Five Things I Dig and Don’t Dig About the Toronto Raptors

This week on Five Things, a discussion on momentum and its cause for optimism, Jeff Dowtin's departure, and Barton's defence - or lack thereof. (No paywall).

1. Fickle Physics of Energy

Momentum is an unruly character. A Trump card upending an otherwise predictable poker hand.

Ask any of the Elite Eight teams this year in the Men’s March Madness – or the favourites not there. Ask the 2007 Colorado Rockies who looked to be a meagre .500 team until they ripped off 21 wins in 22 games and rolled right into the World Series. Or, the 2006 Edmonton Oilers who finished 8th in the Western Conference only to run it straight to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Toronto Raptors aren’t a red hot asteroid breaching earth’s atmosphere. I’m not saying they’re primed for a sudden, deep run either. (Though, most fans probably said that about those aforementioned teams too.)

What I am saying is momentum’s a funny thing. Just there, when all it’s unknown variables, suddenly, converge. For that, momentum must never be dismissed.

Most would think the Raptors have just been wading in a big ol’ swamp of mediocrity for some time now. They mostly were. The momentum arrows straight down, or, somewhat recently, flat as a board. But there are hints of change. Potential for an origin point where, perhaps, things are no longer as they seem.

Besides, that’s how momentum works. A forgotten seed lying within inhospitable conditions, against all odds, germinates. How big will it grow, for how long? *shoulder shrug*. But it might be all that’s needed for momentum to play its role.

2. No Life Story is Simple

The Raptors are like any delicately formed ecosystem. A whole dependent upon the production of its individual parts. Opposed to those teams boasting a Superstar(s) that drag their teams through the most doldrums of minutes. In Toronto, anyone falters and the entire system is out of whack.

For parts of this season, you could feel the disparity. The exchange of control; the command for the ball; the unwillingness to make the extra pass, perhaps, for altruistic reasons, but with unyielding results. All of it inhibited an organic growth that we expected from this team. All of it poisoning the comradery this team nurtured for the better part of a decade.

It’s not to blame any one player. A lot of flack has been thrown Freddy’s way, myself included (#1), as the representative point guard. But Scottie’s received his share; many wanted Gary shipped; then, O.G.; Pascal’s critics loom and emerge like nightly crickets. Precious and Boucher, at times, bearing the brunt of the bench’s horribleness.

We’ve all assigned shares of blame throughout the season. Though, the harshness of critique more on decision-making than abilities or skill. The potential I, at least, see in this team, making the lack of success all the more maddening.

Others blame the front office. Undercutting the team’s outlook before the season even started. Strategic hubris? Cost-cutting? Overconfidence? It’s hard to say. Though, many would take the sudden success of last year – Scottie’s Rookie of the Year campaign; Freddy and Pascal playing like All-Stars; O.G., Gary, and Precious each on the precipice of making jumps in their game – and understand their patience. Otto Porter Jr. was no game-changer, but would have further balanced this team’s asynchronous rotation.

Then there’s Nick Nurse. Who’s true feelings and perspective has suddenly become much more transparent. The whole, “we’ll see where we’re at” at the end of the season comments, not sitting well with those who already doubted his strategic and tacictal deployment of this team. Oren Weisfeld analyzes this excellently. As does Michael Grange.

(For what it’s worth, we have to laud Nick for being honest, too. We all hate the platitudes and cliches used by players, coaches, and management to avoid giving real answers. We can’t just smash a dude for, finally, saying what’s on his mind).

Nurse’s use of the bench has perplexed me all season. I’ve suggested changes and asked many a question a multitude of times (here, here (#2), among other articles). His rotations are never consistent, his use and commitment to certain guys as unruly as morning hair. Styles of play, players’ minutes, bad losses, blown leads, the list goes on. He’s not the sole reason. He carries a burden of responsibility as much as anyone else, should you choose to criticize.

3. Toronto Raptors Hints of Change

It may be an optimist’s take.

But, for the Raptors, the signs of momentum building are there. Like vanguard scouts observing a crowding call to arms. Whispers of dissonance heard in an echo chamber of doubt. It’s all that anyone hopeful needs to believe.

For instance. In the last 16 games, the Raptors are 9-7, tied – among a swack of teams – for the 14th best win percentage. That, alongside a 9th rated offence and 4th rated defence, is enough to be a sole spore infecting the masses.

True, not all of the 9 wins have been the most braggadocious. Three against Charlotte and Detroit’s 2026 prospects; two versus teams sans their best players in Miami (no Jimmy Buckets) and Washington (no Bradley Beal or Kyle Kuzma).

But some are shiny rocks to shelve in the collection. Wins over Denver, Minnesota, Washington (with their three stars), and Oklahoma City all respectable. Minny (4-1) and OKC (5-1), in particular, were, or would be, on winning streaks at the time of their defeats.

Most losses, the Raptors contended. Blown leads against Denver (no thanks to Scott Foster), LAC, LAL, and Milwaukee late in the game. Against, Philly and Boston, the Raps almost rallied from miserable first halves – lacksadascalism is one sure way to subvert this whole ideal of momentum – and abysmal, even for their standards, three-point shooting (8/26 and 6/33 respectively). All of it demonstrating Toronto’s ability to battle with big boys.

There’s a new feel with this team. A surging confidence individually. A blooming trust collectively. For Toronto, the trueism “no ‘I’ in team” is a joyous curse. An ultimate testament to the “team sport” we all love; a narrowest of margins of error for when not all the engines fire. Most pertinent to this crew than the majority of the League.

The ecosystem, so sensitive to disruption and foreign entities, is finally beginning to flourish. A rediscovered harmony exponentially growing. The margin of error diminishing.

4. Toronto Raptors Reasons of Change

In some ways, Toronto’s sudden winning ways should not be all that surprising. Given that expectations were so high at the start of the year.

Yet, here we are. Astonished to see that Toronto fought it’s way out of the lottery and, at least, a shot to get into the Playoffs.

One, of the starkest developments was the acquisition of Jakob Pöltl in February. Existentially, he brought peace – kinda. At least, in knowing that his arrival symbolizes management’s belief in this core. Strategically, he’s diversified this team’s horribly static rotation and strengthened their rather flimsy resilience and cohesion on both ends of the floor. And on a tactical level, where Toronto’s glaring holes were for all of the NBA and its fans to note, Jak’s resolved most: a big, painful, playmaking screen-and-roller for Freddy, a willing passer (particularly, in the high-post), and a persistent offensive AND defensive rebounder.

More crucially, this team, together, has fixed some of what plagued it for so long. Much of it, unlike years in the past, a blueprint for success IN the playoffs.

The bench, still miserably 29th in this 16-game span in scoring, is, at least, finding a defensive identity – 4th in defensive rating. It’s enough moving forward. Gary Trent Jr. and Chris Boucher lead the way with scoring. Precious Achiuwa very slowly rounding into form. His hounding of Celtics the other night reminiscent of what he demonstrated the latter half of last season. We don’t know what’s going to happen with Jeff Dowtin gone – I trusted him more than Will Barton – but, presumably, Barton and Christian Koloko will round out the rotation (more on that below). Koloko performing much better on the defensive end of late.

Three-point shooting, too, has plagued the Raptors all season (27th prior to this stretch and 27th following it). Difference being, in that span, their scoring has jumped from 22nd to 16th – up 3 points per game – despite the same three-point totals per game. As discussed last week (#1), so much of their scoring success has come from their improved efficiency at rim.

Suddenly, O.G. Anunoby has emerged in what looks like a real coming-of-age moment. His defence continues to be other wordly. His natural gift of size, strength, and athleticism evolving alongside a greater awareness. He can and will remove number one scorers. On offence, the change is all the more demonstrative. He’s hitting the three-ball like he’s Jason Kapono. Opening space and opportunity for drives that he once cumbersomely stumbled into. In the last month, he’s stampeding downhill with a new sense of control, balance, and ferocity. Finish at the rim is reaching a level of certainty we’ve not seen before. His mid-range a much safer option than merely a few months earlier.

With O.G.’s emergence and Scottie finding his confidence and purpose amongst the core, the Raptors finally have five real offensive threats (can’t forget about Jak’s shotput floater and finish around the rim) starting. That’s something this team did not have last year heading into the Playoffs against Philly. Freddy and Pascal were it. Scottie hurting his ankle didn’t help.

Will it be enough? Hard to know. Most will say no.

But it’s a testament to what has been slowly growing within. A unity emerging amongst this team. A strength and confidence growing like a roar echoing far in the distance rumbling as it nears closer and closer towards whomever is to meet them next.

5. Barton Un-D-cent

There’s a lot of sadness out there over the announcement that the Toronto Raptors won’t be converting Jeff Dowtin’s 2-way.

It’s tragic. He is another of a long line of well-loved guys, who busted their asses, who showed promise, who might have flourished had they been given a greater chance, but who, ultimately, couldn’t quite cut it.

I’m not going to litigate the decision because I don’t really know the reason why. Clearly, he was better than the other guards, Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn, and Will Barton. And, clearly, he was earning the trust of Nurse – which says more than anything. There’s more to unveil.

Still stinks.

Most imminently because Barton, who’s likely to swallow up the remaining Dowtin minutes plays defence like he’s haunting a Scottish castle.

We know this story all to well. Toronto finds *insert shooter’s name* [pick from Matt Thomas, Armoni Brooks, Svi Mykhailiuk, Joe Weiskampf, Juancho Hernangomez] and hopes to net out a positive point differential despite a very well-known set of vulnerable defensive abilities.

Barton’s the newest member of that caste. Should he not come out blazing every single game, that point differential won’t have a chance. Since joining the Raptors, Barton’s played 181 minutes, scored 53 points, is 11/35 from 3 (31%), and has a net +/- of -24 (the latter Charlotte game accounts for 20 of those points, 6 of those threes, and +26 of the total point differential).

All in all, he’s been bad. At both ends. The poor soul melting in the face of an attack like an ice cream sundae in the sun.

With Dowtin gone, we’re back to a familiar dilemma of the lesser of two evils: Flynn and his foibles or Barton the Ghost.

Not ideal.

Flynn’s probably the only person in Toronto happy about Dowtin’s departure. He’s the best shooter of the three, will put up a better fight than Barton on defence, and is a better complement to Scottie when he’s running point forward.

Not to mention, with Pöltl, Malachi FINALLY has someone to effectively run a P + R with. It’s sadly ironic that Flynn lost his minutes the same time Jak came back to town.

It’s probably too late to finick with lineups, but maybe Flynn sees some daylight. ‘Cause Barton can only come out at night [or is that vampires and werewolves?].

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