A road trip that could just as easily have seen the Raptors come away with three wins from four games has seen them sink their record to an abysmal 2-8, tied for worst in the Eastern Conference. They have improved quite significantly since the first week of the season, of that there is no doubt. But Kawhi Leonard isn’t walking through that door to help close out games and neither are Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol to provide help on the backline. The other shoe of the moves the Raptors made to acquire their first championship has dropped and this is part and parcel of the bed they made. Things indeed get tougher as after a couple of games against the Charlotte Hornets, Toronto faces a six-game stretch against the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers twice, Miami Heat twice, and then the Milwaukee Bucks.
Making a trade to address the glaring weakness at centre and perhaps a reinforcement on the wing is talk for another day; the Raptors players and the coaching staff—much like they did a season ago—must believe they have enough to make do with what they’ve got in the meantime. Here are some ways they can improve in the here and now:
The argument that the record isn’t reflective of the team’s play thus far is fair, but only for the stretches in which they’ve looked their best. There’s no hiding from the fact that the bad stretches have been downright ugly, like when they managed just three points over a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter against the Blazers, or when Powell and Terence Davis combined to make costly mistakes against the Warriors, or the blowout loss to the Boston Celtics when they were overawed by both superior talent and effort.
Winning is just as much of a habit as losing, and some of the mental mistakes the Raptors have committed are flat-out unacceptable. Yes, the talent and experience of this team has taken a hit the past couple seasons, but Toronto can do more to stop self-inflicted wounds. Nurse referenced needing to reduce the gap between the ceiling and floor of their play at the moment, and it’s absolutely true. The swings are too wild and basic mistakes—such as ball-watching instead of boxing out or diving for a ball going out of bounds only to throw the ball into an opponent’s hands—are ones this team simply cannot afford.
Boucher, a revelation so far this season, shot a remarkable 25-for-38 (66 per cent) from the field and 11-for-18 (61 per cent) from three-point range over the four games, while accumulating 13 blocks to add to his season total, which ranks third in the NBA.
The team itself is also looking more familiar these days. Their lone win on the trip, a character-building 144-123 victory over Sacramento, was a vintage Raptors game – rallying back after a brutal first quarter and digging themselves out of a big early deficit to pull away in decisive fashion.
Even in their three losses – in Phoenix, Golden State and Sacramento – they showed a level of fight that had been missing early in the campaign.
“I think we played really good basketball,” Nurse said. “We found out a bunch of things about the rotation and [how we want to] play, and I think we’re getting closer to settling in there on some stuff, which I think will be huge. I think there’s some really good flashes of strong defence for long stretches of the game that’s good to see, that’s kind of making its way back into who we are and our identity. And I still say the offence is generating a lot of things that we want it to generate. So, just gotta get on the positive side of a couple of these [games] and build on what we’ve built.”
That’s the problem right now. Despite the cause for optimism, this is a results-oriented business that they’re in, and the results have not been pretty.
One month into the season, the Raptors are tied with Dwane Casey’s Detroit Pistons for the worst record in the NBA. They have blown double-digit leads in six of their eight losses, after doing so in just four of their losses in 2019-20. They’re also 0-5 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes.
They haven’t been as bad as any of that would indicate, though. Consider their point differential. They’re being outscored by 1.4 points per game, ranked 19th in the league – a nearly identical mark to the 4-4 Miami Heat and 5-5 San Antonio Spurs, and better than the 6-4 Warriors, 5-4 Oklahoma City Thunder and 6-5 Orlando Magic.
In other words, they’ve played well enough to be a .500 team.
There are indeed some promising signs, despite a rather wretched 2-8 record, 29th in the 30-team league. But even the good points are tempered by bad.
Pascal Siakam had a wonderful road trip for the most part, averaging 24 points, seven assists and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 53 per cent from the field — breakout numbers for an all-star who struggled out of the gate. He also missed potential game-winners Sunday and Monday and, for a team in desperate need to have something good happen, that’s disheartening.
However, his overall play in the past week has been outstanding.
“There’s some speed up the floor. There’s much better movement and connectivity on defence,” Nurse said. “Just playing all around like he’s capable of … so it’s good to see. Really bright spot on this trip, for sure.”
Chris Boucher has emerged as a consistent performer at both ends of the floor and settled into an energy roll off the bench. He shot 61 per cent from three-point range, had 14 blocked shots in four games and is now entrenched in the rotation.
Of course, he got his chance because neither Aron Baynes nor Alex Len, the traditional centres on the roster, played nearly well enough to earn minutes on the court.
Through those good and bad moments, the cause and effect of the horrid start, the Raptors have looked more like the Raptors of late. They’re playing with more consistent defensive intensity and finding offence from somewhere every night.
Being 2-8 is terrible, and going 1-3 on the trip was a failure given how they played overall, but there are signs.
Nurse seems to have settled on a backup group of: one of Boucher or Norm Powell, (depending on who starts), Stanley Johnson and Terence Davis with one of Yuta Watanabe or Malachi Flynn filling in depending on matchups and nightly needs. It’s not great, but it seems to work to a degree.
“The only bad thing out of this road trip is we only got one win out of it. We played our asses off every night,” Nurse said. “It’s tough, man.”
Bryan Hayes, Jamie McLennan and Jeff O’Neill compare the goodwill Raptors president Masai Ujiri has built up with Raptors fans and the Toronto media in general in comparison to Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.
9. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
The lack of appreciation for Kyle Lowry is a recurring issue that feels rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding.
No one part of his game powers misconception of his stardom. It is the sum of his skill set. He is what the statistics say—19.1 points and 7.3 assists per game, league-average-ish three-point shooting, charge-taker extraordinaire—but his value outstrips any one number.
So few players his size are as physical on and off the ball. His defense can feel gimmicky from the opponent’s eye, but he is an in-your-jersey pest. Point guards aren’t supposed to be such effective screeners—especially point guards who are 34 years old and stand 6’0″. He is at once someone who can run an offense and operate within it as a co-star or lower-volume complement.
Not every big name is this malleable. Nor are they so infectious. Lowry gives the Toronto Raptors their identity without confining it. His hustle and versatility set a tone the rest of the team visibly follows.
The Raptors have housed better players. And they will do so again. Pascal Siakam might become one of them. But Lowry has shaped their past nine years more than anyone.