Meanings from the meaningless and meaningful

Observations from watching Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Matt Thomas and Terence Davis in Game 1.

10 mins read

I remember playing a game called River Raid way back in the Atari days. You had to fly a plane through treacherous skies with each level getting harder. If you crashed there was no “save point” and you had to go back to the start, and that was painful not because it was hard but because it was boring and necessary. Sometimes you got over-confident and died immediately which hurt because your average score got killed. Even though I usually got to higher levels I was still required to give the proverbial 100% in the early stages lest I dare to suffer humiliation at the hands of cousins.

It is much the same with the Raptors and Nets. This is not a question of which team is better nor is there a mystery on who should progress. This is a matter of not dying early because of carelessness and unprofessionalism. Yes, the tasty stages of the playoffs lie ahead but to get to them you have to navigate the Nets with a level of professionalism that by this point should be ingrained more than sought. In last night’s affair there was a brief period of complacency and struggle in the third which was rectified rather quickly bringing relief more than joy.

As much as you want the Raptors to coast through this in a sweepy way, there’s something to be said about labouring through a series a little just so you get the taste of tension and uncertainty, and that’s what the third quarter was, albeit in the mildest form.

Human beings have a desire to extract meaning from events but not everything means something. Some things can just happen without foretelling or hinting at a certain future or a present situation, but our job is to extract meaning from the potentially meaningful but often meaningless, and so we shall attempt that.

Fred hitting a ton of threes

Man’s got confidence. If he continues taking those deep threes with not an insignificant amount on the shot clock will mean that defenses will have to extend to cover him earlier. He’s not a speedy guy but he does have a burst and a head-fake in him which gives him a head of steam to drill down the middle where he’s always dangerous. The extended range can give him more space and opportunity to get by his defender.

His strong shooting is not a surprise as he’s a career 39% shooter but it’s the type of threes that he’s shooting which diversify the Raptors offense. It’s not just spot-ups from kick outs, it’s stuff like this:

This is a Lowry-type three which punishes the defender for checking too tightly. The space he creates in the above shot is indicative of the lack of respect defenders still have for his drive and speed. VanVleet’s comfortable playing the part and reaping the cheque – hopefully they keep sleeping.

Pascal Siakam’s tentativeness

The Raptors will not be beating a good team with Siakam playing this way. He either needs to finish those spin moves or get fouled. He doesn’t have a great fake in him so he has to compensate by being highly accurate when he does get in the paint. He can’t easily fake you into fouling him like some other big men mostly because he’s never needed to. His shot is unorthodox enough that defenders can’t block it and his release is high enough that he doesn’t need a fake to create shooting space.

So what’s the issue with Siakam? He’s not being patient. He’s making up his mind on what he wants to do a little too early, and his body language gives, making him easier to defend. He has to put the defense on their heels so he’s ahead of the play and not just on pace with the defender. So far in his career he’s been able to stay on pace and still succeed because of his unorthodox and unique shooting motion and size, but defenses will catch up to that (and already have), necessitating slight trickery on the part of Siakam.

This isn’t an overnight process (or maybe it is given his history) but what he could do is start his move earlier. Don’t let the defense catch their breath when you catch the ball – grab and attack in one motion. His passing ability has improved just enough that if he gets into trouble the Raptors spacing usually provides an easy outlet. What he can’t do is catch, stop, let his defender and the help settle, and then make the move. That’s playing into the defense’s hands. It may not matter against the Nets but against Boston or Philly, it certainly will.

Matt Thomas early rotation

This seems like an almost insignificant event but I’m going to bump it up in the priority sequence because I’m a big fan of Thomas’s ball-handling and contested shot-making. The man can make contested shots! He’s not a fairweather shooter like Jason Kapono, he’s more like Dell Curry (sacrilegious!!!). He’s also a relative unknown in this league which means people probably underestimate the former ability. His interior passing has also caught my attention: he has a good shovel pass, an effective bounce pass and can handle the ball when splitting screens. All this means that if you’re a big running the PnR with him, you’re going to either get a makeable shot on the pass back, or Thomas will attack the rim where he’s a capable if inexperienced finisher.

He is what you can throw out there to have VanVleet or Lowry play off the ball which lends well to their spot-up shooting. That curl/pop that he’s so good at has some other dimensions which I would imagine Nick Nurse would be relishing to use to administer surprise.

Nurse sees him as a situational player who can provide a different look to the offense. It’s a different enough look than Lowry/VanVleet that not all defensive playbooks would have readymade plans for. Let teams think he’s a known quantity when we know there’s more to his game.

Terence Davis and the injection of energy

Much like Matt Thomas, Davis is a surprise factor for teams who may not have seen as much of him. It is a luxury whenever you have an athletic wing who can attack the paint without the need for a screen, and Davis consistently finds cracks in perimeter lines. Yesterday he supplied enough of that energy that it altered the momentum during a stretch where the Raptors were seemingly in quicksand.

He was going through some off-court issues (those mask shenanigans) and needs a couple of these games to clear his head and get back into being an impactful player. Yesterday’s cameo was probably the biggest step in that direction since his struggles started, and hopefully he can use that as a platform to push forward. We will definitely need him in the next round.

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