night, the Toronto Raptors are on a three-game winning streak — all on the road — and are 3.0 games ahead of the Boston Celtics for the all-important No. 2 seed in the East. The Raptors will finish their five-game road trip tonight in Utah against the ... Read more

After defeating the surging Sacramento Kings on Sunday night, the Toronto Raptors are on a three-game winning streak — all on the road — and are 3.0 games ahead of the Boston Celtics for the all-important No. 2 seed in the East.

The Raptors will finish their five-game road trip tonight in Utah against the Jazz and will then head home, not playing again until Saturday against the Detroit Pistons. 

Here is a breakdown of the Raptors upcoming schedule:

  • Tuesday, March 9th at 9:00 pm: Toronto Raptors @ Utah Jazz (41-22)
  • Thursday, March 14th at 7:30 pm: Detroit Pistons (20-45) @ Toronto Raptors
  • Combined winning percentage of 47.7

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


1. In the clutch


Nick Nurse is putting the ball in Siakam’s hands down the stretch of tight games, regardless of how well he’s playing. I guess this is what he meant when he said he was going to get Siakam more reps in preparation for the playoffs. 

It makes a lot of sense given that Siakam is the Raptors best shot-creator in the half-court, and it’s telling how much his coach and teammates have in him that Kyle Lowry called the team’s final timeout and suggested running a “fist” action for Siakam to attack the rim with a head of steam on the team’s final score against the Kings. 

The Raptors have been excellent in the clutch all season, owning the second-best clutch offense in the league with an offensive rating of 121.2 in the final five minutes of games. Their execution has been truly impressive — a testament to their coaching, the high-IQ players that make up the roster, and the on-court chemistry they have all built together. 

But it all works because of Siakam. He hasn’t always been the guy to keep the Raptors in games or get them a much-needed bucket when the opposing team goes on a run — that’s usually Lowry — but at the end of games, when it slows down and the Raptors need a bucket in the half-court, Siakam is the finisher that most people thought they would lack this season.

Siakam owns a 61 percent true-shooting mark on 32.8 percent usage in the clutch, an impressive combination of volume and efficiency. He is making the right reads, finding open shooters and passing out of double-teams without turning the ball over. 

And, most importantly, he is getting better every game, figuring out how to be the No. 1 guy down the stretch. 


2. End of rotation


Once Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet return to the lineup, the Raptors will be fully healthy for what feels like the first time all season. What will it mean for the end of the rotation?

It’s clear who the Raptors’ seven best players are: Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam, Anunoby, Ibaka, and Gasol. Who is their eighth man? How deep will the rotation go down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs? Will the eighth and ninth men always be matchup-dependant?

Those are the questions Nurse and his staff are going to have to ponder in the coming weeks without a clearcut option as the eighth-man. So far this season, Patrick McCaw has gotten the most leash in that spot, which makes some sense given that he is a reliable point guard who plays smart defense and knows the teams’ schemes. However, McCaw’s ceiling is fairly low, especially when he is not willing to shoot the open three-ball or drive to the basket following close-outs. It hurts the Raptors entire offense when McCaw is not being aggressive, diminishing spacing and giving the opposing defense more time to rotate.

The Raptors also have Terrence Davis II, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas, and Chris Boucher lurking. Those players have the ability to affect a game more than McCaw, but each has his own liabilities and can find himself out of position defensively, making Nurse hesitant to trust them. 

The final weeks of the season will be crucial for the bench players to earn the coach’s trust and a spot in the rotation. Otherwise, Nurse will likely continue going to McCaw as the eighth-man and using the other players only when the matchup dictates.


3. Stormin’ Norman


First of all, can we please stop calling him “playoff Powell”?

If you’re still doing that, you probably haven’t been watching the Raptors much this season, because Powell has been on fire all season and it is no longer just a hot-streak. 

Powell has become an elite offensive threat, averaging 16.8/3.7/1.8 on 50/40/84 shooting in 43 games this season. However, a lot of Powell’s offense is coming from transition opportunities, where he is literally one of the most efficient transition scorers in the league. As we know, the game slows down a lot in the playoffs and scoring in transition becomes more difficult, but just the threat of transition scoring has forced opposing teams to get back after missed shots instead of chasing transition rebounds. This is one reason the Raptors have managed to hold their own on their defensive glass despite not having elite rebounders on their roster: by being the best transition team — scoring 1.17 points per possession on 21.8 percent of their possessions — they scare teams into getting back on defense instead of going after offensive rebounds. And they owe a lot of their success in transition to Powell (as well as Siakam). 

Powell will have to find a way to continue scoring at a high level when the game slows down and transition opportunities become even more scarce, but he has been able to create opportunities for himself in the half-court by changing his pace and attacking the rim whenever he sees an opportunity. He has become an elite finisher at the rim — shooting 66.7 percent in the restricted area — while his three-point shooting makes teams respect his shot and defend him up close, giving him driving lanes to the rim. 

4. Ibaka vs. Gasol

Ibaka has been exceptional for the Raptors this season, turning in what might be the best season of his career. He has filled in the starting lineup admirally for Gasol during his two extended stretches out of the lineup due to a hamstring injury, but Gasol won the starting job last season and was a difference maker in the playoffs, making it seem obvious that he will win back the starting spot once fully healthy.

I wouldn’t be so sure. Not only has Ibaka had a far better season than Gasol, but the Eastern Conference is different than it was last season. While Gasol is very important for defending big teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks, he is less important against the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Indiana Pacers, where Ibaka’s scoring will be crucial. 

The Raptors still need both Ibaka and Gasol to win a championship, but with Lowry and VanVleet eventually starting in the backcourt, the Raptors have plenty of playmaking in the starting lineup. Ibaka provides them a scoring punch that Gasol doesn’t, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he continues starting games, or if they shuffle starters depending on the matchup, even when Gasol is fully back.

Ibaka has earned it. 

5. New Open Gym:

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