The locker room went berserk. Yeaaahhh, you could hear across the hall. Jakobbbb! He had just finished obliterating the Orlando Magic, sending the Toronto Raptors to the All-Star break on perhaps the highest note of the season. The locker room keeps its doors closed at the very end of the game, and the interview room is across the hallway. It’s extremely rare that we can hear a single word from the locker room sitting in the interview room waiting for Nick Nurse to join us. But we could hear a whole lot of words coming from the locker room tonight, all of them celebratory.
Toronto has had a hole on its team for two-and-a-half seasons. A big hole. A 7-foot-1 hole, on both ends. There's a hole on the defensive end when the team plays manic, heavy-rotation schemes and then has no big into whom it can funnel drivers. There's a hole on the offensive end when the team runs little pick and roll and has no big able to score highly efficient points around the rim. That lack has been eating away at Toronto's performance, record, and joy all season long.
It’s got to be a relief to finally fill the gaping hole in your roster. Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri both admitted so after the deal. Even Poeltl, diplomatic as always, said as much.
“I think that was the goal of the trade,” mused Poeltl (after I forced him by asking about it). “I can fill that true center position.”
Defensively, the team just hasn’t had anyone to defang the pick and roll. He does so much: eats up space, protects the rim, and cleans the glass. The eating space thing is important; Toronto has a bevy of long wings who can contest shots around the rim, but none have the mass and power to actually keep opponents from attempting good shots. Maybe they miss them, but the shots are still good. Poeltl is the only player who forces bad shots from opponents when they drive at him. (And then he’ll block them anyway.)
He finished with six blocks against the Magic, all coming in the second half, and five coming in the final frame. He had blocks in every situation: as a help defender from in front and behind, chasing down his own man (multiple times), tipping away scoops, and walling off drives. He blocked some shots into teammates’ hands, and he pinned some off the glass. It was a block party hosted by Clue, each one coming in a different room with a different character of its own.
Offensively, the Raptors have been starting five players who often look to get their own in terms of usage. There are passers, to be sure, and great ones. But all of Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent jr., O.G. Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and Pascal Siakam can tend towards higher-usage, star role play. (Not star value - star role.) Poeltl is a supporting offensive player, even when he leads the team in shot attempts and scoring.
“I’d argue I was still in the support role,” said Poeltl after the game. “I was just getting a lot of passes out of the pick and roll. It’s about reacting to the defense; they trapped Freddy a bunch of times, so I’m comfortable catching the ball at the top of the key and trying to make plays.
“I feel like I was looking for the pass a little bit early on, and then I noticed they were backing off, so I was able to look for my own shot a little bit more. I think Fred did a really good job in the pick and roll finding me and it was just about finishing those off.”
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