Bigs run the show | OG awakens | Gasol plays a half
Two — Rolling: Ibaka continues to set the tone with a yet another stellar showing, scoring 11 points in the third quarter as part of a 19-point effort. Ibaka continues to be impressive from deep, where he went 3-of-5 including a bomb from 30 feet out, and shook Nurkic off the dribble to draw a shooting foul. Even in his 11th season, Ibaka continues to show improvement in his game, as he is now a confident and capable finisher at all three levels. He’s steady on his hook shot, automatic at the elbows, and is shooting over 40 percent from three on the season. It’s been an incredible contract year.
At least, the 110-104 win over the Trail Blazers was supposed to be a scrimmage. After Ibaka and Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic got into a brief altercation near the end of the second quarter, the intensity of the game picked up to midseason form, if not higher. It was the first time in the Raptors’ short time at Disney that we could appreciate the lack of fans, as you could hear both benches cheering on their big men, if not trash talking the other. According to the broadcast, both benches were warned by the referees for the amount of chatter.
“There was a lot of talking, I know that much,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “The setting kind of (plays into that), that everybody can hear everything everybody’s saying at both ends from the benches and from whatever. It was actually kind of entertaining there for a while. Both benches were kind of going back and forth a little bit.”
The Raptors started big, with Ibaka and Marc Gasol across Portland’s two-centre lineup featuring Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside. We never got a glimpse of the Raptors’ so-called jumbo lineup, with the two centres starting with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby in the wing. Anunoby came off the bench. And with Gasol playing just 10 minutes as the Raptors take things slowly with their oldest player, we only got a handful of minutes with the two bigs sharing the floor, too. They weren’t particularly pretty.
“I just think it was a little bit of rhythm and chemistry and just timing,” Nurse said. “I don’t know, it just didn’t look quite (right). Even just on play calls and stuff, just there are moving pieces and there are guys in different spots and then maybe they are 85 percent of the time. It just looked a little uncomfortable to me, but nothing too concerning. They’ll figure it out.”
Still, both look good individually, and that should mesh at some point. Gasol ended up with a minus-9, but I thought his new body revealed itself with a bit of extra quickness. He got a hockey assist on a Matt Thomas 3-pointer after pump-faking his defender. Now, Gasol has done that before in slow motion, but the quicker he can do that, the more open the result shot will be. More importantly, it did not look like any of his lost mass hurt him on the boards, as he never allowed his man to beat him on the glass.
Further down the rotation, there are two major competitions to watch. Any Raptors fan who feels out of practice can jump right back into the McCaw-Davis debate as the next guard up in the rotation. There are some offence-defence and floor-ceiling trade-offs there that Nurse has managed with a preference for McCaw. Davis fits an offensive need, but he’ll need to earn Nurse’s trust on defence during the seeding games.
Hollis-Jefferson and Boucher are also in a bit of a competition as the next forward up. That battle could have offseason implications, too. Hollis-Jefferson is one of the most versatile defenders in the league, and the Raptors managed to minimize some of his shortcomings on offence by using him like a play-finishing and glass-crashing centre. Opponents will dare Hollis-Jefferson to beat them in a playoff series, especially outside of 10 feet. Boucher, meanwhile, is the early runner-up to Gasol in the restart #MuscleWatch, adding an alleged 15 pounds and earning rave reviews from Nurse. Boucher has the type of game and energy that can shift perceived momentum, good and bad.
There are other scenarios to watch, as well. Can Thomas do enough on defence to carve out more than the Jodie Meeks role in a playoff series? Can Johnson, Miller or Brissett fight their way into the battle between Hollis-Jefferson and Boucher? This break in play has been longer than the one between the Raptors winning the title and receiving their rings, so there’s potential for the pecking order to be shaken up.
Nurse has a decent runway to try to answer these questions with three scrimmages and eight reseeding games. If the Raptors can take care of their business early in terms of the No. 2 seed, they can treat their later reseeding games as development and evaluation tools, with a first-round matchup that might allow for a deeper rotation. By the second round, expect things down to a set seven with matchup-based eighth- and ninth-man cameos. – BM
Injuries were one of the Raptors’ pre-pandemic storylines. They were second in the NBA in man games lost to injury and had every significant rotation player other than OG Anunoby miss at least 10 games. So it was with some trepidation that Nurse relayed that versatile wing defender Pat McCaw – one of only two Raptors who didn’t play on Friday – wouldn’t see any minutes again.
“It’s a recurring thing that he’s already been out for,” Nurse said. “But, again, we’re still in the evaluating process about where we can go with it. It may be something he can play through.”
McCaw was out for the month of November after having arthroscopic surgery to remove a benign mass in his left knee. Something to monitor, obviously.
More concerning was watching Fred VanVleet immediately leave the floor after getting the wrong end of a knee-on-knee collision in the first quarter. He jogged off immediately, which was encouraging and he was on his feet on the bench in the second half, looking comfortable. He didn’t return to the game and these things can occasionally stiffen up overnight. His night was done after five minutes.
“There’s always a little immediate concern whenever anybody goes down … you don’t want to lose anybody in a scrimmage,” Nurse said. “He can play through a lot of pain, no doubt about it, but there’s no sense in going through now.”
A lot of the excitement around the Raptors chances to defend is the presumption that they’ll be an even better team than they were with all their pieces healthy and ready to go, really for the first time this season. Watching VanVleet go down – even if it’s not serious – or wondering about McCaw’s availability are reminders that just because the Raptors have already had their share, it doesn’t mean they’re completely out of the woods, injury-wise.
Facing interior-oriented defenders for the majority the game, the Raptors committed to taking three-pointers almost exclusively. The Blazers held their own for the most part in the first half, but the same old problems with containment popped up periodically. If the Raptors committed to passing out of successful drives, they were rewarded with favorable looks from beyond the arc.
Here is one example of OG Anunoby kicking the ball out after getting by Mario Hezonja.
In transition or early in possessions, the Raptors routinely came down the court and stepped into three-point attempts. The Blazers survived that style of attack initially, but the Raptors heated up just enough to open a double-digit lead in the third quarter.
Toronto finished the game with 17 three-pointers, 10 more than the Blazers.
17 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 1 three-pointer and few second quarter handbags with Serge Ibaka. Aside from a few wayward layups, and a bit more time out on the perimeter than usual, it was a vintage Nurkic performance against the Raptors tonight.
The Ibaka altercation was perhaps the best moment of the game too. The coming-together was harmless, but the fire afterwards was very real. The Blazers have missed the grit that Nurkic brings to the lineup, and it was on full display here.
Directly after, Nurk backed down Ibaka and hit a little baby hook over his head. Next possession: Nurkic blocked a layup, dove to the floor, knocked the ball off of Ibaka and gave the Blazers possession, causing Portland’s bench to surround Nurk, hyping the big man up. Nurk wasn’t done, as two possessions later, the center hit a 3, cementing the pre-bubble hype that he was now an able shooter from deep.
We saw some point Nurkic too, as he picked up where he left off in terms of creativity. Nurk is so, so effective running the offense at the top of the key, waiting patiently for someone to cut. His passing touch is still there, and it adds so many layers to the way the Blazers score. They looked decent today without Dam
Anunoby didn’t start the game, as the Raptors went with a three-big look, but would finish with a stuffed line of seven points, six rebounds, four assists, and two blocks.
The second run came towards the end of the third quarter, as Nurse got his starters out of the game and handed the keys to a 905-led lineup. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provided plenty of hustle stats, but two key threes from Terence Davis and four more from Matt Thomas — who finished with 16 points — gave Toronto a double-digit lead heading to the fourth quarter.
Though the Raptors would almost bobble the lead late with their end-of-benchers on the floor, a key bucket from Stanley Johnson and a ferocious dunk from Paul Watson proved to be daggers in Portland’s attempt to steal a win.
The game simply felt like re-acquainting with an old friend. The Raptors played like themselves from 1 through 16 on the roster, starting with the energized Kyle Lowry performance that we’ve become so accustomed to over the years. If this is how the team looks in games that don’t matter, it’s exciting to think about what the games will look like as we get a little further on in the restart.
Gasol had chalked up his bad hamstring to Toronto’s long run in the NBA Finals, and then the World Cup in China — Gasol was a key member of the victorious Spanish team. He went into the four-month layoff intent on correcting the issues that caused his hamstring woes, and cranking up his overall fitness was a big part of that.
The one negative on the night for Toronto was the loss of Fred VanVleet less than a quarter in to the game. He suffered what the team called a “banged” left knee, but was able to jog unevenly off the court to the locker room.
“I don’t think it was too bad, but it’s just a scrimmage. There’s no sense in trying to play him through that,” Nurse said.
Ibaka had another strong outing, shooting 3 for 5 from behind the arc. He looked in regular-season feisty form in a brief scuffle with Nurkic. His 18 points two nights earlier topped Toronto in scoring.
Gasol and Ibaka both started as part of Nurse’s “jumbo” lineup against a big Portland frontcourt of Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside.
Gasol said Ibaka’s ability to shoot from long-range is “crucial” to Toronto’s success.
“We have to be able to move guys out of the paint, especially if they try to go big as they did today,” said Gasol. “That’s what we work on. Having me and Serge out there does a lot of great things defensively, but offensively we’ve got to create space for Freddy, for Kyle, for Pascal, for OG (Anunoby), for Norman (Powell) to drive in there and create shots either for themselves or for us.
“It’s always a work in progress. It’s a matter of working together and doing what’s best for the team.”
Now, Anunoby does not say too much to the media as a general rule and when he does speak it is almost strictly in generalities, but based on last night’s performance he has put in a ton on work on his ball handling and dribbling abilities since we last saw him live and that was easily the most important takeaway from last night’s 110-104 win over Portland.
Anunoby looked like a different player at the offensive end confidently putting the ball on the deck and dribble-driving past the Portland Trail Blazers defenders on numerous occasions in the Raptors’ 110-104 win.
His stat line paled in comparison to the 19 points and six rebounds from the aforementioned Ibaka or even the 18 points and six rebounds from Pascal Siakam.
On paper Anunoby’s night was a solid seven points, six boards, four assist evening along with two blocks.
But it was the confidence and ease with which he drove into traffic and found the open man that really made his night stand out.
“I thought he looked good,” Nurse said of Anunoby. “I thought I really liked this aggressiveness and thought his quickness and skill work on some of those drives both at the start and at the end, looked really good.”
If Anunoby can attack off the dribble like he did Sunday night it just makes the entire Raptors offence that much more dangerous.
Nurse joked that he might have to incorporate some of the signalling skills of baseball managers and third-base coaches to get his point across in the relative quiet of the arena now. It’s not likely to get to that point, but it is something the coaching staff is aware of, another unique part of the NBA’s restart they’ll have to figure out.
“I did call some plays. We’ve got kind of a numbering system, and I just kind of sit back and do the numbers. That way you don’t have to say something,” he said. “But yeah, we’ve talked about thinking about some other ways to try to get some things across.”
No matter what kind of enhanced in-arena plans the league comes up with — such as 300 or so “virtual” fans on the video screens tight to the court, plus piped-in crowd sounds — it will never meet the decibel level of a regular-season game, let alone the nonstop enthusiasm of the playoffs.
It will be odd, and in some ways it might help.
“I kind of think without having fans, it gives you the opportunity to focus a little bit more,” Toronto’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “Sometimes even when you’re sitting on the bench, not having fans there, it makes you have to focus on everything that’s going on in the game. You get to communicate with your teammates a little more.”
And to have a normal chat without distractions all around.
“It was certainly really comfortable in the timeouts,” Nurse said. “The way you could just express yourself in comfortable conversation … that was nice.
Digging into the numbers though, it’s clear that the issue is more a matter of counting stats, rather than efficiency. While Gasol has seen his points per game drop significantly from his peak, it’s in part because he’s turned himself into one of the premier frontcourt marksmen in the league. If you look closer, you’ll notice: Gasol’s effective field goal percentage is actually higher as a Raptor than it was as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Still, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, the Raptors biggest worry is whether they’ll be able to squeeze enough points out against elite defenses to win four out of seven games in the playoffs.. Gasol’s three-point shooting has been great, but he’d give the Raptors an extra dimension if he could find a way to generate some buckets in the paint as well.
Earlier this year it looked like Gasol might never score inside again — he started the season mired in an all-time shooting slump — opening up the year at 19-of-61 from within the arc – a comical 31.1 percentage, while averaging less than three two-point field goals a game. It’s very fair to wonder if his crazy schedule — a deep playoff-run and then international duty for Spain — had taken it’s toll on the 35-year-old. But from December 19th on, Gasol found his two-point range going 29-of-48 — a far more robust 60 percent clip on four attempts per game.
With teams likely keying in on Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, Gasol is going to have one-on-one post opportunities for Toronto. While those shots tend to yield fewer points per possession than most other types for the Raptors, having Gasol be able to punish teams for going small — through scoring, or drawing double teams he can pass out of, because he has shown he could score — would be a definite advantage for a Toronto team that can be a little too perimeter-orientated at times.
3. Raptors depth on show
The Raptors were one of the most injury-hit teams this season, but with their roster nearly back to full strength, their deep rotation will give opposing teams plenty of headaches.
Their bench accounted for 57 of their 110 points, with OG Anunoby impressing with his energy on both sides of the floor!
Nurse may be a very good offensive coach, but he’s the most innovative defensive mind of the last decade. The Raptors are the perfect marriage of coach and team; there probably isn’t another roster with the collective brainpower to handle Nurse’s scheme, and there probably isn’t another coach who builds such a devastating defense. Nurse is the NBA’s Bill Belichick, constantly changing and adapting his defense. They’ve bullied stars as disparate as Damian Lillard, LeBron James and Joel Embiid with the same dutiful ease.
Most NBA defenses are fairly routine, built upon a set of basic principles, whether that’s protecting the rim or running shooters off the three-point line or hoovering up defensive rebounds. The Raptors’ main principle: disrespect. They ignore bad shooters because they know that scattershot players can’t punish them. They harass ball-handlers and lunge at passes because they know that they can rotate faster than the offense can process what’s going on. They can get away with playing undersized guards because they’re tougher than you and geriatric bigs because they’re smarter. With their mix of zones, double-teams and presses, they’re confident in knowing that no other team has prepared as thoroughly as they have. Other NBA teams make concessions to their opponent because no team can truly lockdown the entire court; the Raptors force offenses to concede to them.
Toronto’s malleability first became evident during last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Down 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks, Nurse rejiggered Toronto’s defense, double teaming Giannis Antetokounmpo and forming a wall of bodies in the paint; they won the next four games. Last year’s Finals were a larger harbinger of things to come, with Nurse debuting a box-and-one defense (a four person zone with the fifth defender glued to the other team’s best player) against Stephen Curry and the undermanned Warriors.