Morning Coffee – Tue, Dec 7

22 mins read
Cover photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

With all of the injuries, where is the Toronto Raptors’ Next Man Up? – Raptors HQ

But the fact remains that this team has barely had its three best players healthy at the same time. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Anunoby have only played a total of 70 minutes together across three games. Most teams’ top three players have already played between 300 and 400. Anunoby and Watanabe, two of the team’s best defenders, have yet to play in the same game. Meanwhile, the Raptors’ top six rotation players (Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby, Barnes, Trent, and Birch) have played just once as a collective unit. The result of that game? A 118-113 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, during which those top six players combined for 107 points. Do some simple subtraction and you can pretty quickly see one of the team’s biggest issues, an issue greater perhaps than the injury bug: depth.

Last season, an onslaught of injuries and COVID-related absences unquestionably sunk the Raptors’ win-loss record — with that amount of absences all at once, the negative outcome was unavoidable. But navigating injuries doesn’t have to be impossible. Just look at the 2019-20 Raptors. Kyle Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol missed an average of 18 games – of the key rotation players, only Anunoby missed fewer than 12. But the team went 53-19, and throughout the season were supported by the “next man up.”

There are a couple ways to survive missing key players. One is to have top-tier talent. That’s how KD and Harden’s Brooklyn Nets are atop the East without Kyrie Irving and now Joe Harris, and how Jokic’s Denver Nuggets are staying afloat without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Toronto hasn’t had that type of talent since Kawhi Leonard left, and it could be a while before they do again. The other way to survive injuries is to have a deep, adaptable roster, like the 2019-20 Raptors did. The Golden State Warriors, who are 19-4 without Klay Thompson, are blessed with both.

We can point to the Raptors’ injuries as a sign that they’re better than their record and just a couple recoveries away from turning things around – these statements are probably true. But by now we should accept that assuming full health is a fool’s errand. Sure, at their best, this Raptors team might be quite solid. But the truly good teams are equipped to succeed even when a couple key players are out. The Raptors’ injuries this season have highlighted not only the team’s lack of depth, but also the roster’s lack of variety.

For example, Gary Trent Jr. is a good player, but his absence from the team creates a bigger gap than it should. One reason for this is that the Raptors basically have two shooting guards on their roster — Trent and Svi Mykhailiuk — and are sorely lacking in players who can provide something similar to what Trent does. Mykhailiuk is shooting 33% from three and while he can make some good plays (especially in transition), he’s also prone to missing open looks. Outside shooting threats are key to create the spacing needed for Toronto’s playmakers, especially on a roster with no real stretch fives. The Raptors have a ton of long and athletic wing players, but as soon as they lose a player from their guard rotation or with shot-creating responsibilities, it’s slim pickings looking for the next man up. This is the same reason why VanVleet has had to play 38 minutes per game — any extended stretch without him starts to look very ugly.

One player on the Raptors’ roster who could’ve alleviated some of VanVleet’s primary ball-handling burden was Goran Dragic. But with Dragic likely out of the fold until a trade/buyout is reached, Chris Boucher displaying regression from last season, and Malachi Flynn lacking consistency as a backup point guard, the Raptors’ depth this season isn’t what we thought it could be. Svi Mykhailiuk is alright off the bench, but inserting him into the starting lineup when Trent is out is just asking too much. And without a true big on the entire roster, opponents with size can more easily wear down a shorthanded Raptors team.

Just to be clear, the Raptors’ depth could certainly be worse, and they’re still developing young talent. If Precious Achiuwa can sustain his positive play while limiting the costly mistakes, and if Yuta Watanabe remains aggressive as a catch-and-shoot option, then the Raptors have a pretty productive eight or nine men. But without deeper rotation players stepping up, an injury here or there just makes the Raptors too vulnerable. Fully healthy and at their best, these Raptors are fairly competitive. But is that enough?

Siakam shows glimpses of pre-bubble self in Raptors win over Wizards – Sportsnet

Aided by a spectacular defensive performance from his team, overall – not to mention some good luck sprayed on him by his two-month-old niece the day before – Siakam thrived on Sunday, looking smart and aggressive on his drives to the hoop, allowing him to get to the free-throw line as many times as he did, he was decisive on his reads and passing the ball and was ultra-confident with his jumper – mostly from the mid-range – rising up and firing whenever he wanted.

A far cry from the Siakam who had put up decent scoring numbers (18.1 points per game) but wasn’t all that efficient doing it while struggling to get to the free-throw line in the 12 games he had played before. This was the assertive, bend-the-game-to-my-will Siakam that has largely been missing since before the bubble in the 2019-20 NBA season.

And it sounds like it’s all down to a matter of comfort for Siakam.

“I think for me, again, coming from not playing for six months, I just felt like some of the times, you don’t have your legs under you, it takes away from a lot of things, and I think that I just need to continue to work and focus on defence and having my legs under me and just having that energy to be out there,” said Siakam after the Toronto Raptors’ 102-90 victory over the Wizards. “I know what I can do on the floor. And just now learning how to use my skills and get to where I want to get to and take the shots that I want to take no matter what.”

This ease Siakam is beginning to feel is likely a result of extensive film work he’s talked about doing, familiarity and chemistry he’s building with some of his new teammates and, overall, just becoming more aware of where everyone on the floor is and making better decisions with the ball armed with that knowledge.

“Just kind of playing a little more faced up or when he is backing down, remaining, looking at what’s in front of him, rather than so much turning and being surprised by somebody at the other end,” said Nurse of Siakam on Sunday. “He just kept working his way down but he had the vision of the spacing and the cutting and what it was all looking like and I think he controlled it well enough where they couldn’t, it was almost like they wanted to double but never really did, because he was kinda controlling it like he knew that if they came like it was going right there to a shooter or whatever, so they kept kind of staying home, and he made them pay for that with good composure.”

For the Raptors as a team, should Siakam continue to play in the manner that he did Sunday night against the Wizards, it could be a major revelation for a team that oftentimes labours scoring in the halfcourt, ranking in the bottom-third in the league in halftime points per 100 plays according to Cleaning The Glass.

With Siakam both actively hunting his shot and keeping his eyes peeled for open options to kick out to, it suddenly transforms the Raptors into a much dangerous, multi-faceted offensive threat.

NBA Power Rankings, Week 8 – Did the Suns knock off Steph Curry and the Warriors?

This Week: 22
Last Week: 23

Toronto has the league’s best offensive rebound percentage, per NBA.com advanced stats, and the league’s third-worst defensive rebound percentage. Any Raptors fan who has watched Toronto struggle to close out defensive possessions with a board will have predicted the latter number, one that is a reflection of the lack of interior size Toronto is playing with on a nightly basis. — Bontemps

NBA Power Rankings: Bulls keep rising, plus the good, bad and ugly of some new faces in new places – The Athletic

This Week: 19
Last Week: 21

11-13, -0.2 net rating
Weekly slate: Loss to Grizzlies, Win over Bucks, Win over Wizards

New face in this place: Scottie Barnes, fourth pick in the draft

Last season: 24.8 mpg, 10.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.1 apg, 50.3/27.5/62.1 shooting splits, 54.8 TS%, College freshman
This season: 35.6 mpg, 15.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 48.9/35.7/72.3 shooting splits, 54.5 TS%, -1.8/+2.7 (on/off net rating)

Big takeaway so far: Scottie Barnes has been as good as any rookie so far this season, and we’re seeing some of the impact he can have on the floor in flashes. The Toronto Raptors have been a bit of a M.A.S.H. unit with keeping their full rotation on the court. They got Pascal Siakam back in the mix, and then OG Anunoby went down with a hip injury shortly after. With Anunoby out, the Raptors really need Barnes to mature before their eyes. His shooting has been solid enough, but it’s not yet considered a threat by the opposing scouting report. His work attacking the basket downhill is his best weapon, especially when he’s making plays against the rotating defense. Defensively, you can see the potential, but we need to see him far more sound than gambling the way he thinks he can disrupt. With all that said, brilliant pick once again by Masai Ujiri.

Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher step up for injury-ravaged Raptors, but consistency is key | The Star

They are an intriguing duo, Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher. The former is seeking a feeling for the game and what he can do, the latter seeking to once again show his capabilities on a consistent basis.

They represent great hope for this season’s version of the Raptors, thrust into roles by the vagaries of circumstance and they must thrive for the team to continue on a successful road.

Sunday they showed what they can do and how they can impact a game, with their myriad skills on display in a tantalizing outing against the Washington Wizards.

Achiuwa was impactful without being out of control, Boucher was his old self with rebounds, dunks and unscripted moves that were his trademarks in the past.

Together they combined for 24 points and 20 rebounds in 48 minutes, key contributions to Toronto’s 102-90 victory at the Scotiabank Arena.

And while the signs were good and promising, there still needs to be consistency from each over a period of games for their performances to be thought of as anything other than one-off nights when things all came together.

That is the search, and the reason for the intrigue. If they can continue to figure it out, it will make it easier for the Raptors to survive the injury absences of Khem Birch and OG Anunoby because the simple fact is, Achiuwa and Boucher are going to have to play, and play a lot for a thinned-out team.

“I think he’s understanding and I just think he’s getting better and I think part of that getting better is he’s understanding how we’re doing things and he’s doing them more consistently,” coach Nick Nurse said of Achiuwa, who has become the team’s starting centre with Birch sidelined by knee swelling.

“And we obviously do our best to give him things that’ll work for him and work for us and doing those over and over and he’s learning them and he’s doing better.”

Achiuwa is very much learning the less-is-more philosophy that will make him more effective. He seldom takes off on an ill-advised, court-length drives any more, he looks to pass first rather that shoot at every opportunity and the 22-year-old is just cracking the seal on a plethora of raw talent.

“I think he’s playing harder, more aggressively,” Nurse said.

GANTER: Boucher finding his role again a big boost for Raptors | Toronto Sun

“I watch a lot of film,” Boucher said Sunday following one of his best overall games of the year in which he had 14 points, six rebounds and was part of a second unit whose defence was even better than the starters which is always a rare occurrence.

“A lot of people are upset with my play, which I understand, but I do a lot of mental work into figuring out what it is, and like I said, eventually you find it, eventually you know what you have to do and that is what’s going on right now. I’m realizing what role I have here, take what I can get and do the best with it.”

Boucher attempted one three-pointer Sunday night and it didn’t find the mark.

Rather than dwell on that, Boucher put his considerable energy into the other parts of his game that are more dependable and that appears to be the answer, at least until that wayward three comes back.

“I feel like at the end of the day, it’s going to fall eventually, but if I’m not looking for it and just taking it when it comes, it’s a lot better,” he said of the three-pointer. “I can do a lot of different stuff. I can set screen-and-roll, cut, slip screen. There’s a lot of stuff I can do I kind of forgot trying to figure out where my three was.”

Head coach Nick Nurse knows what Boucher is capable of doing and, when he hasn’t seen him produce this year, he has been hard on him. That included cutting his minutes and even calling him out publicly.

“He kind of maybe pressed a little too hard or whatever,” Nurse said of Boucher’s struggles. “(Now) he’s just kind of settled in a little bit more and he just was very alert. The things that were happening were usually his man jumping out (leaving Boucher to double someone else or switch) and he was just a recipient of being alert to being open. He did a little slide along the baseline there one time when his man switched and he just called for the ball, he got a couple on some rolls, he was good, and he was solid on defence too. Good to see, it’s more what we need from him.”

For his part, Boucher is confident he has at least started the process of finding his niche with this 2021-22 team.

“I went to last year, and last year I had a bunch of cuts, dunks, put-backs, and they all disappeared this year when I started (looking for my) threes every time,” he said. “Even driving the ball, you know I’m able to drive the ball against a couple guys, I’m faster than them, and I wasn’t even looking at that.

“So, like I said, (watch film) two times a day and that’s going to help you. It’s getting better. The season is roughly 20 games in. Still got a lot of games left and I’ll eventually find my groove, but that’s a good start.”

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