Morning Coffee – Thu, Feb 23

This Raptors playoff push has us all asking if it's worth it

Play-in for what? Raptors come out of All-Star break looking to climb Eastern Conference – Sportsnet

As far as random stats to watch down the stretch — a favourite hobby of mine — this year ranks right up there with 2019-20 when the Raptors were chasing (and set) the record for highest volume of corner three-point attempts allowed. It’s not just the anomaly that’s of interest, but the underlying philosophy that brings it to the surface. And while the Raptors have cooled slightly on allowing corner threes (they’re only second this year), they remain an outlier.

To wit: Right now, no team has ever taken more shooting possessions than their opponent at this rate. The Raptors take a field goal attempt or get to the line 9.3 per cent more often than they allow their opponents to do the same, a mark that would top the 1972-73 Bulls as the biggest “possession battle victory” in league history.

How the Raptors have done this is fairly straightforward: They never turn the ball over, and they force an incredible amount of turnovers on defence. If that feels like an oversimplification, consider that the Raptors are tops in the league in limiting turnovers and forcing turnovers. They’re only an average defensive rebounding team, but the turnover edge (plus-263, 80 better than the next-best team) and a top-five offensive rebounding rate has meant the Raptors get to shoot a lot more than anyone else.

So why aren’t they very good? Well, getting a lot of shots is really helpful … especially if you’re not good at making them. The Raptors get outshot at the rim (67.6 per cent to 66.1 per cent), on threes (37.1 per cent to 33.6), and everywhere in between (45.5 to 42.3 on shorter mid-range shots, 44.6 to 37.3 on longer mid-range shots). What’s worse, the Raptors’ own distribution of shots is less efficient than their opponents, based on league averages from each area of the floor. Effective field-goal percentage, which is field-goal percentage accounting for the additional value of three-pointers, shows the Raptors as having one of the 40 worst eFG% gaps in league history right now, better than only the uber-tanking Spurs.

Even using true-shooting percentage, which adds the value of free throws to eFG%, the Raptors are in a tier of their own.

The Raptors are really, really good at creating extra shooting possessions and really, really bad at taking advantage of them. If either of those things changes, it will dictate which direction the Raptors are headed.

Raptors must know play-in is next best thing to the playoffs | The Star

It was a jocular line, a bit derisive and a bit dismissive, and it spoke to the realities facing a Raptors team marooned in Tampa, Fla., a couple of seasons ago.

Masai Ujiri is sure to be reminded of it in this seven-week sprint to the end of the NBA season, and be asked if he still lives by the throwaway line he offered back then:

“Play-in for what?”

Ujiri was referring to what was then a newfangled NBA post-pandemic post-season plan that had the seventh- through 10th-place teams in each conference hold a mini-tournament to determine the final two post-season slots.

He knew that team was at its end. Kyle Lowry was headed out and everyone knew it; the Raptors had decided they weren’t going to pay Norm Powell and moved him; the centre combination of Aron Baynes and Alex Len wasn’t going to cut it at any level; and the back end of the roster was stopgap at best.

Tampa hadn’t been a disaster but it was close. The people and the weather were nice; the season was disjointed and sucked. So punting on the season and getting out of Tampa made sense. The spectre of even one additional game was too much to bear.

As they say, though, that was then and this is now.

And now it is of the utmost importance that Ujiri’s Raptors not only cling to their grasp on 10th in the East and a spot in the play-in thing but that they earn a real playoff spot.

As much as they would never admit publicly that they bailed on Tampa, they are just as adamant that this group gets some post-season experience. One game wouldn’t be great but none would be horrible. Two would be marginally better than one but six or seven or 10 or 12 or more is their goal.

Scottie Barnes, who played a grand total of 133 playoff minutes last season, needs it. Precious Achiuwa, who played a whopping 167 minutes a year ago, needs it. Jakob Poeltl, a grizzled old post-season veteran of 344 playoff minutes, needs it.

They all do. From champions like Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby and Chris Boucher to the likes of Thad Young and Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton, they all need it.

They need the intensity of the preparation and the stifling pressure of every post-season possession. They need to experience the chase to a playoff spot.

What the Raptors have now is a core. The Tampa group was a bunch of guys headed elsewhere as soon as deals could be made and Ujiri’s memorable comment was bang-on under those circumstances. But “play-in for what” has become “play-in for the future.”

The players, coaches and management may have at one time considered the play-in thing the ‘B’ flight playoff championship but, speaking with them these days, they know how important it is to salvage this season.

They’ll pay public lip service to chasing the sixth-seeded Knicks to get a guaranteed playoff berth, and the Knicks may very well collapse and help Toronto out, but the primary goal has to be to get to those extra games.

Besides, basically every time the Raptors have made the playoffs in the last decade, their inclusion in the final eight was a foregone conclusion by this time in the season. A little intrigue and some scoreboard watching might be fun.

Josh Lewenberg: If the Toronto Raptors are going to go on a run, now is the time | TSN

Passing Washington (currently a half-game up) for ninth would allow them to host the first of two must-win play-in games. Climbing to seventh (they’re four games back of Miami) or eighth (one game back of Atlanta) would mean having to win one of two play-in games, instead of both, to advance. If they could catch the Knicks, who have a four-and-a-half game cushion for sixth place, they would skip the play-in and qualify for the playoffs outright. At New York’s current pace, the Raptors would have to go 17-6 the rest of the way.

Is it doable?

“Absolutely,” said VanVleet. “Four-and-a-half games with 23 left. Absolutely.”

Is it likely? They won five of six games going into the break, which would normally be a cause for optimism except four of those wins came against Houston, San Antonio, Detroit and Orlando – all bottom-five teams – and the fifth came against a Memphis club missing three starters, including Ja Morant. That they’ve yet to win more than three straight games is probably more indicative of their chances.

“It’s not gonna be easy,” VanVleet continued. “At this point, we’ve just gotta put our heads down and go to work and focus on one day at a time.”

Maybe they’re peaking at the right time. At this point last year, VanVleet’s body was already starting to break down. He had been carrying a massive workload on the way to his first career all-star nod, and with the team in the middle of a second-half turnaround, he was playing through an injury. After a slow start to this season, he entered the break feeling good and playing his best basketball of the campaign. The same could be said for Scottie Barnes, who has bounced back from a shaky start to his sophomore season and is averaging 17.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 48 per cent shooting over the last 18 games.

A few weeks ago, it looked like Pascal Siakam might be hitting a wall – understandable considering he leads the league in minutes per contest – but he got his second wind heading into the break and seems highly motivated to build on his career year coming back from his second all-star experience. The hope is that the addition of Poeltl can help balance out the rotation and take some pressure off of those other guys, especially on the defensive end.

At 28-31, they believe that they’re better than their record indicates. Well, this would be the time to show it.

“Obviously we need to win and cheer for the teams around us to not win to climb up [the standings],” Nurse said. “The biggest thing is we’ve got to make sure we get in [the playoffs], in some form or fashion. And then just get better. We played pretty good basketball here of late. We’ve had a couple slip-ups here and there. I just want to keep progressing. I really feel like we can line up with anyone. We certainly haven’t made it easy on ourselves, and it hasn’t been easy. So what? That’s the hand we’re dealt at this time. We’ve got to dig in and continue to play better and see where the chips fall.”

Scottie Barnes needs to adjust again in his sophomore season for Raptors – The Athletic

This season has presented two answers. Barnes’ most recent play, which started with him being put in a position to act as a screener more often, has suggested what we saw last year was prescient. Using his keen passing eye, height and physicality, Barnes has been something of a power guard — getting the ball in or around the paint, and then dissecting the defence from there.

The option to act as a screener won’t be as available now after the acquisition of Jakob Poeltl, who is rightfully going to be setting the most ball screens on the team. The Raptors’ first game after the All-Star break comes Thursday against the New Orleans Pelicans, and it is likely to be the first time the top-seven members of the rotation, save for Otto Porter Jr., have all been healthy since well before the acquisition of Poeltl. The Raptors cannot afford to lose Barnes to the series of long 2s and indecisive perimeter dribbling that characterized the first few months of the sophomore’s season.

“First one is he can handle,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before the All-Star break when asked about the ways to keep Barnes involved with Poeltl in the picture as a primary screener. “The second one is we’ve just got to (have Barnes set screens). On the surface (the opportunity) appears a lot less, but it isn’t quite if you dig a little bit deeper because of how they match up. The (opposition is) gonna put a guy in (conservative defensive) coverage on Scottie some. That’s what we’re going to use a lot. Whichever guy on our side is in coverage and not in a switching (matchup) is gonna be involved in a lot of screen-and-rolls.”

It’s paramount to keep him involved — even if that doesn’t equate to shot attempts. (His usage percentage actually ticked down recently compared to the start of the season, but his play has unquestionably improved.) He has been a special player since 2023 began, and that came as the Raptors further diversified the ways in which they were getting Barnes the ball. Accordingly, his recent numbers represent a slight jump from last year, as opposed to the notable drop from early in the season.

Part of this has to do with minutes played, as Barnes is 10th in the league in minutes played, and sixth since the start of January. However, only eight players in the league have put up 17/7/5 averages for the season, as Barnes has done in the new year: Nikola Jokić, Domantas Sabonis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncić, LeBron James, Pascal Siakam, Josh Giddey and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Obviously, those players have done it for the entire season and, with the exception of the similarly young Giddey, at a greater efficiency than Barnes. Those players also have a median age of 27. With time comes consistency, more often than not.

For the purposes of this season, Barnes’ ability to adapt will come into focus. With just 23 games left, the Raptors don’t have the luxury of Barnes figuring it out. Even if he figures to be the first starter to sub out of games, coming back in to help lead reserve-heavy lineups with Gary Trent Jr., Barnes has to adapt to help the presumptive starting lineup of himself, Poeltl, O.G. Anunoby, Siakam and Fred VanVleet thrive. Barnes is shooting just 32 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, and nudging that up would help the offensive feasibility of the unit.

“If you’re playing against us, you say, ‘OK, Poeltl’s not a 3-point shooter. Where does Scottie fall on that line? Let’s pack it in (the paint),’” Nurse said Wednesday. “To me, those guys have to shoot it with confidence. O.G. is definitely a good shooter. Pascal is a good shooter. And Scottie certainly makes the catch-and-shoot ones. All three have to raise their volume of looks just so we can keep people honest and open up space for driving and cutting later on.

Raptors looking at new starting five with roster at full strength | Toronto Sun

O.G. Anunoby returns after a nine-game absence with a strained right wrist that he revealed on Wednesday that doctors initially thought might require surgery.

While he’s still listed as questionable for Thursday’s game with New Orleans, all signs point to a return.

He is expected to join Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and Poeltl in a starting five that, if all goes well and everyone stays healthy, should be the five to finish off the season.

The trade for Poeltl not only answered a need the Raptors had in a rim-protecting big who can screen, roll and create for others with an advanced passing game, it did so without removing a rotation piece from the puzzle.

Khem Birch had already fallen out of the rotation by the time the deal was made and, by stepping right into the starting five, it creates depth by sending a guy like Trent Jr. to the bench where he will still be counted on to provide scoring the way he did as a starter.

Barnes could easily fit into that role as well, but it’s very unlikely the Raptors are going to ask a soon-to-be face of the franchise to come off the bench.

As Nurse said earlier this week, it’s a good problem to have, but it can also be a dicey one if the man losing his starting status balks at it.

Trent Jr. has already been moved into a reserve role once earlier this season and he responded in a professional manner. He accepted the new role and flourished in it until injuries brought him back into the starting unit.

Now he’s likely headed back and where he’ll join impact players like Chris Boucher, Thad Young and Achiuwa in providing Nurse with a solid bench he can count on.

With just 23 games remaining and the Raptors currently holding onto the 10th-place in the Eastern Conference standings and, with that, the final spot in the play-in tournament.

Nurse sounds mostly confident that the Raptors will find their way into some sort of playoff picture, but he’s most concerned about the improvements they can make as a team in this final stretch before playoffs.

“I’m not really looking at the whole big picture, like the 23 games or where it goes,” he said. “Obviously, we need to win and cheer for the teams around us to not win to climb up there. That doesn’t change. That probably goes on no matter where we’re at.

“The biggest thing is we’ve got to make sure we get in, in some form or fashion,” he said. “And then just get better. We played pretty good basketball here of late. We’ve had a couple slip-ups here and there. I just want to keep progressing. I really feel like we can line up with anyone. We certainly haven’t made it easy on ourselves and it hasn’t been easy. So what? That’s the hand we’re dealt at this time. We’ve got to dig in and continue to play better and see where the chips fall.”

Raptors Face Playoff Push With Healthier Fred VanVleet – Sports Illustrated

The situation standings-wise is a little bleaker, but VanVleet and this Raptors roster are virtually at full strength. O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., and Thad Young all practiced Tuesday and are expected to play Thursday when the Raptors return to Scotiabank Arena to take on the New Orleans Pelicans. VanVleet, meanwhile, is healthy and playing the best basketball of his season.

“I haven’t had — knock on wood — an injury,” VanVleet said Tuesday. “I suffered an injury last year and I missed time. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do anything different because we got ourselves in position to be the (fifth)-seed last year. I knew what I was doing and it hurt at the end of the season to finish like that but all of that is behind us.”

VanVleet did change a few things in the summer on the heels of last year’s playoff exit. While he wouldn’t reveal his offseason changes, he did say he wanted to be better prepared for the second half of the year. In his words, he wanted to “peak” at the right time.

“I’m happy with the way that it’s going,” VanVleet said of the results. “Obviously, I got off to a slow start for various reasons, but I’ve been playing a lot better basketball … and hopefully I can continue to get better throughout the season and play my best in April and hopefully take this team far. That’s really all I’m focused on.”

Toronto’s roster is a little deeper this time around. The addition of Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline gave the Raptors another rotation player, one who is expected to step into the starting rotation and bump Trent to the bench. In theory, that should alleviate some of the pressure on the starters to log heavy minutes as Toronto pushes through the final 23 games.

“The way we balance it is hopefully we stay a little healthier than we did a year ago down the stretch and we’re able to play some of these other guys,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “That’s the hope, right, is that we have some better health here than we’ve had for the last year and a half and we can spread the mere minutes out a little bit.”

It’s not going to be easy though. Toronto’s remaining schedule is considered the fifth most difficult in the NBA with games against Boston, Milwaukee, Denver, Cleveland, and Philadelphia on the horizon, and playing .475 basketball as the Raptors have done so far this year isn’t going to cut it.

The key this time around is going to be pushing VanVleet and the roster enough to make the playoffs without exhausting the team too much for any meaningful first-round action. They’re healthy now. Let’s keep it that way.

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