I am *begging* the Atlanta Hawks to do what must be done to make the Pascal Siakam trade.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) October 29, 2023
Like I said. No dogs @PatBevPod
— Patrick Beverley (@patbev21) October 29, 2023
Unfortunately, the Raptors don’t have the luxury of flushing it. They are a young-ish team espousing newness under rookie head coach Darko Rajakovic, and there are lessons to be learned. Painful ones, that need to be heeded quickly if the Raptors are to survive a difficult early-season schedule with the positive energy of training camp still in tact.
For long stretches of Friday’s game, it looked like the Raptors were firmly in control. They opened the game on an 8-0 run that sent the Bulls – fresh off a pseudo-players-only meeting after their season opener – to an early timeout and then swelled to a 14-2 run. Later, they held the Bulls scoreless for nearly nine minutes spanning the end of the second and start of the third. They led by 17 with five minutes to play, and still by seven with 102 seconds remaining.
So how, exactly, does a game that includes 14-2 and 62-29 runs end in a heartbreaking loss for the visitors?
The reasons are surely familiar, even if counter-tuns of 40-9 (after the hot start) and 22-5 (to end regulation) are not.
Toronto’s bench was at a loss for how to score in their initial first-half stint, necessitating Rajakovic to change his substitution patterns and, once both his centres were in foul trouble, tag in Chris Boucher as an 11th man. The four-minute stretch that included Malachi Flynn saw the Raptors lose by 14 points, and while that’s not entirely on him, it’s notable that the Raptors went without a point guard in any bench lineup from there. Precious Achiuwa struggled at both ends, Jalen McDaniels missed all four of this three-point attempts, and Gradey Dick’s cameo was more good process than helpful result.
That explains why two dominant stretches didn’t have the game out of reach for Chicago late. Had the bench held up better, maybe Toronto ends this thing early in the fourth, opening the door for Billy Donovan to use the depths of his bench and save minutes for the Pistons on Saturday. Those shaky bench stretches also have a way of bleeding into minutes as starters
return, and it took the halftime reprieve to recalibrate an offensive gameplan. Bench players, of course, don’t close the game out, except in special circumstances.
The Raptors did run into two of those caveats, only one of which was in their control. OG Anunoby left the game in the second hald with muscle cramps that had him limping off the floor, removing the team’s best individual defender and the likely DeMar DeRozan assignment in the clutch. Achiuwa and Jakob Poeltl both also fouled out, opening the door for a quickly resurgent Boucher to play 17 pivotal minutes.
The final 10 minutes of the game were, to be kind, a comedy of mistakes, and Toronto was fortunate to even get overtime. They sent DeRozan to the free-throw line on four different occasions in the final 21 seconds, two of which came on players who should know better biting on DeRozan’s patented pump-fake.
“I think he was involved,” Rajakovic said of Siakam. “I thought he was making right decisions, I thought he was finding open guys.”
Rajakovic keeps saying that the ball in his movement-based offence will always “find” the best players but that hasn’t been true often enough in the first week of the season.
There is an equitable distribution of shots: Scottie Barnes, 15.3 per game; Dennis Schröder, 14.0; Siakam,13.3; Gary Trent Jr.,13.0; O.G. Anunoby, 10.5 are the team leaders. But an egalitarian offence might not be the best use of personnel and it’d be best if it tilts more to Siakam as the season progresses.
Whether it’s an early-season over-reliance on playmaking coming from the elbow or the top of the key instigated by one of the team’s centres or everyone trying to figure where to cut and when, Siakam’s been an observer too often and in unfamiliar spots too often.
In three games he’s taken 15 three-pointers — making six of them, to his credit — but only 18 shots in the paint according to NBA.com shot tracking,
Someone one with his skills in traffic shouldn’t be taking 37.5 per cent of his shots from behind the arc. It should be much closer to the 22 per cent he took from long range last season. He does lead the Raptors in free throws taken so things are happening when he’s on the move with the ball.
It’s just not often enough.
“It’s a new system, we just keep adjusting each and every game,” Barnes said Saturday. “Still feeling out, trying to find what our go-to is and getting (to) it, finding those right ball movements, where we need to get the ball to slow the offence down for where we’re gonna create it at.
“It’s still early in the season, so we’re gonna find it. Trust and believe in each other and just gotta stay together.”
There is a lot of time to get it together and games are coming rapidly to start the season and to provide live opportunities to work things out.
After starting the season with three games in four nights, the Raptors have another three-in-four stretch beginning Monday at home against Portland.
The Raptors were led by Scottie Barnes, who continued his strong start to the season by putting up 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting while adding eight rebounds, five assists and two blocks. That wasn’t enough to counter a pair of 34-point nights from Sixers star Joel Embiid and emerging start Tyrese Maxey, who is thriving with the additional responsibilities he’s getting while James Harden stays out of the lineup as he tries to force the Sixers to trade him.
The Raptors came out of the gate seemingly determined to let their old coach know that they were doing just fine without him even after losing in overtime in Chicago on Friday night and getting back in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Toronto led 36-27 after the first quarter and knocked down all seven of its three-point attempts. You could say they were trolling their old coach, who had to sit through some rough shooting nights last season, but two of the seven came from Dick, who scored his first eight NBA points in a five-minute stretch to end the opening period.
Toronto led by as many as 12 early in the second quarter after struggling reserve guard Malachi Flynn hit a triple — Toronto’s eighth straight without a miss — but the Sixers came back with a 19-7 run sparked by Maxey, who tied the game on a 32-foot three. Maxey hit all three of the Sixers triples in the half, the rest of the team going 0-for-11. Toronto shot 10-of-16 in the first half and led 59-56 at half.
Seeing the ball go in — in a variety of ways — had to be a relief for the Raptors, who had the NBA’s lowest-rated half-court offence after two games, suggesting that maybe Toronto’s struggles in that area a year ago weren’t a Nick Nurse problem. Toronto shot 52.5 per cent from the field and had 15 assists against eight turnovers in the first half, all areas of improvement. In addition to the threes, there were some nice baskets off cuts and driving lanes opened up after dribble hand-offs at the elbows — all as promised by the Raptors in training camp but missing in the first two games of the regular season.
“It is going to be a journey,” said Rajakovic. “It’s going to be a process, and we’re going to stay together on that journey. I think the most important thing for us is understanding that it’s going to take some time to have clarity [with] what we really want to do and not to get lost in competition itself that’s, ‘Oh, let’s get away from this because at some point something else might work a little bit better.’ We got to see the big picture. We got to be able to be committed to our new habits and creating new habits, which is passing the ball, playing for each other, and making those habits stick.”
But habits take time to develop, and fatigue is never kind when adversity strikes. The rested Sixers came out on a mission to start the third quarter, sprinting out to a 21-5 run punctuated by another Maxey three that came after it seemed the referees had missed an obvious foul on a Barnes lay-up at the other end. Rajakovic picked up his first technical foul in protest. Embiid missed the free throw, but Philly led 77-64 and you had to wonder if the Raptors’ legs were beginning to fail them as the Sixers took a 91-79 edge into the final quarter.
The Raptors weren’t as sharp defensively as they were in the first two games as Philly shot 50 per cent from the floor for the game and were lacking the swarming energy that sustained them in a win over Minnesota and hard-fought loss to Chicago.
As he’s done all too often in his young career, Tyrese Maxey eviscerated the Raptors, scoring 34 points on 20 shots, along with 7 assists. Even Nurse noted post-game that he was glad to be on Maxey’s side this time, as he seemed to drop 30 every time Nurse’s Raptors played him. Joel Embiid, the reigning MVP, scored 34 of his own (on 21 shots) and added 9 boards and 8 assists. Tobias Harris chipped in 15.
With O.G. Anunoby out due to muscle cramps, Gary Trent Jr. slid into the starting lineup for the Raptors. He scored 17, but needed 16 shots to get there. Scottie Barnes led the way for the Raps with 24, with 17 of them coming after halftime; he added 8 boards and 5 assists. Pascal Siakam scored a quiet 11.
Rookie Gradey Dick was the best story on the Raptors side of the ball; he scored 15 points of the bench on 5-for-8 shooting, and was one of only three Raptors players on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger tonight.
But Nurse, naturally, was the main story heading into the game. It’s safe to say there’s still some healing to be done; Nurse said it was “weird” walking into the arena, and of course, most of the questions the media had for him centered on his exit from the team. When asked if he had regrets, Nurse (wearing a 76ers cap pre-game, not his NN hat that he conspicuously wore last year) quickly said “nope” — but overall he was diplomatic, as you’d expect, repeating that it was simply time. “A lot of great years, a lot of great memories,” he said, adding that “it ended the way it ended.” Asked when he knew it was time, he said he had thoughts about it during last season, when the team would get mired in a losing streak and people would naturally start talking “and it gets you thinking.” He said maybe it could have gone the other way, if the team had a played a little better down the stretch.
He did say, though, that it was “way stranger” than he expected, coming back so soon, adding that maybe wasn’t ready for it — he hadn’t even had time to fully reflect on his 10 years here. He noted that in addition to his coaching, his kids were born here, he coached the national team, and he loves the city, all of which makes it hard to come back — harder, he added, then returning to any of the other cities in which he’s coached.
I’m no body language expert, but I do have to say that although Nick’s responses were verbally what I’d expect, the way he delivered the words was unexpected. Nick is usually pretty direct when responding to questions, but his delivery was less confident when talking about his exit. I almost want to say that he sounded wistful about his time in Toronto. He kinda looked into that middle distance while speaking, and the words came out slowly, like he was trying to find the right thing to say. And maybe you could read it like he was trying to find the words and not say anything incendiary or give the Raps any bulletin board material. But I read it like a guy who – while not feeling regret – probably feels disappointment and might even wish it had gone another way.
But hey, that’s just my interpretation. Pre-game, Nick said he really enjoys coaching this 76ers team, and from what he’d seen of the Raptors on film, they were also in a good spot, meaning everyone is where they need to be.
The Raptors, meanwhile, are either a team overdue for considerable roster surgery or a Rajakovic-engineered renaissance in the making. The early returns have obviously favoured the former possibility. If Saturday’s performance was uninspiring, it was better than Friday’s embarrassment of a loss in Chicago. Up 17 points with less than five minutes to play in regulation, the Raptors’ probability of winning the game was calculated at 99.8 per cent by ESPN. Thanks to a shambolic combination of brain cramps and game mismanagement, the Raptors lost in overtime.
“It was not pleasant watching the film,” Rajakovic said. “But it was very needed for us to learn from that and then to get that.”
Again, it’s early. As Nurse was saying on Saturday, a new coach’s early days in a job are a ridiculously hectic “whirlwind.”
Still, the Raptors came into Saturday’s game ranked 29th in offensive efficiency and 26th in turnover percentage. And the organizational thesis that Nurse’s win-every-game stubbornness left untapped talent languishing on Toronto’s bench isn’t passing the smell test out of the gate. Rajakovic has been committed to a 10-man rotation that hasn’t returned the favour with significant contributions. Malachi Flynn came into Saturday’s game a dismal minus-28 in 14 minutes of playing time. The likes of Jalen McDaniels and Precious Achiuwa hadn’t fared much better.
Said Rajakovic before Saturday’s game: “I don’t want to pull those guys out of rotation after two games.”
We’ll see how he feels about yanking them after three or four. If Nurse were still in charge, for better or worse, there’s no doubt where they’d be sitting by now. It’s possible the most accomplished coach in franchise history knew a thing or two about winning a game.
(For those who care, I wrote the following before the Toronto Raptors emerged victorious on Wednesday night over the I-am-so-happy-I-didn’t-have-to-write-about-them-this-time Timberwolves. Clearly, their victory only reinforces my next-level clairvoyance.)
Toronto is among the teams on teardown watch. Nothing has technically changed. O.G. Anunoby (player option), Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. are all headed for free agency, and on paper, this core continues to lack the offensive firepower required to do more than tread water in the middle of the Eastern Conference.
But counting on a Raptors-roster rapture presumes team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster subscribe to groupthink. They don’t.
This is the same front office that gave up a 2024 top-six-protected first-rounder when last season was already speeding into the gutter to acquire Jakob Poeltl. It’s the same front office that let Fred VanVleet walk for nothing in free agency while re-signing Poeltl. And it is the same front office that either loosely flirted with or damn near struck a Damian Lillard trade.
By now, it’s clear the higher-ups view the Raptors’ indistinct place inside the NBA’s pecking order as optionality rather than fundamental failure. And with this year’s first-rounder already owed to San Antonio, Ujiri and Webster are more likely to quadruple-down (quintuple-down?) than surrender to the cries of fans who want Toronto to trade its best players to their favorite team.
The Raptors were a tough watch last season for those who love offensive flow and three-point shooting, and the swap of Fred VanVleet for Dennis Schröder isn’t going to make things any better up north.
There’s going to be an awful lot of dribbling and even more bricked jumpers from this roster, one that needs a massive makeover and a whole lot more spacing.