The lay of the land after Toronto’s 104-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns

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Photo courtesy of Raptors.com

These are the facts as currently stand for the Toronto Raptors.

  • Despite losing 10 of 11 games, the Raptors are still only 5.5 games out of fourth in the East. They are closer to playoff contention than tanking, especially after keeping Kyle Lowry. Phoenix has the third-best winning percentage in the league right now. They’re a legit team. Losing to them is no shame. And if Toronto plays to this level going forward, they are going to make the playoffs with room to spare.
  • Gary Trent Jr. cannot be judged on one game. He missed defensive rotations, yes, at one time failing to leave his man to cycle to Cam Johnson — a 38 percent 3-point shooter — in rotation and gave up an easy triple. But for players new to teams, accurate or inaccurate defensive rotations are not reflections of much. They are not reflections of effort, or energy, or ability, or intelligence, or any of those other defensive tools. They are merely reflections of familiarity with scheme. And of course Trent is not familiar with Toronto’s scheme yet. He hasn’t even practiced. So no criticism there. Otherwise, he missed all five threes he took. Okay. That’s the bad. But he has a long history as a good-to-great shooter. He also had some incredible defensive stands in isolation against Devin Booker and Chris Paul, and he was solid at filling lanes in transition. He didn’t lift to the correct spots at times in the half-court, but as with defensive rotations, offensive rotations are more a comfort thing than anything else. Don’t be fooled by the numbers; this was a promising start for Trent, as his teammates confirmed after the game, and he’ll have plenty of opportunity to improve as the games keep coming hot and heavy.
  • Toronto still needs a center. Like, bad.

  • Heavy Hands Win Games. Specifically, Fred’s hands. At one point, he stripped DeAndre Ayton as he turned in the post. He does that approximately one to two times a game to unsuspecting bigs. At another point, he stripped Devin Booker off his knee: ball, Toronto. VanVleet’s hands are maybe the best in the business right now. Technically, yes, Toronto lost this game. But imagine where they’d be without VanVleet’s ability to rip the ball.
  • Pascal Siakam is still a star. Like, an absolute monster. Toronto needs rim pressure with Powell out of town, and Siakam delivered in a big way. He attacked the rim from every conceivable angle, with both hands, floating, falling, fading: you name it. He was phenomenal in this one. It’s been said many times, but when Siakam is aggressive — driving — he is an elite offensive player. He showed just how elite against Phoenix.
  • Rodney Hood does stuff that no one else on the bench can do (except maybe Paul Watson, who is out in the health and safety protocol). He can create his own shot, off the dribble or in the post, which is not something that even impressive bench pieces like DeAndre’ Bembry or Yuta Watanabe or even Chris Boucher have in the bag. Yes, Hood is having a down here. But there’s a role in Toronto needs filling, and he likely will get time purely on his theoretical ability to fill it. Toronto needs punch off the bench. That lack, perhaps as much as any other single reason, caused Toronto’s loss to Phoenix. Hood’s gonna have a chance.
  • OG Anunoby is going to get a lot more touches now with Norman Powell in Portland, and he is going to do wonders with them. At one point, Anunoby caught in the post, faced up, and delivered a quick blow-by. Instead of trying to take it in soft, he launched himself at the rim with two hands. Only a foul stopped him from the yam. He rained triples when Ayton was late in closeouts.  Anunoby is a low-usage, high-efficiency offensive player, and he has been for a long time. We’re finally about to find out what he can do with more opportunity. Odds are he’ll do great things.
  • Raps get Blazers on Sunday. Expect an emotional return for Norman Powell, who was the second-longest tenured Raptor before being dealt.
  • Just to reiterate, this is a good team that’s built to win. That’s what retaining Lowry means; this team is trying to make the playoffs, not win a high draft pick. The Raptors have weaknesses, of course, but they are not going to play into those weaknesses. Not while Lowry’s a Raptor. Which brings us to

This is the question mark as currently stands:

  • Who is going to play center minutes for the Raptors? They don’t need a lot of them. It’s clear that Toronto is fantastic with Anunoby and Siakam manning the front-court spots together, which is significant; that’ll eat up the lion’s share of game minutes. Boucher will get some time, but rebounding remains a serious issue when Boucher is the lone big. That leaves some center minutes remaining. Baynes has had enough of a chance at those minutes. It’s fairly clear, at this point, that the Raptors are handicapping their winning chances by playing him 10-20 minutes. He was working well alongside Boucher, but it seems like that lineup is fairly dependent on Boucher’s jumper dropping. That has been true for much of the season, but it’s not what you want to bet entire lineups’ success on. So Toronto needs someone from the buyout market. Realistically, Andre Drummond and LaMarcus Aldridge will have too many suitors for Toronto to woo. But Gorgui Dieng was recently bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies, and he’s a center shooting 52 percent from deep who can block shots and grab rebounds. He would be a massive upgrade. Kelly Olynyk and Hassan Whiteside haven’t actually been bought out, but if they are, expect Toronto to come calling. Same for Mike Muscala. Any of those guys getting 10 minutes a game over Baynes would help Toronto, but Dieng or Olynyk would probably make Toronto a shoo-in for the fourth seed.

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