Nine — Anunoby continues to produce poor results when asked to create his own shot. Through three games, Anunoby is averaging 7.7 drives per game and while he is passing out of half of those drives, he is only shooting 18 per cent when he tries to finish. Surely he won’t remain as shaky all year, but he also shot just 35 per cent on similar volume last season. The tape from this game isn’t pretty, as he was blocked twice by a weak defender in Max Strus, and shanked a layup hard off the glass on a clumsy spin move around Herro. Anunoby has enough strength to barrel his way to the edge of the paint, but there is both a lack of explosion and a predictable nature to how he attacks that limits his effectiveness. He is much more efficient and effective when he plays within his usual role of catching and shooting for threes or leaking out in transition. VanVleet has given up much of his own offence this season to get other players shots, but Anunoby needs to deliver results with those additional chances.
Malachi Flynn has been in the NBA long enough now that he likely understood his season debut was coming on Saturday night. Flynn is in his third year, and his Toronto Raptors were getting rolled against the Miami Heat through a half. The Raptors had also arrived in Miami early on Saturday morning following a loss in Brooklyn, and it wasn’t terribly likely Toronto had the energy for a comeback in the tank. Beyond that, Scottie Barnes was out of the game, giving Raptors coach Nick Nurse one fewer option to play, and opening up more minutes for everyone else.
And then, suddenly, one of Flynn’s teammates was entangled in a one-sided shoving match on the far baseline. Heat forward Caleb Martin and Raptors rookie Christian Koloko were mixing it up after the former stood over the latter, and every player on the floor, the referees and a few coaches descended upon them, making sure a bad situation didn’t become worse. Immediately after the scuffle, the Raptors scored 14 of the next 16 points, but they were going to have to make some substitutions, and they were going to have to find a way to keep the offence ticking long.
At first, Flynn was going to be needed for an extended run to soak up some minutes in a lost game. Now, he was needed for some of the offensive explosiveness he showed in pro-am games in the offseason.
“It just gets you a little more ready to play, if that’s what you want to say,” Flynn told The Athletic after the game. “It gives you a little bit more energy. We definitely were there for Christian. He did the right thing. He didn’t do anything wrong. We were trying to be there for him, and then just trying to get the win.
“I was just trying to help us get a little spark.”
Flynn did just that, hitting a pair of 3-pointers in his first nine minutes of the year, further closing the deficit in what wound up being a three-point loss. Flynn broke a bone in his left cheek in the preseason, erasing any chance to leap ahead of Dalano Banton to both play behind and complement Fred VanVleet. Banton earned more opportunities than Flynn last year, largely thanks to the defensive profile and pace the then-rookie provided.
Flynn is more of a traditional pick-and-roll point guard, and there was some question about whether he would ever really fit in with the identity the Raptors were building. Even VanVleet wondered aloud at the end of the season whether Flynn’s future would be in Toronto. Indeed, Banton played ahead of Flynn in each of the first two games, and the first half of the third.
However, the Raptors have struggled mightily whenever they have had too many reserves on the floor at the same time. In a comeback attempt that audacious, you need some shooting. Flynn came into the league with a reputation for having that ability, although he has been below league average in both of his first two seasons. Still, with the Raptors’ offensive bench production, something has to give.
The chance is important because the Raptors viewed their backup unit as a plus going into the season. But its development has been hampered by injuries —Chris Boucher may play in Monday’s rematch in Miami but Otto Porter Jr. remains out — and now the possibility of Scottie Barnes being sidelined throws another wrench into things.
Barnes, injured Saturday, was to have further examination Sunday on a sprained left ankle. Nurse’s original assessment was that Barnes would be out for a bit.
That would mess up the starters and it would cause further disruption to the backup group.
“The league is all about opportunity and rhythm,” guard Fred VanVleet said, “especially for guys that are on limited minutes, limited rotation, limited opportunity. You just got to know when you are checking in and know the rotation and know the rhythm, know where the shots are coming from, know what you are supposed to do when you are out there.
“I think once we get everyone back healthy we will find that defined rotation and it will flow a little better than it has been. There are good spots and bad spots but, once we get everyone back and find some consistency there, we will be able to define those roles a little bit better.”
The biggest issue facing the bench group is that it lacks a truly dynamic scorer. Precious Achiuwa showed signs of breaking out with an 18-point game Saturday but he had been below average in the season’s first two games. Reserves Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn and Thad Young don’t possess take-the-game-over talent.
Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa had an 18-point night against Miami on Saturday, a much-needed contribution from the Toronto bench.
“We know Chris (Boucher) has always been an energy booster and somewhat of a scorer off the bench,” Nurse said, “We haven’t really seen what Otto can do. I expect those two guys will be in the rotation once they get back. Christian (Koloko) has been playing pretty good, too.”
Three games into the Toronto Raptors season, there has been a significant shift in their offence.
Point guard Fred VanVleet has gone from a high-volume shooter to the guy in the starting five who takes the fewest shots.
“The starting lineup was what I was most worried about, and I think we have kind of figured that out a little bit,” VanVleet said in response to a question that started out being about bench scoring. “I just have to take less shots and it seems to work out just fine, so I’m not having an issue just being a distributor and helping those guys get the shots they want to get and just focus on defence.”
Through three games VanVleet’s shots per game are down from 16.9 a game a year ago to just 9.7 a game this year.
Gary Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes are close to their shot volume of a year ago, while OG Anunoby seems to be getting more touches with the ball, but even his shots per game are down from 14.5 a year ago to 11.7 now.
Pascal Siakam is the only appreciable gain in shots per game by a Raptors’ starter going from 17.8 to 20 a game this year.
The entirety of the Raptors’ bench has combined for 27 points in the course of two games. To put that into perspective; through three quarters in game two vs the Nets, Pascal Siakam had already totalled 34 points. It’s a small sample size to be sure, but the Raptors are second-last in the NBA in bench scoring — after finishing dead last in 2021-22.
Only one Raptors bench player has posted a real plus-minus in the positives while at least playing six minutes, and that was Koloko in the Cleveland Cavaliers game (+3).
Yes, it is immensely early, and the season still has 80 games, so this isn’t meant as an overreaction, and everyone take cover because the season is going downhill. This should however, be a wake up call to the Raptors’ reserves that someone needs to step up.
The Toronto Raptors have a great starting five in terms of continuity, chemistry, strong defense, and the ability to turn that defense into quick offense. However, Toronto still lacks a true star, and one that can dominate in the half court consistently.
Siakam would obviously like to have a word with me through these first two competitions, but even if what we’ve seen is the new Pascal, the top tier competitors typically have two, sometimes three guys at that level.
To be fully fair, Siakam didn’t get much help from most of the starting lineup in Brooklyn either.
A team who relies on the strength of beating you as a whole, relies on the reserve players to play their role as well. And if that role isn’t to dominate the opposing team’s bench, and grow leads, then it sure as heck needs to be maintaining a lead. Or at least giving valuable and serviceable minutes while Siakam and the starting lineup gets some rest.
Part of the reason that the bench has looked weak, is due to a couple of key injuries. Chris Boucher and Otto Porter Jr. are two of Toronto’s best players that will be coming off the bench, and arguably the two most consistent players in that role as well. Even Khem Birch, who has also yet to play a game, can provide some veteran minutes at the big man position, spelling Koloko who, impressive as he’s been, is still learning his role.
Now, I don’t want to narrow in on one single player, because this is definitely a collective effort, but Precious Achiuwa specifically needs to take a leap in order for the Raptors to compete the entire length of a regular season.
It just hasn’t been right away, which is concerning since Nurse leaned on his starters more than any other coach last year, with the wear and tear it had on VanVleet, in particular, clear. That the Raptors made, propped up by their remaining starters, such a rousing comeback attempt in the second half after falling down by 24 in the third quarter allows the outsider into Nurse’s mind, even if the coach should work to curb some of his most competitive instincts. The Raptors’ core players, despite some ugly play, fight for each other nobly.
“You guys know, I’m trying to win each game each night,” Nurse said before the game. “That’s the one thing that we’re trying to do. It’s felt like the right thing to do so far by subbing the way we subbed.”
In the first half against the Heat, Miami’s reserves played about 46 minutes to Toronto’s 27. In the opener, Cleveland’s reserves played 29 more minutes than the Raptors’, although that was exaggerated by Darius Garland’s injury in the second quarter. Juancho Hernangomez played in the first half of the first game and hasn’t played since. Thaddeus Young didn’t play in the second half of either of the first two games. Khem Birch has been available in both of the last two games but hasn’t played in either.
Overall, it’s understandable. If not for the warning signs of last year, it would be less notable. Without Otto Porter Jr. and Chris Boucher, who have both missed the first three games with hamstring injuries, the Raptors are missing a key part of their depth. Porter’s loss hurts because he is their most reliable jump shooter off the bench. Nurse said Boucher is expected back for Monday’s rematch in Miami.
The reason for the trouble working in reserves is obvious: There is a deficit of half-court offensive talent on the roster, which feeds into the aggressive defence the Raptors would like to play. The Raptors have three accomplished high-volume 3-point shooters, and it feels like at least two of VanVleet, Trent — who also isn’t fully healthy — and O.G. Anunoby need to be on the floor to give the Raptors spacing.
Similarly, when the offence bogs down, VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Barnes are by far the three best bets to be able not only get a shot of their own but also to plausibly make a play off the bounce for a teammate. If only one of them is on the floor at a time, the burden feels heavy. That is not really a problem when it comes to the playoffs. In the regular season, though, the need to not dip too low in either group keeps the possible lineups really limited.
When you think back to the “Bench Mob” of 2017-18, they had two dead-eye shooters in VanVleet and C.J. Miles, and two creators in VanVleet and Delon Wright. That allowed Siakam and Jakob Poeltl to fill well-defined energy roles without paying much mind to the mechanics of things when the game slowed down.
“My first thought is I’ve got to give them more of a chance somehow,” Nurse said before the game. “The games haven’t felt like there’s a chance to get them as a unit playing together. As you see, a couple of the starters are going right out and a couple go right back. We’re taking a while to get to the bench guys in general. That’s the first thing. I’ll take that on me. I’ve got to give them a chance and figure it out.”
Martin admitted post game he was in the wrong when he basically took Koloko into the second row with a textbook football tackle.
“Overall, I got to be more professional in the way I handle those type of situations,” he said but only after pointing out how the chippy nature of the game played into his reaction.
A year ago, the same Martin took Scottie Barnes into the second row in a dangerously aggressive attempt to keep him from finishing a breakaway dunk.
Barnes, in the midst of his fine rookie-of-the-year campaign somehow avoided serious injury. Not sure the same could be said from the poor woman who basically ended up with Barnes in her lap and absorbed all the force.
Fred VanVleet won’t soon forget the hard screen Bam Adebayo surprised him late in the championship season of 2019. VanVleet was banged up early in that playoff run and it was only after his son was born midway through the Milwaukee series that he started to look like himself again.
But this isn’t a one-way street. The Raptors hard physical play is very much a part of this. Ask Duncan Robinson this morning how he’s feeling after Precious Achiuwa dropped him in his tracks with a screen reminiscent of the one that injured VanVleet a few years back.
Basketball may not be a contact sport like hockey or football, where hitting is central to defence, but the way the Raptors and Heat play the game, it’s much closer to that style than most NBA games.
VanVleet probably summed it up best.
“Listen, they are very similar, very similar identities and approach to the game, so I think every game we play is like mayhem one way or the other,” VanVleet said point game. “Even when it feels normal, at some point in the game there is mayhem, and we certainly had that tonight in the third quarter.”
It was the second time Barnes was forced into the locker room Saturday night after suffering an apparent shoulder injury in the first quarter. He checked out and was examined by the medical staff before returning early in the second quarter.
The injury made a disappointing Raptors performance even worse Saturday night as Toronto came out lethargic and sloppy on the second night of a back-to-back. The team didn’t get into Miami until 4 a.m. Saturday morning and it showed early. They missed three dunks in the first quarter and let Miami jump out to an 11-point lead thanks to some serious defensive lapses from the Raptors.
It wasn’t until the third quarter when Christian Koloko and Caleb Martin were both ejected following a brief skirmish that Toronto finally came alive. Martin fouled Koloko, stood over him, and then tackled him leading to the double ejection. It spurred the Raptors onto a 17-2 run to end the quarter, cutting Miami’s lead to just seven.
The Raptors pulled to within six points early in the fourth quarter after Malachi Flynn, making his season debut, nailed a corner three-pointer. It was part of an inspired rally from Toronto’s bench that saw Precious Achiuwa lead the way with 18 points and 11 rebounds. An O.G. Anunoby three-pointer with 13 seconds pulled Toronto to within three, but the Heat split their free throws and survived long enough to hold on.
If Barnes’ injury is short-term Toronto may opt to go with Koloko in the starting lineup in order to keep the bench unit intact moving forward. Otherwise, Precious Achiuwa should be expected to step into the starting lineup with Dalano Banton taking on a bigger ball-handling role off the bench.