Morning Coffee – Mon, Apr 3

Raptors clinch the play-in on the back of a 20-20 gem by VanVleet

Fred VanVleet’s 20-assist game underscores his knowledge of offensive balance – The Athletic

As VanVleet got off to a tough start shooting the ball this season, his shot choices were examined and re-examined. VanVleet insisted his shooting would even out as the season went on. In real time, it never seemed like he was taking too many shots. Two or three a game? Maybe. Then again, he attempted eight 3s Sunday, hitting just one. He doesn’t just have the green light to take some of those shots; he needs to for the welfare of the team.

“I know the more pressure I put on from distance, the more they’ve got to press up and I’m able to get inside the lane,” VanVleet said.

To be sure, the addition of Jakob Poeltl has helped VanVleet’s game look better. Having a top-flight screener and role threat not only gives VanVleet more obvious passing lanes but also creates better looks for him when he shoots. A point guard is not going to look the part if he does not have that sort of teammate to facilitate the two-man game.

“It kind of simplifies the game,” VanVleet said of Poeltl’s presence. “Our sets are really good when we get into our screen actions. Just having that … rim threat, consistent rim threat, opens up a lot of 3s, corner 3s and cuts.”

There is also the matter of Anunoby, who suffered an ankle sprain — defined by Raptors coach Nick Nurse as mild — late in the game, shooting better than he has all season. He went 5-for-6 from deep Sunday and is shooting 49 percent from deep over his past 15 games. All of that is helping out VanVleet.

VanVleet is helping out those players, too. It’s a reciprocal relationship. For the season, the Raptors score 116 points per 100 possessions when VanVleet is on the floor and 109.2 when he is off it. That’s nearly as pronounced as Poeltl’s impact on the team’s defence since he arrived.

Part of that is not developing a point guard behind VanVleet to help steady the Raptors in the minutes when he sits. Part of it is that VanVleet is a heady, dynamic offensive player. And don’t look now, but VanVleet’s true-shooting percentage is within nine-tenths of a percentage point of his mark from last season. His efficiency is, indeed, evening out.

“I just think just diving into the details and understanding what each team presents and trying to take the approach of taking whatever the defence gives,” VanVleet said. “Some nights that means I’m more aggressive with my shot. Some nights that means I’m more aggressive with the ball in my hands, making plays. Some nights I’m off the ball. It just kind of depends what the defence brings, where our team is, having a feel for my teammates and where they’re at. Scottie has been amazing the last couple games with the ball in his hands. He got banged up right away in the first quarter (Sunday), so I took it upon myself to be a little more aggressive.”

Raptors Takeaways: VanVleet makes history in win, but Nurse story won’t go away – Sportsnet

In his first meeting with any members of the Toronto media since he raised eyebrows with his unusually frank comments on Friday about his future with the team, the long-time Raptors head coach was — predictably and justifiably — asked about those comments.

But before Lindsay Dunn of CityNews could even phrase a full question, Nurse cut her off.

“That’s exactly why I made ’em [his comments Friday] is to not have to answer that question every game,” Nurse said. “Because I got it about three games in a row, so let’s move on and talk about tonight and this team and this season. Please.”

If you missed what prompted all of this, the notes version: On Thursday, The Toronto Star published a story that essentially said there have been persistent rumours that Nurse — who has one year left on a three-year contract extension worth $24 million — was lining up for a job with the Houston Rockets this off-season. Similarly, the Raptors were beginning to lay the groundwork to replace Nurse with former Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka.

Nurse was asked two questions in Philadelphia on Friday – the first a broad one about “where his head was at” at the tail end of an up-and-down season.

It was at that point things got interesting, as Nurse took the opportunity to say “I’m gonna take a few weeks to see where I’m at, where my head’s at, to see how the relationship with the organization is and everything. It’s been 10 years for me now. Which is a pretty good run …”.


He was then asked specifically about his future coaching in Toronto, and again, Nurse didn’t deflect.

“No, I think I’m concentrated on this job, for sure, and this game,” Nurse said. “But I think that 10 years is a good time to sit back and reflect a little bit, right?”

And that’s it. That was the first time anyone who covers the team on a regular basis can recall Nurse being asked about his future with the Raptors this season, or ever, frankly.

During the 2019-20 season, there were some casual conversations about when Nurse might get an extension given that he won a championship in his first season and was on his way to leading the Raptors to a 60-win season before the pandemic interrupted everything and he had to settle for a franchise record wining percentage. Nurse easily won the coach-of-the-year award and didn’t have to wait too long to get his well-deserved extension.

But ever since? Nothing. The topic was coming, certainly. Whether it happened now or after the season it would have been raised given Nurse would be heading into the last year of his deal, but short of any firm reason to bring it up sooner, those are typically end-of-the-season type questions.

So, what was Nurse referring to, this question he claimed he had received about three games in a row? As I go through my notes, there has only been one ‘big picture’ question where Nurse has been asked to reflect on the season to date and it came before the Raptors played the Washington Wizards last Sunday. The subject or anything similar to it didn’t come up at practice on Monday, at the Miami Heat game on Tuesday or at practice on Thursday.

On Sunday, he was asked to assess the season. His answer then:

“I don’t think it’s going to do me much good to assess the season at this point. My thoughts are get our guys healthy [and] let’s continue to play as well as we can,” Nurse said. “Again, it’s been pretty good basketball for the most part for a few months now, probably post-trade deadline.

“And it really doesn’t matter anymore, looking back and thinking, ‘oh, we coulda, shoulda, woulda.’ If we want to do that in the summer we can, I guess. My focus has to be on what’s good, let’s polish that, what needs work, let’s really work on that. Keep trying to get these guys to play better at both ends of the floor and see what happens.”

Fred VanVleet breaks franchise assist record as Toronto Raptors beat Charlotte Hornets, 128-108 – Raptors HQ

This was a rare game where the whole starting unit looked good at the same time, with each starter scoring 12 or more points. That level of balance on offense made things extra difficult for a Hornets team missing a number of key players.

O.G. Anunoby played an excellent game, going 9/13 from the field (5/6 on threes!) and finishing with 23 points and seven rebounds. His shooting punished the defense for over-helping against Fred’s pick-and-roll possessions, while Anunoby also finished a few nice plays driving into the paint. Anunoby unfortunately left near the end of the fourth quarter after turning his ankle.

After consecutive huge games, Scottie Barnes was a bit quieter today, but that’s to be expected when VanVleet, Siakam, and Anunoby are both rolling like they were. But Barnes still made a nice impact with a few overpowering takes to the basket (would love to see more of those!), a beautiful pass to a baseline cutting Chris Boucher for an open dunk, as well as a straight-up block on a three-point attempt.

There was very little cause for concern in this one. The Hornets brought the lead to within 10 during the fourth quarter, and Toronto’s bench unit wasn’t providing tons of offense. But the team didn’t look even a little rattled. They extended their lead enough to convince Nick Nurse to sub out the starters with 90 seconds left (he called a timeout to do so, mind you – not the most frequent occurrence!).

On the Hornets’ side, Svi Mykhailiuk shined today as he torched his former team with 26 points, five assists, and two steals. Mykhailiuk was unconscious, hitting five threes including a stepback, a catch-and-shoot in transition, and a pull-up (plus the foul). He was zipping around off-ball screens and knocking down shots so consistently that the Raptors assigned their best defender, O.G. Anunoby, to guard him. (Anunoby picked up a foul while chasing Mykhailiuk around a screen.) That Mykhailiuk kid can play! Imagine adding a guy like that to the Raptors’ bench…

Kai Jones provided some fun highlights as he showed off some rim protection chops, blocking Scottie Barnes, Siakam, and Precious Achiuwa. James Bouknight was given the keys to handle the offense at times, and he ended up with 21 points on 7/11 shooting. Mark Williams finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds (seven offensive boards!). The Hornets have young talent to work with. I wonder if they’re targeting anyone specific in the upcoming draft!

Chris Boucher, Christian Koloko, Achiuwa, and Jeff Dowtin each played between 10 and 16 minutes off the bench. Each made a couple nice plays, though nothing that makes you feel much better about the bench versus non-tanking opponents. The good news: the Raptors have the exact same opponent on Tuesday!

Fred VanVleet sets Raptors’ assists record with 20-20 vision | The Star

The context of VanVleet’s contribution to Raptors lore won’t really be known until his career in Toronto is complete. But, at this moment, he holds the franchise record for points in a game (54) and assists in a game. The only other player in NBA history to have both those records is Wilt Chamberlain with the Philadelphia 76ers, and Chamberlain only shares the assist record.

VanVleet and Chamberlain. Not bad company for the undrafted Raptor to be keeping.

“I’ll be able to appreciate this stuff at a later time,” VanVleet said. “The further I get away from 54, the more I appreciate it. Maybe it will be the same thing with this. (I’m) just really thankful for my teammates, just the way they were screening and finishing in the paint.”

It was a play in the paint that VanVleet said was his favourite of the 20 assists. Trapped between a couple of big men with nowhere to go, VanVleet improvised with an eye-popping, behind-the-back bounce pass that Jakob Poeltl converted.

“The behind the back was crazy … I’m happy about the behind the back,” VanVleet said. “That was a nice pass. Thank God Jak caught it. He’s got good hands.”

The Raptors were full measure for the discipline they showed in winning easily against a Charlotte team that punted on the game before it began.

The Hornets, locked in to having a 12.5 per cent chance at winning the draft lottery as the team with the fourth-worst record in the league, played a group of barely recognizable NBAers. They started a point guard on a two-way contact, Theo Maledon, rookies Bryce McGowens and Mark Williams, second-year forward JT Thor and former Raptor Svi Mykhailiuk, the very essence of an NBA journeyman. Mykhailiuk led Charlotte with a career-high 26 points.

Whether some of the injured Hornets recover in time for Tuesday’s finale of the two-game series remains to be seen but the Raptors, who got 36 points, seven rebounds and seven assists from Pascal Siakam, put out a businesslike effort for the most part.

“I think the second half it was like 22-20 in the first three-and-a-half minutes, five minutes, maybe,” Nurse said. “I thought we played very disciplined offensively. We didn’t really make a lot of shots. We had a lot of nice two-pass combos for corner threes and we didn’t make one of them.

“We’re still doing the right things and getting (the ball) where it’s supposed to go. That’s all you can do.”

Fred VanVleet Sets Raptors Record in Victory Over Hornets – Sports Illustrated

At one point, it seemed impossible for the Raptors to extend Anunoby as current NBA rules prohibit players from signing extensions worth more than 120% of their current salary with eight percent raises after that. For Anunoby, that meant Toronto couldn’t come close to offering a reasonable deal. The new collective bargaining agreement, though, has raised that number to 140%, meaning Toronto can offer Anunoby a four-year, $117 million deal, an offer just low enough to make things difficult for the Raptors.

Had this been another injury-plagued season for the 25-year-old forward, Anunoby might have opted to play it safe. He may have signed an extension similar to the new maximum Toronto can offer. Instead, Anunoby has put together the best and most consistent season of his career.

The development has been impressive from Anunoby who dropped 23 points in Toronto’s 128-108 blowout victory over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday night. While most of his buckets still come off easy catch-and-shoot looks, his pull-up game appears to be coming along. He worked the pick-and-roll with Christian Koloko in the first half before nailing a pull-up three, one of two threes he drilled off the bounce.

Statistically speaking, his pull-up game is becoming a bigger part of his offense. Nearly a quarter of his shots have been pull-ups over his past 10 games coming into Sunday and he’s hit them with a 54.8% effective field goal percentage, per NBA stats. Not coincidentally, Anunoby is averaging 20.1 points on nearly 60% shooting with a 50% three-point stroke over that same time span.

His playmaking has also looked better, as he worked the pick-and-roll with Jakob Poeltl, driving to the hoop before throwing a kick-out pass to Fred VanVleet for a clean look.

It did help to have VanVleet orchestrating the offense for most of the afternoon, whizzing the ball around, and finding Anunoby and Pascal Siakam for good looks. The 29-year-old guard set a franchise record with 20 assists to go with 20 points. He became just the third 20-20 player in franchise history, joining Popeye Jones and Chris Bosh, twice, both of whom grabbed 20-plus rebounds in their 20-20 games.

The Hornets hung around a little more than Toronto would have liked Sunday thanks largely to a 26-point afternoon from former Raptor Svi Mykhailiuk. It certainly helped that Charlotte was missing its top seven players and left Anunoby without any star player to build his All-Defense resume against.

Fred VanVleet sets franchise mark for assists in win over Hornets | Toronto Sun

The 20 assists are the most ever by a Raptor, surpassing the 19 once accomplished by Kyle Lowry, Damon Stoudamire and twice by Jose Calderon. The individual performance was part of a season-high 38 assists overall for the Raptors in the game.

VanVleet is now the owner of the franchise’s single-game record for assists and points. He had 54 points on Feb. 2, 2021.

VanVleet was finding teammates at will for a easy lay-ins with the Hornets going with a very inexperienced starting five courtesy of the mounting injuries the team is dealing with.

All five Toronto starters were in double figures but the biggest benefactor of VanVleet’s pinpoint passing on the day — he only had two turnovers while dishing out those 20 dimes — was forward Pascal Siakam, who sent off for 36 points and threw in seven assists of his own.

It was a mostly complete win from start to finish. The defence did get a little loose, particularly in the third quarter when the Hornets put up a game-best 37 in the frame, but things got back on point in the fourth when Charlotte was limited to just 19 as the Raptors closed this one out easily.

One-time Raptor Svi Mykhailiuk led the way for the Hornets with 26 as the Hornets hung around in this one based primarily on their three-point shooting. The hosts were good on 15-of-31 heaves from behind the arc in this one.

The work, though, is only half done.

With the Chicago Bulls still threatening from the 10th position in the East and with Atlanta tied with Toronto for the eighth, getting a second game in Charlotte is going to paramount.

While the Raptors and Hornets square off Tuesday, the Hawks will be in Chicago taking on the Bulls.

It’s a prime opportunity to either lengthen the lead on the Bulls or possibly start pulling away from the Hawks. Either way, a second win in these always-tough-to-sweep two-game series could wind up putting Toronto in a very good position as the season winds down to just three games remaining.

Raptors’ Chris Boucher launches scholarship at TMU | The Star

“It took me a minute obviously as my career was full of ups and downs but I knew that if I ever made it I wanted to help people in my community. I am thankful and blessed to be where I am at now, but it wasn’t always easy.”

TMU will channel the SlimmDuck Scholarship funds through its Spanning the Gaps program, which provides mentoring, tutoring and guidance to candidates who want to go to university but have educational gaps that make their admissions incomplete.

“Chris Boucher has demonstrated firsthand how high an individual can reach when they are given the opportunity,” TMU president Mohamed Lachemi said in a statement. “Basketball, like life, is a team sport — it’s through working together that we win.”

The 30-year-old Boucher is signed with the Raptors for two more seasons beyond this one. He’s averaging nine points and 5.7 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game this season.

Boucher hopes those who will benefit from his scholarship will find ways to pay it forward.

“Consider the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I am grateful to be in this situation to be able to help other people, and I hope they can take this opportunity and go with it and succeed at whatever they want to do.”

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