“Oh, (Thaddeus Young has) been great. He’s probably our most valuable player right now,” VanVleet said. “He’s been holding down the fort as Christian (Koloko) is learning to play up and down. Thad’s been giving us about 35 (minutes) a night now. So it’s really impressive to be in his 16th season, the leadership, the experience, the tough play to rebound and just making plays every night. He’s been key for us.”
VanVleet’s point: Young has been essential to the Raptors going 4-4 without Pascal Siakam (and a host of other players), which is quite a development for a player who picked up three Did Not Play- Coach’s Decision designations before Siakam’s absence, and had not topped 11 minutes in any of those nine games. Young is obviously not going to light up a box score on most nights, but he is averaging more than 23 minutes per game since Siakam hurt his adductor, is shooting 59 percent from the floor and averaging 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
The Raptors have outscored opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions, key since he has been thrown in as the starting centre recently, with the opening unit dealing with multiple health issues. His shortcomings as a starting centre were evident as the Atlanta Hawks burned the Raptors via the Trae Young-Clint Capela lob a few times on Saturday, with Thad Young not able to help and recover with the speed and athleticism that Precious Achiuwa might if he were in the same situation. Without that type of lob threat, though, Thad Young’s intelligence and relative switchability have been a boon: The Raptors are allowing just 103.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s been on the floor during Siakam’s absence, and 119.7 when he’s sitting. The Raptors’ offensive rebounding and turnover creation have improved with him on the floor, too.
The Raptors’ next two opponents, Brooklyn and Dallas, will be challenges — Nic Claxton is a leaping centre for Brooklyn, and any roller can thrive next to Luka Dončić, with Dallas visiting on Saturday. Koloko’s on-off numbers remain stellar, and his utility was obvious against Atlanta. However, Young’s ability to juice up the half-court offence with both his cutting and passing have kept the Raptors chugging often.
“He’s been great. We’ve kind of found out he’s been great (playing centre),” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “So, we’ve settled him into that a little bit and he’s played very, very well. … I think Thad has found a home with the chemistry part of it at the five for us at both ends.”
Even some potential red flags need to be analyzed with a raised eyebrow rather than a deep frown.
Toronto is in the midst of a rather deep shooting funk: the Raptors have shot just 24 per cent from three over their past four starts, or — put another way — Toronto has missed 95 threes over that stretch. Things weren’t all that pretty before that either, as Toronto’s on a 28.4-per-cent pace since Siakam was injured.
Time to panic? To reassess? To start beating the bushes for more shooting?
Probably not, if only because during the first eight games of the season the Raptors were shooting 38.6 per cent from deep, a rate that had them sixth in the NBA over the opening two weeks, compared with 28th over the past couple of weeks or dead last over their past four games.
“You never accept it fully, but I think you understand where you’re at it and understand the schedule, understand, you know, not having a big primary initiator out there to create open looks for guys,” said VanVleet, who was 1-of-11 from three in Toronto’s loss to Atlanta after shooting 43 per cent from distance on more than 11 attempts a game in five starts prior. “Look at the tape, get in the gym, shoot better. That’s kind of the formula, you know what I mean?
“So, look at the tape, get in the gym, work on your shot, trying to get better shots. But understanding everything that goes into it and knowing that there’s highs and lows. You can’t get to up or too down.”
It’s remarkable that the Raptors have been able to hang around .500 with that kind of shooting but it helps that Toronto has been +4.6 in turnovers per game over the same stretch, one of the reasons the Raptors have been able to average nine field goal attempts more per game than their opponents – an aspect of their play that has remained consistent and given them a chance to win more often than not.
But while a commitment to causing havoc for opponents defensively — the Raptors are first causing opponents to create turnovers, which has helped them become the NBA’s most prolific fast-break offence – remains a core value, any chance they have of making a move in the tightly-packed Eastern Conference will rely on Toronto getting healthy and shooting the ball better.
The good news is they are inching close to a full lineup. Chris Boucher and Gary Trent Jr. practised Monday and are expected to be in the lineup on Wednesday, and both are capable three-point shooters. And while a return hasn’t been set for Siakam, the Raptors’ all-NBA forward has been doing on-court work for a week now and is making progress.
Otto Porter Jr. (toe), Dalano Banton (ankle) and Precious Achiuwa (ankle) remain out.
Whether a return to health will put an end to the Raptors’ recent shooting slump is another matter. Even 17 games into the season “too early to tell” is probably a fair assessment.
“Not having Pascal is one thing, but the other numerous guys out was probably another,” coach Nick Nurse said. “I’d say when you look at it in totality, 4-4 with all the bodies that are out is probably OK.”
And there should be help on the horizon.
Boucher and Trent took part in Monday’s light workout and should be available to play against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday.
“We certainly needed to survive here, and Pascal was out there today in practice,” Nurse said. “Well, not a whole lot of people in contact (practices) these days when the numbers are what they are, so he was out there moving around.
“So we shouldn’t be awfully far away from him being back.”
As odd as it might sound, even going 4-4 without Siakam and with the sundry other absences might be seen as disappointing, The Raptors let a game get away in Atlanta on Saturday with a couple of missed opportunities at the fourth-quarter buzzer and a team-wide mental hiccup that led the game-losing basket as the overtime expired.
Had they won that one and been 5-3 in their last eight, it really would have been impressive.
“We really had it right there, played really well, played well enough to win but the ball didn’t bounce our way. Didn’t make the plays we needed to,” Nurse said.
“We’d probably be really happy — 5-3 would sound really good. Funny how with that one (more) win on the record it sounds a lot different.”
But 4-4 sounds better than 3-5 or 2-6 and, with more than 80 per cent of the season to go, not being out of touch with the top of the standings is fine.
“We just take a big-picture approach to the season, try not to get too high or too low in November and understand where the league is and where everybody is,” VanVleet said. “The teams that are in front of us, I think we feel pretty good about it.
“There’s not really many dominant teams right now. There’s a couple at the top; everybody else is kind of within striking distance. I feel good about the group that we have. It hasn’t looked the greatest at times this year, but I’m confident we’ll get there.”
“I’m Chris Boucher wherever, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said Monday following Raptors practice.
That wasn’t always the case. At this time last year, Boucher thought he was someone else. He tried to force up shots and create buckets out of nothing. When they didn’t go in, his defense started to slag and his game fell apart.
But for the better part of the last year, Boucher has figured it out. He’s become a defensive-difference maker, not always blocking shots, but more often than not contesting them. He’s rarely taking silly fouls and occasionally drawing them, leading the team in charges drawn both last season (13) and so far this season (4).
Boucher has become comfortable on the offensive end too. He’s connecting on nearly 35% of his three-pointers, almost exclusively off wise catch-and-shoot looks, and his 51.4% field goal percentage is tied for the very best of his career.
“I just know myself more as a player now,” he added. “What I can do, and bringing the energy is something that I know I have to bring every game. If you play with energy a lot of things will get done for you. I just try to play the same way. Bring the same energy every time, and just knowing what my role is, that makes it a lot easier too.”
At times this season, Boucher has shown he’s more than deserving of a spot in the starting rotation. He’s easily been a top-five player for the Raptors in at least a half dozen of Toronto’s recent games, often better than Christian Koloko, Dalano Banton, and Otto Porter Jr. who have all started while the Raptors have battled injuries.
But the Raptors have found something in Boucher off the bench and, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
“It’s just a burst of energy that he provides,” Nurse said. “And [he] really does a great job in that role.”
In short, the Raptors got a little lackadaisical with the situation and it came back to bite them in the most painful way.
“I don’t think we were communicative enough in who was going where and all that stuff,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse began in trying to explain what exactly happened.
“You’ve got to get matched up and it didn’t start out very good, getting matched up” he said. “I just don’t think anybody got matched up. What it really comes down to is you’ve got to play the full clock out. Just (be)cause they’ve got one and a half seconds or three and half seconds to go full court, still a lot can happen, right?
“I think sometime guys relax or whatever, and you shouldn’t probably pick up that hard, just keep everything in front and make them take a long deep shot; if you lose on that, you lose on that,” Nurse said. “Didn’t get very organized and a couple of guys ran by the play and things like that.”
Nurse worked very hard not to single any one player out for blame in this one and in truth there was plenty to go around. But in the end the Raptors will use it as a learning lesson and hopefully not have to explain themselves again for such an inventive and soul-crushing way to lose a game.
All that said, there were probably more overall positives to come out of the Atlanta game than the great big negative which was the end result.
Just about everyone who touched the floor had an impact and with as many injuries and illnesses as the team has been hit with, it was the only way the game was ever even going to be close.
The Raptors are back on the home court Wednesday when they host Brooklyn and Nurse will at least have two of his regulars, starting shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. and first sub off the bench Chris Boucher back in the rotation.
Pascal Siakam took part in the non-contact drills in practice according to Nurse so there’s some hope on that front too.
But Precious Achiuwa and Dalano Banton remain out with no timetable for a return at the moment.
The team has been without Pascal Siakam for eight games now over which time they have compiled a 4-4 record.
“Not as good as you would like, but certainly not the worst thing in the world,” offered Fred VanVleet when asked for his assessment of the Raptors efforts without Siakam. “It looks like we don’t have our best player out there, the guy we’ve been playing through. Not only our best player but somebody who we’ve been playing through for however many games. Everything has been going through him. There will be some adjustment periods and phases and hopefully he won’t be out forever. He’ll be back whenever he’s back.
“We’ve had some good performances,” VanVleet said. “I thought some guys have played well in those minutes. It hasn’t translated to eight wins. We’ve got to squeeze a couple more wins out here before Pascal comes back.”
The well-rested Raptors will have a slight advantage Wednesday when they host Brooklyn. The Nets will be playing their second game in as many days having taken on Philadelphia Tuesday night.
13. Toronto Raptors (previously 13th) | 9-8 | +2.7 net rating
Weekly slate: Win at Pistons, Win over Heat, Loss at Hawks
What are they thankful for? Pascal Siakam. Before his injury, I think we were seeing the best version of the Toronto Raptors All-Star forward. It’s not just his scoring, rebounding and defense. We expect those things from Siakam, and he generally delivers those aspects of the game for his team. But where did all of that playmaking come from? Siakam has raised his assists average each season of his career. From 0.3 assists per game as a rookie to his career high of 7.7 assists per game now. It’s a big part of what the Raptors are trying to build on the offensive end of the floor.
The Raptors 905’s offense looked great this past weekend, with the team scoring their season-high despite missing a few bodies. The problem? Their defense was missing the entire time, giving a red-carpet treatment to the Delaware Blue Coats, which led to a disappointing 141-129 loss.
Ron Harper Jr. and Saben Lee scored 28 apiece to lead the Raptors 905. Harper Jr. is averaging 26 points while shooting 45% from the perimeter over the last three games. Saben Lee was the primary point for the Raptors 905, and he complemented his 28 points with 11 assists. Unfortunately, Lee and Reggie Perry were sloppy with the ball, having five turnovers each. Christian Vital added 19 points off the bench, hitting three trifectas.
Mac McClung was the best player on the floor, with a big gap between him and the next-best player. McClung dropped his NBA G League career-high of 44 points, including going 4-for-8 from deep. He also sprinkled in seven assists and six rebounds. It was a stellar combo guard play for McClung, who shared the playmaking duties with Skylar Mays, who was a two-way contract player for the Atlanta Hawks for the past two years. Mays finished the game with eight points but had 11 assists to one turnover.
Charlie Brown Jr., another former two-way contract player, this time with the Philadelphia 76ers, added 22 points. Our old friend Patrick McCaw contributed 17 points, including 4-for-7 from behind the arc. Perhaps, he’s the Golden State Warriors’ missing piece.
The Raptors 905 were short-handed for this tilt, as Jeff Dowtin Jr. received a call-up due to the injury bug afflicting the main club. Kenny Wooten Jr. also missed the game due to a shoulder injury. Justin Champagnie’s injury and Julian Champagnie’s call-up also prevented us from seeing the twins go head-to-head.
The Blue Coats set the tone early, imposing their will, or heck, with the Raptors 905’s lack of interest in playing defense, they don’t have to impose anything. They raced to a 16-9 lead, capitalizing on the Raptors 905’s poor half-court defense, and non-existent transition defense. The visitors woke up and smelled the coffee behind Reggie Perry and Christian Vital, helping the Raptors 905 take a 34-28 lead late in the first period. However, coach Khoury’s bench lineup (Harper Jr. + bench) got destroyed with a 13-4 Blue Coats run in the last two minutes of the quarter, coughing up the lead for good, trailing the Blue Coats 41-36.
The second frame was more of a pickup game, with both teams getting what they wanted offensively. The Blue Coats had a walk in the park scoring 44 points in the second period while shooting a blistering 59% from the field, led by McClung’s 13 points. Harper Jr. tried to carry his team with his 13 points, hitting all of his trifectas in this period, but his teammates had nothing to show on either end of the floor, letting the Blue Coats close the half with an 85-72 lead.