Cover Image via Illustrator/Kagan McLeod
Host William Lou is joined by Asad Alvi to break down the Toronto Raptors’ three scrimmage games ahead of the 2019-20 NBA restart.
- OG Anunoby’s improved handles
- Marc Gasol looking trim and active
- Matt Thomas shines off the bench
- Minor concerns over Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet
- Previewing the week ahead
OG Anunoby made the most of his free time
Anunoby has set himself apart as a defender. He is arguably the Raptors’ best one-on-one defender, can defend from point guard through to power forward and even centre in a pinch, but the area of his game that will determine his ceiling is his offence.
Through the first 60 or so games of his third season, Anunoby has been more consistent with his three-point stroke but his offensive repertoire hasn’t extended much beyond that. Playoff defences are going to force the ball into his hands as a result and he needs to be ready to attack. He knows this, and while it may have sounded like a joke when he said he spent all of quarantine either on the basketball or cooking up his favourite shrimp linguine, the results are already speaking for itself.
“It’s been something I’ve been working on the whole year,” Anunoby said on Monday. “When we got back in the gym, just me and coach (Patrick) Mutombo worked on it everyday, just trying to keep the ball tight, move fast, stay low to the ground.”
The vets haven’t lost a step
Historically, it usually takes Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka some time to ramp things up and get back into rhythm after extended stretches away from the game – following an injury or in training camp each fall, for instance.
After four months off – and much of that time spent in isolation, unable to get in the gym – it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see them struggle early. Instead, both veterans picked up where the left off before the shutdown in March.
Logging 22 minutes per scrimmage, Lowry averaged 11.7 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including 7-for-13 from beyond the arc. In 21 minutes, Ibaka averaged 15.0 points – leading Toronto in scoring in both of its wins – on 15-for-24 shooting and hit five of his nine three-point attempts.
Both physically and spiritually, they were in mid-season form. Lowry took four charges, dove for a loose ball and had words for the opposing bench after hitting a transition three during an unexpectedly chippy third quarter against Portland. Ibaka’s physicality was a big reason why that scrimmage became so competitive.
There was little doubt that they would be ready to go by Aug. 17 – when the playoffs are scheduled to begin – but the fact that they’ve kept themselves in such great shape and appear to be sharp right out of the gate is great news for the Raptors.
Also of note was how fluid Marc Gasol looked against Phoenix. After being held out of the first game and limited to 10 minutes in the second, the 35-year-old logged 20 on Tuesday – the most he’s played since Jan. 26, before he reinjured his hamstring.
Not only did he seem healthy, but his slimmed-down frame may be paying dividends already – he grabbed nine rebounds and blocked a couple shots.
It’s been a big year for Pascal Siakam, an NBA Championship, a Most Improved Player award, a max contract extension and his first career All-Star selection. Now he has another chance to take another crucial step in his emergence towards superstardom when the NBA returns in Orlando. Josh Lewenberg has more.
Thing for the Ring: Oh, just be the no. 1 offensive threat on a title team
A ball-dominant superstar who can close out games. That’s been the role the Raptors have been grooming Pascal “Spicy P” Siakam for since the season began. As befits the most challenging role in the NBA, the results have been mixed.
On the plus side, Siakam’s scoring jumped close to seven points a game, and his assist percentage inched upwards, while his turnover percentage declined. At the same time, Siakam saw his shooting percentages crumble — hitting two-point shots at the lowest rate of his career, and posting an effective field goal that was the second lowest.
It’s all added up to an offensive rating that’s barely better than his rookie season and ahead of only Patrick McCaw among Raptors who played more than 140 minutes.
Now, someone has to soak up those possessions, and a good argument can be made that other Raptors might have seen greater declines than Siakam if they had had to shoulder such a large load. Still, Siakam doesn’t stack up well to the league’s elite — at least not yet.
RANK TEAM TS% USG% PIE
1 Karl-Anthony Towns 64.2 27.8 16.8
2 Zion Williamson 62.4 28.2 14.3
3 Khris Middleton 61.9 25.9 15.5
4 Damian Lillard 61.9 29.3 16.5
5 Devin Booker 61.7 28.9 13.5
26 Jayson Tatum 56.2 27.9 14.3
27 Collin Sexton 56 26.4 9.5
28 Donovan Mitchell 56 30.5 12.6
29 Pascal Siakam 55.9 28.2 13.2
30 Stephen Curry 55.7 28.6 13.3
Siakam comes in 29th in True Shooting amongst players who play at least 25 minutes a game with a usage rate of 25th. His PIE (NBA.com’s all-in-one player evaluator) is 25th. Raptors fans knew Toronto wouldn’t have the best offensive player in a series against Milwaukee or the Clippers, but against Orlando or Detroit?
Of course, the whole of Siakam’s game and the attention he gets means he’s better than any one of those single numbers suggest. Still, if the Raptors want to go back-to-back, Siakam is going to have be consistently better in the playoffs.
If I may put on my best Steven Page voice for a moment, it’s been 20.6 weeks since you looked at the Toronto Raptors play a basketball game that counts.
That’s 144 days, longer than the gap between the championship parade and ring ceremony, or about 81 percent of a normal regular season. You would be forgiven if you’re a little fuzzy on the details from back in March. Two days out from the return of the Raptors against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, we’re here to help test your memory on the 2019-20 season that has been so far.
The Athletic’s Raptors refresher quiz isn’t just a fun way to kill time until there’s meaningful basketball on. Nate Pearson can’t start every night, you know? Nor is it just me borrowing from good pal and fellow pop-punk aficionado Sean Gentille on the Penguins beat. This might actually be necessary for some of you as you jump back in. And if you’re not one of those people, well, then bragging rights in the comments section are on the line.
There is only one correct answer for each question, so no “none of the above” or “all of the above.” Sadly, that made my favourite question a casualty on the final cut: “In which category was Nick Nurse leading all NBA coaches? Technical fouls, self-branded apparel, or tasty guitar riffs?” The answer, of course, being “D – All of the above.” Forty questions, one right answer each, my undying respect on the line.
Let’s get it.
In each of the first two games — against more seasoned opponents — those bursts of defensive superiority that have turned games in the Raptors favour or sealed games in their past were on display.
They might not have been as long as Nurse would like to see or that he’s going to have to see if the Raptors repeat goal is to be achieved, but they were there and there’s still plenty of time to work on extending them.
Marc Gasol almost laughed at a question yesterday when he was asked what two areas he would like to see the Raptors excel at going into the meaningful games which began Thursday night with the Raptors first game that counts coming Saturday when they take on the top western conference-seeded Lakers.
“Ummm, if you play the best defence and make the most shots you are going to win,” Gasol said.
“To me if there are things you are going to ask for, those are my two things. Whoever makes the most shots and plays the best defence is going to win.”
Listening to the players and Nurse over the past few days the major takeaway is most of what the Raptors came into this re-start looking for — conditioning, strong mental approach — is there. All that is really lacking is the rhythm and timing of certain switches and alignments that was so locked in before the Coronavirus brought the league to a screeching halt back on March 11.
“I think it’s going to be a process and obviously we feel like everyone is ready mentally and physically to go out there and play,” Pascal Siakam said. “ I just feel like obviously it’s going to take a little bit for us to be at our best, but I think I like where we are right now, and we’re going to continue to get better.”
The pick-and-roll’s become the NBA’s most commonly used offensive action, so it’s not like the Raptors are reinventing the wheel. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a duo as in sync as Lowry and Ibaka, who operate with the type of synchronization only achieved through endless repetition in a league increasingly defined by roster turnover.
Ibaka knows the intricate details and precise angles necessary to screen for Lowry. Kyle – who’s absolutely mastered the art of the pocket pass – will work with surgical precision, both in timing his delivery and in the way he’ll thread that pass through any maze of defenders. Lowry, of course, is also always a threat to pull up off a screen, which keeps both defenders off balance.
Ibaka’s offensive skill development serves as a reminder that good teams prioritize player development up and down their roster; it’s not exclusive to inexperienced young players. He may no longer post gaudy numbers of blocks, but he remains an effective rim-protector and is in the midst of his finest offensive season at 30 years old. He’s also developed his own bit of playmaking savvy.
Ibaka’s own scoring efficiency as the roll-man (1.01 points per possession) is surprisingly pedestrian, but he’s become a multifaceted threat in those actions.
If he rolls after setting the screen, Ibaka can use his strength and nimbleness to rumble his way to the rim, where he’s shooting 76.2% within three feet of the basket. Or he can put that newfound playmaking to use by finding shooters and cutters.
The most familiar result of the Lowry-Ibaka combo, however, sees Ibaka pop rather than roll, and it’s tough to argue with the results. The 11-year vet is shooting nearly 48% from 10-16 feet, is taking the longest and least efficient 2-pointers (from 16-feet plus) less frequently than ever, and is shooting a career-best 39.8% from deep.
“Serge has certainly improved his rolling and his popping, but his shooting is what’s making him so dangerous now … if they’re gonna send two (defenders) to Kyle,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said this week about the effectiveness of the pick-and-roll duo.
The Clippers are the team trying to take down the Lakers in the matchup all of basketball is anticipating. The Raptors are the squad best positioned to stop the Milwaukee Bucks. A final between the Clippers and Raptors is certainly within the realm of possibility.
If that were to happen, then we’ll see how much love there still is in Toronto for Leonard. We’ll see how many fans want to see him succeed in the way many still rooted for Halladay, Kessel, Carter and Bosh after they left town.
So far, Toronto’s winning percentage and margin of victory are superior in the post-Leonard era. But we all recognize his presence was only fully understood in the post-season, when he was dominant when he needed to be. In the deciding NBA Finals game in Oakland, it was as though he deliberately handed that mantle of responsibility to Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who carried the team across the finish line. His job done, he then moved on.
Now, the results of this curious bubble season will be the concluding commentary on Leonard’s time in Toronto. If the Raptors can’t defend their title, it will be a statement that while they put up a good fight, they weren’t as good in the end without Leonard.
That, in turn, could really ignite the simmering speculation over Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Toronto’s interest in him in 2021. It’s taken as fact south of the border that the Raps will pursue the Greek Freak, and that Antetokounmpo’s hunger for success could lead him to look outside of Wisconsin if the Bucks fall short again this summer.
Toronto won the NBA championship as a team, of that there is no doubt. But there is the argument that a superstar put them over the top and helped infuse the rest of the roster with the necessary belief. This is now a franchise with a hunger for winning, and if it’s determined that winning again will require another superstar, they may already have that player in their sights.
4. Toronto Raptors. A veteran-laden roster with championship experience gives this team an edge nearing the postseason. Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam head a rested frontcourt while the backcourt tandem of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet should continue to be a major threat.
The NBA has a rule that dates to the early 1980s decreeing that players must stand for the national anthem, and Commissioner Adam Silver quickly announced that the policy is being adjusted. The anthems were pre-recorded: Jon Batiste performed the one before Pelicans-Jazz, the Compton Kidz Club had the task before Clippers-Lakers.
“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,” said Silver, who watched from a plexiglass-enclosed suite because he has not been quarantined and therefore cannot be around players and coaches who are living inside the NBA’s so-called bubble at Walt Disney World.
The coaches, first New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry and Utah’s Quin Snyder and then the Lakers’ Frank Vogel and the Clippers’ Doc Rivers, were next to one another, their arms locked together. The scenes, which occurred with the teams lined up along the sideline nearest where “Black Lives Matter” was painted onto the court, were the first of what is expected to be many silent game-day statements by players and coaches who will kneel to call attention to many issues — foremost among them, police brutality following the deaths of, among others, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in recent months.
James said he took a knee with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco quarterback who began kneeling during anthems in 2016 — a protest against oppression, he called it — in mind.
“I hope we made Kap proud,” James said. “Hope we continue to make Kap proud.”
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