Morning Coffee – Tue, Feb 28

Quarter of the way in, and we still have the same questions

Raptors turning season around by rediscovering blue-collar identity – Yahoo!

Since the start of the new year, the Raptors have practiced almost every single off-day in between games, which amounts to 13 home practices in addition to 26 games in the last two months, not to mention away practices and morning shootarounds as well. Earlier in the season, the Raptors would usually practice only following a loss, while many NBA teams tend to stop practicing regularly around American Thanksgiving in late November.

When the Raptors went on their 12-day, seven-game West Coast trip in late January, Nurse said they were going to take a “business-like approach” to the trip. They have kept that same mindset going forward.

That has made for a mentally and physically exhausting lifestyle for the Raptors over the past two months. But that’s what you sign up for when you become a Toronto Raptor: to play for a hard-nosed, gritty team that is a good bet to out-work its opponent. That was the identity of the team for years under Kyle Lowry’s leadership, it was the identity of the team last year under Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam’s leadership, and it is the identity they are rediscovering now by getting into the gym and working harder than they ever have.

“That’s different, for sure, from my experiences so far [in the league],” Poeltl said about the team’s workload. “Ever since I’m back we’ve had full practices every single off-day, so there really hasn’t been a true off-day yet…

“We’ve just been working. Obviously, it’s exhausting. But I think it’s key especially for me early on just to get reps in and learn all the stuff. I actually see it as a positive… at least for now.”

That increased workload seems to be paying off recently, with the Raptors coming off a four-game winning streak and having won seven of their last nine games, jumping up to ninth in the Eastern Conference standings and just five games back of the fifth seed. And while the Raptors have not fixed all of their problems, things are undoubtedly trending in the right direction as they work to slowly patch holes along the way.

“When there’s issues, you’ve got to try to plug the hole,” Nurse said of his reasoning for the increased workload. “If it’s transition, if it’s defensive rebounding, if it’s guarding the ball, if it’s rim protection.

“We’ve done a lot of studying on some of this stuff too and there’s certain guys that need to be more verbal and need to sprint harder or whatever it is to get better at that. So we’ll continue to do that because I think if you looked at the half court defensive sets, most were pretty good, we made a few mistakes, but nothing like we were making three months ago.”

To Nurse’s point, the Raptors’ defence ranks 10th in the league over its past 10 games, with its transition defence and defensive rebounding improving dramatically over that span. Sure, some of that has to do with Poeltl, but he has only played six games and averaged 27 minutes, with the numbers trending in that direction before him.

Almost there: A Toronto Raptors three-quarter season report card – Raptors HQ

Toronto Raptors three-quarter season grades: The (old) starters

Gary Trent Jr.: I think we all know that it’s Gary Trent Jr. who’s going to the bench once VanVleet is back, right? On the one hand, it’s the most logical move; the Raptors don’t have any guard scoring or real shot creation off the bench, unless you count Achiuwa’s wild drives. On the other hand, it does make for an unbalanced starting lineup! On the other, other hand, the Poeltl starting lineup runs a lot of pick-and-rolls, but Gary might be the team’s worst playmaker as the ball handler in those situations (the next time he passes to the roller will be the first) so the bench role should be perfect. I’d like to see an uptick in Gary’s shooting numbers (just 42/36/89 in the last 21), and I have no idea what the Raptors will do with him in the offseason, but for the most part, he’s done everything he’s been asked of so far.
Grade: B

Scottie Barnes: It is with huge relied that I no longer have to centre my Scottie Barnes blurbs around his disappointing sophomore season. Barnes is back baby! Scottie is averaging 17/7/5 over the past 21, along with a steal and a block, on 46% shooting. While it’s not leaps and bounds over his rookie campaign, he’s been much better than he was through the first 41 games — more engaged, more active, with better decision making. It’s nice to have him back.
Grade: B

O.G. Anunoby: Anunoby missed 10 of the past 21 games, and hasn’t exactly looked sharp post-All-Star. One definitely wonders if Anunoby expected to be traded at the deadline, and/or if he doesn’t like his role on the new-look Raptors. Or maybe it is just rust! Whatever the case, the Raptors need more from Anunoby in these last 20 if they want to move up in the play-in chase (remember that the teams that finish 7th or 8th essentially have a double-elimination opportunity). The Raptors’ finish might also factor into personal accomplishments too. Anunoby continues to lead the league in steals, and it sure seems like he’ll (finally) make All-Defense, but finishing over .500 will make it that much more likely.
Grade: C+

Fred VanVleet: VanVleet has taken an odd amount of blame for the Raptors’ woes this season. His numbers are virtually identical to last year when he was an All-Star though. So what gives? The defense is a big part of that. Fred’s hands are as heavy as ever, knocking balls away (particularly digging down on big men) but his point of attack D has left quite a bit to be desired. We know he was dealing with various ailments and was playing too many minutes, so maybe this extended All-Star-plus-family break are exactly what he needs.
Grade: B

Pascal Siakam: Now that the team is flirting with .500 basketball again, we can look forward to (hopefully) a playoff round, but also, Siakam getting another All-NBA nod. Much like Anunoby’s All-Defense case, a better team record mean’s Siakam’s chances of postseason recognition becomes that much more likely. What’s been most pleasing over the past 21 is that Siakam went through a slight funk, looking tired and slow… but he quickly snapped out of it, and has been averaging 26/7/5 on 50/50/75 shooting over the past 10. And have you seen the step-back J that’s now a consistent part of his repertoire? Smoooooth.
Grade: A-

Coach Nick Nurse: The rotation has been more consistent over the past three games, though we’ll see if that continues once VanVleet is back (and we see how Nurse reacts to the team’s blowout loss to Cleveland). Overall the team has been playing much better of late, even before the Poeltl trade, with a stronger adherence to Nurse’s defensive principles, which is good to see. But the competition in those games wasn’t top-notch, and if more performances end up like the Cleveland game… well, then play-in (let alone playoff) success seems unlikely.
Grade: C+

Nick Nurse, Canada getting NBA commitments Team USA couldn’t fathom. Will it work? – The Athletic

“I just decided we had to find a better path of getting our guys to play more together, be around each other, build a system and a culture that kind of continues just build on each session that we get together,” Nurse told The Athletic, before his Raptors lost to the Cavs, 118-93 Sunday.

“Nate and Nate just keep building and picking up where they left off,” Nurse continued. “It’s a big credit, I think, to everybody working together, especially the Raptors. The Raptors have been amazing. There’s all kinds of links between the Raptors helping Team Canada be successful.”

World Cup qualifying is now complete. The Canadians, under Bjorkgren and Mitchell, won 11 of 12 games (as good as any team on Earth), including a 74-57 decision over Venezuela. The Americans went 8-3 in qualifying after an 82-76 loss in Brazil Sunday (the Brazilians needed to win to qualify, Team USA was already in).

Canada will begin the World Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia; Team USA in Manila, Philippines. The draw for the 32-team tournament is April 29.

In May, Canada announced three-year commitments from a bevy of the country’s top NBA stars and role players, from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, to Jamal Murray, to R.J. Barrett. Luguentz Dort is on that list, as are Dillon Brooks, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Cory Joseph, Dwight Powell, Khem Birch, Oshae Brissett and Kelly Olynyk. So is one of the top college players, Purdue’s Zach Edey.

The commitment meant attending a training camp last summer, and, unless injured, playing in at least a couple of Canada’s qualifying games. For instance, Gilgeous-Alexander played one game for Canada in July and another in August.

Right away, these are dramatic differences from the Team USA program run by Grant Hill and Steve Kerr, who decided they could not even ask American NBA stars for two-year commitments. They did not hold a camp last summer and getting any American NBA star to play in a summer qualifying game — out of the question.

(Unless you count Slam Dunk champ Mac McClung, who was a G Leaguer when he played for Team USA in qualifiers last summer).

But the Canadians’ demand for so much time from their top talent is rooted in the same sludge of embarrassment that led to nearly two decades of USA Basketball getting multiple years out of its stars.

The Americans’ disappointing bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics led then-managing director Jerry Colangelo to insist on multi-year commitments from NBA stars, a system that worked without question until the 2019 World Cup in China, when Team USA couldn’t get those commitments and finished seventh.

The Canadians, after a brutal 2019 World Cup that went so poorly they couldn’t qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, hosted the last qualifying opportunity for the 2021 Games last June. Andrew Wiggins (more on him in a minute), Powell, Joseph, Barrett, Dort, and Alexander-Walker were all on the team, but they still lost to the Czech Republic and failed to make it to Tokyo.

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