Morning Coffee – Wed, Feb 23

That's a wrap on the 1st half | Barnes' role going forward | Banton and Precious coming into focus | Siakam is special

How Siakam clawed his way back, with an assist from Kawhi | The Star

“You ride that high, but now being in the league for six years — not just me, a lot of other people — you understand what the business of basketball is about, and what being a fan of sports in general is about,” he said. “It’s winning and it’s about how well you play today.

“I understand — I’m not naive, I know what it is — but I just felt like getting support no matter what … that’s not real. You’re not getting support if you’re not playing the way that people expect you to play. I understand that, and I think that for me these past few years have been growing on that level.

“Having a guy like Kawhi taught me you’ve got to have a one-dimension kind of thing. You can’t ride these highs or lows. It’s got to be just straight ahead.”

It’s hard to call what’s transpired on the court this season a revelation or a turnaround because Siakam is doing what he did in his first three seasons in the league. He’s better at some things — ball-handling, decision-making, facilitating the offence — but that’s just part of the natural growth of a very good player.

But he seems to be freer, more calm, more happy, more content. Maybe it’s because he’s more Leonard-like in some ways, but it might be because he learned what really matters, and it’s not accolades.

“For him, in the basketball world, that’s probably rock bottom,” teammate Fred VanVleet said of the treatment Siakam got. “He plays and is as celebrated as you can get, and then … he got it pretty bad, as bad as it gets for a player of his stature.

“Once you hit rock bottom, you get to see who’s really there and what really matters. You have to learn that and go through that, and I think that’s what we’re seeing now. I think there’s a joy and a happiness that he carries with him because he’s already been through the worst of it.”

Siakam still carries himself in a carefree way: quick with a smile or a laugh, with an obvious joy showing during games. It’s because he learned how to shut out all but the important stuff, because he understands that it doesn’t matter who he pleases besides his teammates and coaches.

“I’m not mad about it,” he said. “I get it. It’s sports. I just learned it, and now it’s good.

“I don’t really care if you tell me I’m the greatest, and I also don’t care if you tell me I’m the worst.”

Six questions that will define the end of the Raptors’ regular-season schedule – The Athletic

What do the Raptors do with their starting lineup (Or: how will the Raptors choose to employ Scottie Barnes)?
The present versus the future is the forever debate of the Raptors’ situation, and that dilemma comes in the form of Scottie Barnes this year. Barnes is a virtual lock for All-Rookie First Team and is likely to end up as one of the three candidates for Rookie of the Year, although in-season pushes from Cade Cunningham, Franz Wagner and Josh Giddey, in addition to the unimpeachable season of presumptive winner Evan Mobley, might complicate that.

That is awesome, and there remains plenty of reason to expect that Barnes’ ultimate floor is All-Star and his ceiling is superstar. At the moment, though, there is reason to limit his minutes.

Before the break, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse toyed with the idea of changing the starting lineup when the Raptors play bigger centres. That would allow the Raptors to put one of Precious Achiuwa or Khem Birch on the floor and keep Anunoby, Siakam or Barnes out of quick foul trouble, and also keep them from expending their energy battling against a brute. It also makes rotational sense: The Raptors’ four top options off the bench if they continue to start in the current manner are Achiuwa, Birch, Thaddeus Young and Chris Boucher. Those four players are not identical, but only Young brings a whiff of perimeter playmaking. Barnes would bring that in a heavier dose and allow Nurse to not have to stagger his starters so carefully. Right now, it feels as if the Raptors’ offence is in deep trouble whenever fewer than two of VanVleet, Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. are on the floor. A little more creativity off the bench could help.

However, the big picture has to be at least an equal factor here, so what serves Barnes the best also must be considered. The Raptors certainly want Barnes to be on the floor for many of the team’s big moments to come, but starting and finishing games are not necessarily related. Moreover, there has to be comfort in Barnes already absorbing so many of those minutes. Barnes has played in 61 of the team’s 83 clutch minutes since the Raptors’ late-December bout with COVID-19, putting him in the top tier on the Raptors along with his four fellow starters. Those minutes will serve him well. He also does not have even half of the field-goal attempts of the next-closest member of that group in that time.

That does not mean Barnes has played poorly in those minutes. It is just that his offensive role has diminished to that of a dirty-work purveyor in those settings. Figuring out how to impact the game without being involved in a primary action is an important skill, but Barnes could use more possessions throughout the game where he is a bigger part of the focus. He could also get more reps as a perimeter defender against reserve guards, a less-dangerous situation than guarding starters on the perimeter. While Barnes has been solid on the perimeter, he has not been as smooth on the outside. The most team-friendly way to work on his weaknesses would be to allow him those looks against bench-dominant opposing lineups.

By moving Barnes to the bench on an occasional basis, the Raptors might be able to maximize his individual development and the team’s desire to win now.

Raptors’ chaotic sprint in NBA playoff hunt features a mixed bag | The Star

Playing well out of the break will be key. The Raptors’ first four games will be against teams chasing them in the standings, starting with the Hornets and Hawks, tied for the No. 9 seed and 4 1/2 games back of Toronto. Then it’s home and away games against No. 8 Brooklyn, fresh off the James Harden for Ben Simmons blockbuster.

The mid-season pause likely came at a good time for the Raptors. Under normal circumstances, the last thing a team that went 9-2 over its previous 11 games would want is an extended break. But in this case, it should be a welcome respite for a roster that figured to be running on fumes.

Starters Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have played more minutes per game than anyone in the NBA. OG Anunoby ranks fifth, Scottie Barnes 17th and Gary Trent Jr. 22nd. No one has gotten less mileage out of its reserves than Toronto, which is something the Raptors would like to change.

Earlier this year, the short bench was a necessity. Now, with a healthy roster, the trade deadline acquisition of Thaddeus Young and the emergence of rookie guard Dalano Banton, Nurse finally has options.

The Toronto Raptors will have two full practices this week to integrate newcomer Thaddeus Young into their style of play.

“We’ve been running in the red a little bit, pushing guys through some minutes, that’s the first thing, so the break will certainly help regenerate there,” Nurse said late last week. “I also feel like, recently here, we’re starting to develop some guys off the bench … These guys kind of held the fort here a little bit but I see some development where we can manage minutes differently coming out of the break.”

The layoff should prove to be particularly useful to Young as he transitions to a new team. There aren’t many opportunities to have full practices during the busiest parts of the schedule, so the next couple days will help integrate the versatile big man.

NBA Power Rankings, Week 19: Where all 30 teams stand at the All-Star break – ESPN

This week: 13
Last week: 13

Is it possible the heavy minutes the Raptors have been playing are starting to wear on them? Fred VanVleet dealt with some knee soreness before the break, and Toronto can ill-afford to be without him — or, really, any of their starting five — for any extended period of time. — Bontemps

NBA Power Rankings: All-Star break takeaways plus what net-rating breakdowns tell us for all 30 teams – The Athletic

This week: 14
Last week: 11

32-25, +1.7 net rating
Weekly slate: Loss at Pelicans, Win at Wolves

Takeaway: While the Toronto Raptors are on average going into halftime with a minor deficit, their third-quarter turnaround this season shows just how well the players are adjusting to the game in real time and how well Nick Nurse is helping make those adjustments with his coaching staff. The Raptors have looked very dangerous, and it wouldn’t shock me if they upset an unsuspecting team in the first round of the East playoffs. They can play in so many different ways. If they’re able to hold this kind of third-quarter dominance, it puts so much pressure on the opposing team to perform and adjust coming out of halftime. We’re also seeing some better success in terms of closing out clutch games, even though the net rating went down over the last 10 weeks. They were 6-6 in clutch games in Week 9, and they’ve improved their record to 17-14 in the clutch.

Power Rankings, Week 19: Top 10 sees shake-up as season resumes after break | NBA.com

This week: 13
Last week: 10

Pace: 96.5 (26) OffRtg: 111.5 (10) DefRtg: 109.8 (13) NetRtg: +1.7 (13)

The Raptors are searching for a ninth guy for Nick Nurse to trust, and Thaddeus Young provided some good minutes as they went into the break with an impressive win (without Fred VanVleet) in Minnesota. Maybe the most interesting thing is that the Raptors have grabbed 89% of available defensive rebounds in Young’s 33 total minutes on the floor. And those 33 minutes have come against teams – New Orleans and Minnesota – that rank in the top six in offensive rebounding percentage.

The seventh-place Raptors come out of the break with seven games (including three back-to-backs) in 10 days, a stretch that features an important home-and-home with the eighth-place Nets next week. They have the league’s second best record (8-3) in the second games of back-to-backs.

Three numbers to know…

1. The Raptors have seen the league’s biggest drop in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range, from 44.4% (fourth highest) last season to 38.3% (20th) this season.

2. The Raptors lead the league in turnover differential, having committed 3.4 fewer turnovers per game than their opponents.

3. The Raptors rank last in assist percentage, having recorded assists on just 54.5% of their field goals, a drop from 60.7% (14th) last season. Their eight assists at New Orleans last Monday were the fewest for any team in a game since the Raptors themselves had seven on March 11, 2017.

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