— Tim and Friends (@timandfriends) April 11, 2022
— Raptors 905 (@Raptors905) April 11, 2022
Two — OG Anunoby’s return was the only thing of note in this game. Anunoby has played just six games since the All-Star break between a fracture in his right ring finger and a contusion in his right quad, and this last game was a chance for him to shake off some rust ahead of the postseason. Anunoby was far from his best, missing all five of his three-point attempts and looking laboured on his drives, but that is to be expected if he’s still shaking off a quad injury. He was sharper in the third quarter, following up his own miss for a driving layup, then hitting a stepback from the midrange with a defender bouncing off him, before calling it a night. Ultimately, the Raptors will have five off days to manage Anunoby’s condition, and his health, along with that of Fred VanVleet’s knee, which will be huge determinants on Toronto’s playoff run. Anunoby will be relied upon heavily as the Raptors’ top defensive option against James Harden.
The first has been the way Nurse identified – with help from the Raptors front office and analytics staff – a way to play that worked to his roster’s strengths. The Raptors weren’t a great shooting team and lacked the kind of paint or post punch to generate endless trips to the free-throw line, so what to do?
Take more shots. That’s the simplest way to explain what the Raptors do well. They may not have a single big body, but they have lots of pretty big ones and Nurse has licensed them to chase down offensive rebounds to create more shot opportunities – as long as they work to get back in transition too.
The result? The Raptors are second in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 2 in second-chance points while also ranking ninth in the opponent fast-break points.
Similarly, the Raptors’ send double teams all over the floor and trust length, hustle and smart rotations will see them through if and when the ball starts flying around. As a result, they are second in steals and second in points off turnovers. Add it up and Toronto leads the NBA in the difference between the number of shots they take (91.3) and the number of shots they allow (84.3).
That’s how you win nearly 50 games while ranking 27th in True Shooting percentage. How bad is that? The only three teams below them are Orlando, Detroit and Oklahoma City who have been battling each other for the worst record in the NBA all season. The two teams immediately ahead of them are Portland who has been trying to lose games since the trade deadline and New York, who simply aren’t good.
It doesn’t always work – the Raptors out-shot the Knicks 92-87 and still lost which happens when you shoot 39.6 from the floor – but it gives them a chance most nights.
But it’s the other element of Nurse’s approach that may be even more impressive.
Time and time again he’s shown the willingness to be patient with players, even when the belief that they’ll turn things around seems misplaced.
It’s not that he’s blind to individual player’s flaws or that he’s prepared to bury someone who isn’t getting the message
And he’s not in the business of sugar coating. As VanVleet told me for my feature on Siakam:
“Nick’s got to open the door. You might not always like what you hear, but he’ll give it to you straight.”
A few months ago, the odds of Toronto making it out of the play-in tournament seemed low, let alone actually making noise in the playoffs. Even the most optimistic pre-season projections had them as a .500 team. Their over-under for wins was set at 36.5, a mark they would end up sailing past in early March.
They were 14-17 and in 11th place in late December after a team-wide COVID outbreak hit and threatened to derail the season, like it did a year ago in Tampa Bay. Instead, they rallied, going 34-17 the rest of the way. From that point on, their defence, which had been ranked 21st, was sixth best in the league.
They clinched their eighth postseason berth in nine years with a win over the Atlanta Hawks last week. They were in contention for a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the opening round until the penultimate day of the regular season, before a Philadelphia win locked them into the fifth seed on Saturday.
Now, the Raptors and Sixers are set to renew their long-time rivalry. It’s the third time that these teams will meet in the playoffs, and after the first two both went seven games and came down to one final last-second shot, the bar has been set awfully high.
18 years after attended his graduation on the morning of Game 7 and then missed the shot that could have sent Toronto to its first Conference Finals back in 2001, exorcized the franchise’s demons, hitting an eerily similar shot from the opposite corner to break the Sixers’ hearts and keep the Raptors’ season alive.
The pressure was on the Raptors that night and throughout the series. They were the more experienced team and the higher seed. They were the team with the best player on the floor and the title expectations.
Philly was not to be taken lightly either. They had just brought in and to fortify their young all-star duo of and . The silver lining, even after Leonard’s iconic Game 7 buzzer beater put an end to their season and turned out to be the catalyst for the Raptors’ championship run, was that their competitive window would likely give them at least a few more kicks at the can.
Both teams have undergone significant changes over the past three years. Only two Raptors players who appeared in that series remain: , who had the lowest moments of his professional career in those seven games, and ( didn’t play in the 2019 title run after having an emergency appendectomy on the eve of the playoffs). , who started for Toronto in that series, is on his third team since and now plays for Philadelphia.
Given the age and contractual status of Toronto’s prominent players at the time, the changeover was not especially surprising. That Philadelphia is nearly as unrecognizable three years later was not something that most people would have seen coming.
Going into Sunday’s season finale at New York, the Raptors had won 14 of 17 games, beating the Suns, Nuggets, Sixers (twice) and Celtics.
“I just feel like we have to pay attention to details, understand the coverage and the game plan … and come out and execute it,” Pascal Siakam said. “I think that, no matter how the game is going, just stay with it.
“I think that once we get in the playoffs, obviously the intensity is going to grow but as long as we keep that same intensity and focus I think we will be OK.”
If there are two players who perfectly exemplify Toronto’s method of patient growth, they are Siakam and Precious Achiuwa. Yes, Fred VanVleet’s leadership was huge and the emergence of Gary Trent Jr. as a tremendous ball-hawking defender and Scottie Barnes putting up a rookie-of-the-year-calibre season were integral to Toronto’s success. But Siakam and Achiuwa were special.
Siakam started terribly, missing the first 10 games of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery and scuffling when he returned. But he didn’t waver, kept working and put up a season that has him in legitimate contention for an all-NBA season.
Achiuwa was all over the place early in the season, a bit too self-confident, a bit too out of control, a bit too young. But he also stayed with it, didn’t get discouraged and has become a wonderfully consistent contributor down the stretch.
“Beginning of the season, I knew at some point it was going to start showing,” he said. “I put in a lot of work, it just wasn’t showing at the time, it wasn’t clicking for whatever reason it was.
Let’s start with Toppin. The power forward once again obliterated his previous career-high with 42 points. Obi was efficient yet again, shooting 16-28 from the field, 6-14 from three and 4-4 from the line. He also had 10 rebounds, three assists and a block.
What a capper to the season for Toppin, who gave Leon Rose and the front office something serious to think about during the offseason. In his 10 starts, Obi averaged 20.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists. That’ll play.
As good as Obi way, IQ was the engine that drove the Knicks to victory. IQ decimated the league’s ninth-ranked defense (yes, they were resting Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, but they still had a ton of tough defenders). IQ also set a career high with 34 points to go along with 10 rebounds and 12 assists. Quickley bested the GOAT himself, Clyde Frazier, as the youngest Knick with a 30-point triple-double.
And so the Knicks end the season at 37-45. It was a disappointment in many ways. But if IQ and Obi carry this momentum into next year, the future will be bright at MSG.
Quickly and Toppin paced the Knicks to a 9-point lead halfway through the third; the Raptors climbed back when Thad Young came in to replace the somnambulant Anunoby. Barnes and Young connected on a nice-give-and-go that led to a Barnes dunk with two minutes to go that cut New York’s lead back to four.
Late buckets from Trent and Boucher got it all the way down to 1, 73-72, heading into the fourth.
The Raptors took the lead back 78-75 on a Brooks three — his first bucket of the game — but the Knicks took it back two minutes later on a Quickley three. From there, the Raptors went cold — and Toppin and Quickley stayed hot. The paid combined for 23 fourth-quarter points, and the Knicks won the frame 32-22, and that was the ballgame.
From here, the Raptors will have five full days off before they face the 76ers next weekend. As there is currently a hockey game scheuedl for Sunday afternoon in Philly, we can safely wager that Raps-Sixers will start on Saturday, likely in the early afternoon.
As we all know by now, 76ers wing Matisse Thybulle has chosen not to get vaccinated, and does not currently meet the vaccination requirements for cross-border travel. Thus, he will miss any games in Toronto.
The Raptors should be in full health heading into the series.
There is a clear top three in all-time surprise seasons for the Toronto Raptors: 2006-07, their first full season under a new general manager, during which they surprised the league and won the Atlantic Division in a weak Eastern Conference; 2013-14, their first full season under another new GM, during which they once again surprised the league and won the Atlantic Division in a weak Eastern Conference; and the season after their championship run, during which they won the second-most games in the league despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency.
It’s tough to know where to slot this season in the context of those seasons. It would be tough to call this season a bigger surprise than any of those three, but it might have been a more impressive accomplishment, on its own merits, than at least the first two examples. The Raptors were coming off an awful season that probably hid the amount of talent on their roster, but this was still an incredibly young team competing in the deepest Eastern Conference in years. A home run of a lottery pick helped, but to overcome the losses of Leonard, Green, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka from the championship roster for no return and to find their footing after dealing Norman Powell and franchise icon Kyle Lowry were no easy tasks.
The Raptors gave Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam the night off in New York, while OG Anunoby played 25 minutes after missing four games with a thigh bruise.
Anunoby finished with eight points — he missed all five three-pointers he attempted — but it was more about getting him some conditioning at game speed than points or assists.
Chris Boucher had 21 points to lead Toronto and Gary Trent Jr. added 17.
The game had no bearing on anything in the standings. The Raptors were locked into fifth place before it started and the Knicks could not improve or worsen their draft lottery odds regardless of what they did.
But for Toronto, there was pride and the team’s identity to think about.
“Go out and playing the game,” Nurse said. “Hopefully we compete to win. It doesn’t have much say in the standings or whatever (but) competing to win is an attitude we like to have no matter what the situation.
The Raptors finished with 48 wins, which is among the best win totals in franchise history. They recorded 50 wins in five straight seasons to finish the 2010s and had 49 in 2014-15 and 48 in 2013-14.
They also won 21 more games than they did in the throwaway season in Tampa, Fla.
The fifth-place finish might have surprised a few experts but not Nurse.
“I was expecting to be sitting here,” he said. “When we started the season and everyone picked us 11th (in the East), I was like, ‘No way, this is a playoff team. This is a playoff team. We’re not that bad. We’re a playoff team.’
“I put those expectations on them all and the coaching staff and here we are. That’s good. I expected to be a playoff team.”
Now it remains to be seen what kind of playoff team they will be. They’re not just happy to be there, they have greater goals.
“I don’t want to sound like whatever here, but I was expecting to be sitting here,” Nurse said when the topic switched to the playoff preparation the Raptors were undertaking before the game and before he decided it was better to let someone who wasn’t nauseous take the coaching reins. “When we started the season and everyone picked us 11th, I was like, ‘No way, this is a playoff team. This is a playoff team. We’re not that bad. We’re a playoff team.’
“I put those expectations on them all and the coaching staff and here we are,” Nurse said.
“That’s good. I expected to be a playoff team. But I don’t expect to just be here. We’ve got to play here in these playoffs. It’s going to be a great experience for us. Our guys need the experience. Like we always do, we’ve got to play to win.”
And even without the head coach on the bench those instructions were followed to a T and it’s why these Raptors can’t be overlooked whoever they face in the playoffs.
No, they didn’t win their season finale, nor were they expected to with two starters on the bench in Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet and another getting his legs back under him, after OG Anunoby saw his first action in 10 days.
The Knicks, shorthanded themselves, rode the hot hands of Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley to a 105-94 win.
Toppin scored 42 in the game on 28 shots while Quickley had 34 on 26. Quickley also had a triple double in the game with 10 rebounds and 12 assists to go with that 34 points.
It leaves the Raptors with 48 wins and a first-round date with the Philadelphia 76ers in a series that is expected to open Saturday in Philly.
The Sixers had a slim chance of moving up but with Boston winning in Memphis they remain in fourth.
Sixers’ head coach Doc Rivers confirmed, as was expected, that Matisse Thybulle, a coveted defender on a Sixers team without a ton of defence, will be ineligible for Games 3 and 4 of the series in Toronto which clearly changes the complexion of the series.
Let’s be honest, last year in Tampa was a wash. The team never quite got settled and it wasn’t long before the reverse standings were more important than the playoff picture. Even before that, though, the regular season usually felt a little irrelevant. After so many playoff disappointments there was sort of a ‘show me what you can do in the playoffs’ vibe around the organization. Sure, 50 win seasons were nice, but could they win it all?
This year has been totally different. We’re back to the 2013-14 days when the plucky upstart Raptors took the league by surprise and snuck into the playoffs. This 2021-22 group is young and exciting and no matter what happens in the playoffs, the season is a success.
“When we started the season and everyone picked us 11th, I was like, ‘No way, this is a playoff team,’” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said pre-game. “I put those expectations on them all and the coaching staff and here we are.”
Sunday’s 105-94 marked Game 82 of the season and proved Nurse right. Pascal Siakam took a step forward. Fred VanVleet took a step forward. OG Anunoby improved his game despite his injuries this year. Gary Trent Jr. became a better defender and a more reliable scorer. Precious Achuwa became a three-point marksman. Chris Boucher learned how to perfect his role. Oh, and Scottie Barnes might win the Rookie of the Year award.
“They didn’t get too high or too low. They just kind of kept playing. I think we played hard. They’ve grown a lot defensively. Guys are getting better individually. That always helps,” Nurse said. “We were able to win the games, man. That’s what it’s all about in this league.”
Now comes a whole new challenge. Next week the playoffs will tipoff and the Raptors will venture down south to take on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. It’s a matchup they can’t be too upset about considering the other options and Toronto’s track record against Joel Embiid and company. They’ve gone 3-1 against the 76ers this season and even if Philly is favored, Toronto is certainly going to like its chances.
“It’s a good matchup for us, but honestly, I’m just happy to be in the playoffs,” said Chirs Boucher who led the Raptors with 21 points on Sunday.