Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Morning Coffee – Thu, Feb 18

13-15 - 7th | Never much love when there's no OG | VanVleet will be the steady hand of transition | Don't trade Lowry

Are the Raptors good? That one’s hard to answer: Koreen – The Athletic

If the Raptors are perplexed by their own performance, at least they have company. Take their opponents on both Tuesday and Thursday, who have now lost four games in a row for the first time since — well, Raptors fans can probably tell you. As important as Jrue Holiday, who is out of the lineup because of health and safety protocols, is to the Bucks, and as much as the team has spoken of the importance of experimenting more in the regular season to prepare better for the playoffs, it is still genuinely shocking to see the Bucks, who went 116-39 over the past two years, struggle like this.

More to the point: There are now 18 teams, including the Raptors and Bucks, who are somewhere between five games under and over .500. At a similar point last year, with most teams in the mid- to upper-20s in games played, there were 10 such teams.

That is a massive difference. Of all the teams in the league, can anybody outside of the two Los Angeles squads, Utah and Philadelphia really say they have played like honest championship contenders? On the flip side, only five teams — Washington, Cleveland, Orlando, Detroit and Minnesota — have records or point differentials that suggest this season is lost. (Given their roster construction, you can include the frisky Oklahoma City Thunder if you’d like.)

More than most, though, the NBA is almost entirely made out of the middle class this year.

“In a normal year, I probably would be a bit surprised,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the Bucks’ struggles after Milwaukee dropped to 16-12 with Tuesday’s loss. “But I think there’s all kinds of things going on with several, several teams around the league. And there’s so many teams a couple games up above .500 and a couple below, like, probably over half the league.”

What does this have to do with the Raptors? Well, quality is relative, and while it is clear the Raptors do not line up with the very best teams in the league, there is little saying they can’t wind up being very good, or maybe even as a top-four team in the Eastern Conference. Given Miami made the NBA Finals as the fifth seed last year, and given the experience of the Raptors core, that all feels significant. Making that decision is certainly important as the Raptors head toward the March 25 trade deadline.

A little context is needed, then. The Raptors are tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference at 13-15 right now, but since a whopping three games separate fourth and 11th place, that means almost nothing. With a net rating of plus-2.1 points per 100 possessions, the Raptors have the ninth-best mark in the league, fourth in the Eastern Conference. They have an expected win-loss record of 16-12 based on their point differential. However, when considering just winning percentage, the Raptors have had the fourth-easiest strength of schedule so far. Suffice to say, the current unscheduled second half of the Raptors’ season projects to be much more difficult than the first.

The Raptors also don’t have the injury excuse they didn’t even need last year.

OG Anunoby’s return unlocks different lineup options for Toronto Raptors – TSN.ca

The Raptors are certainly happy to have him back. For Nurse, a head coach who wants to tinker and experiment with different lineups, Anunoby is invaluable.

His versatility on both ends of the floor unlocks a multitude of options they simply don’t have the luxury of trying without him. He can play and guard the centre position in some smaller units. He can be the two or three and defend elite perimeter players in bigger or more traditional units. He can switch across all five positions defensively, and with an expanding offensive toolbox, he’s a threat to knock down the three or beat you off the dribble.

“Having him back out there is a different feel,” said . “It gives us more flexibility. A lot of times this year it has felt like we were at the mercy of teams quite a bit, and tonight I thought from the tip we were pretty aggressive and a lot of that has to do with OG’s versatility and taking some of the pressure off Pascal [Siakam]… It just kind of put everybody in a better position, having one of our better players back on the floor. It’s not rocket science, but definitely good to have OG back.”

With playing so well in Anunoby’s absence, Nurse opted to start small on Tuesday, opening the contest with his five best players – Siakam, Anunoby, Powell, VanVleet and .

That unit was limited to nine minutes, with Lowry turning his ankle and leaving the game early in the second half, but it looked good. They shot 11-for-19 from the field and 5-for-12 from three-point range, outscoring the Bucks by five points during their time on the floor together. Despite giving up size, they even held their own in the paint and on the glass, mitigating some of the concerns with going small for extended periods.

The lineup change allowed Nurse to bring Baynes off the bench – a more suitable role for the struggling big man, who actually played well in 18 minutes as a reserve. It also enables them to use in the frontcourt with Baynes, shifting him to his more natural position at the four.

It’s unclear if the small starting lineup is here to stay. Speaking earlier this week, Nurse wouldn’t commit to using it full time, indicating that it could be a situational thing, depending on the matchup. At minimum, you can probably expect to see it again in Thursday’s rematch against the Bucks, assuming that Lowry is able to play (he’s listed as questionable).

While rebounding and rim protection should continue to be a challenge for that group, those things weren’t exactly strengths of this team with Baynes starting either. Their upside – particularly on the defensive end, where they’re holding opponents to 88.1 points per 100 possessions in 38 minutes together this season –exceeds any potential drawback. The players themselves would seem to agree.

OG Anunoby was the Raptors’ missing piece during a 10-game absence | The Star

Anunoby’s return after missing 10 games — Toronto went 5-5 — was a huge part of Tuesday’s road win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The Raptors shouldn’t have been able to deal with Milwaukee’s decided size advantage but they did. Anunoby played about 27 minutes and there was a sense of order when he was out there.

That’s not to say the players who filled in during his absence, guys like DeAndre’ Bembry and Yuta Watanabe, weren’t effective. But they weren’t Anunoby.

“It gives us more flexibility,” VanVleet said. “A lot of times this year it has felt like we were at the mercy of teams … and I thought from the tip (against the Bucks) we were pretty aggressive and a lot of that has to do with OG’s versatility.

“It just kind of put everybody in a better position having one of our better players back on the floor. It’s not rocket science, but definitely good to have OG back.”

Anunoby gave the Raptors a better chance to defend the bigger Bucks on Tuesday and should again when the teams meet Thursday. Being able to switch him onto seven-footers like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez while knowing he can check a high-scoring wing like Khris Middleton is a big advantage for the Raptors.

“I think that his size helps with matchups, just helps with some rim protection,” Nurse said. “I don’t think he was totally, understandably, in super rhythm (Tuesday) but I thought, for where he was at and how long he’s been out, he was excellent.”

The issue with Anunoby is keeping him healthy and able to go every night. Each time he has had sustained stretches of playing time, his game has appeared ready to jump to another level. It’s why the 23-year-old was rewarded with a four-year, $72-million (U.S.) contract extension on the eve of this season.

But he misses time — 10 games this season, 15 two years ago plus the playoffs — and the Raptors can’t handle too many fits and starts.

“I think he’s definitely a big piece and having him out there on defence, there’s a lot more switching that we can do knowing that he can hold up some of the bigs and guard the guards on the perimeter,” Pascal Siakam said.

Toronto Temperature: Staying optimistic with the core of this Raptors team – Raptors HQ

What’s the opposite of a player securing a huge contract extension and then going through the motions, never really improving and counting his money?

How about continued improvement and a fire and will to lead and win?

Fred VanVleet has improved in almost every discernible way since locking into his $85 million extension from the Raptors this offseason. Maybe most impressive, has been his ability to do everything he’s doing on both ends of the court while averaging the third most minutes in the NBA. When Kyle Lowry couldn’t leg it out in Tuesday’s game against the Bucks, coach Nurse turned to VanVleet to lead the way, and lead he did.

Against the Bucks, VanVleet dropped a tidy 33 points on 54 percent shooting and was a gigantic factor in the Raptors suffocating defensive scheme that held the Bucks — a team that dropped 64 in the first half and has the second highest ORtg — to 49 points in the second half. He inexplicably missed more than one free throw for the first time this season, but VanVleet’s confidence in his ability to do it all and do it all well was the life-blood that the Raptors needed without their floor general. Yes, he had a real stinker against the Celtics, but Fred’s body of work over the week and this season far outweighs that loss.

Fred VanVleet gives the Raptors the promise of a smooth transition of leadership | The Star

It says something that VanVleet’s numbers without Lowry are better than his usual stuff. It says even more that VanVleet’s usual stuff, this season, is better than it’s ever been. It’s early, sure, 28 games into a 72-game campaign. But VanVleet is putting up a career-high 20.4 points and 6.6 assists a game. Heading into Wednesday he was one of just 11 NBA players averaging at least 20 points and six assists. Considering that list is a who’s who of the league’s elite — LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard and James Harden populate it — VanVleet’s continued evolution suggests Toronto’s decision to sign him to a deal that will pay him $21.25 million (U.S.) over the next four years could prove a relative bargain. Tack his offensive numbers on top of your defensive metric of choice — heading into Wednesday, no NBA player had registered more deflections or steals than VanVleet this season — and you’re doubly convinced.

Not that anyone is suggesting the Raptors aren’t a better team with Lowry in the lineup. That he had 18 points and six assists in 22 minutes on Tuesday tells you he’s still a viable force, albeit one listed as questionable for Thursday night’s rematch against the Bucks in Milwaukee.

Not that VanVleet, as much as he’s the only Raptor to play in all 28 games so far, has been immune to the wild swings in performance that have marked this season for so many teams and players. Consider February by itself. One night VanVleet set a new franchise record with a 54-point masterpiece in a win in Orlando. A few nights later he laboured through a 1-for-9 three-point shooting performance against Brooklyn. A full 25 per cent of Raptors games this season have seen VanVleet shoot 25 per cent or worse from the field, which isn’t optimal. But some of that, surely, can be chalked up to the circumstances of this one-off, Tampa-based season.

“It’s the world we’re living in, man … It’s tough, it’s tough,” VanVleet said.

Such is VanVleet’s way: Hardly known for sugar-coating a less-than-acceptable performance, he’s too honest to pretend this season amounts to business as usual. As he was saying Wednesday, fundamental aspects of this season are foreign beyond the address of the Raptors’ home arena. VanVleet listed the inability to bond as a team, the lack of fans and the bizarre nature of pandemic travel as some of what he sees as the more formidable obstacles to consistency.

“I just think it’s a drain mentally, physically and otherwise, and there’s teams that are getting through it for sure,” he said. “I’m not blaming anybody that’s struggling with this. Because it’s definitely not easy.”

If this is VanVleet struggling, the Raptors can live with it. Lowry turns 35 next month. He doesn’t have a contract beyond this season. And Raptors management has spoken openly of its wish for salary-cap flexibility as it considers the franchise’s future beyond the summer of 2021.

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