When you Flava Save the Raptors: https://t.co/GAYuIG50Zt
— Chris Walder (@WalderSports) November 6, 2023
2. The system changes are clear, they’re just not leading to results yet
To simplify Rajakovic’s approach, the Raptors want to play point-five basketball. That is, when a player gets the ball, ideally they decide within 0.5 seconds whether to shoot, pass or drive. The result is free-flowing motion with on- and off-ball activity, a lot of passing, and small advantages cascaded into larger ones.
When it works, it’s beautiful. When it doesn’t, it can result in a lot of turnovers and a lot of passing that looks like passing for the sake of passing.
The Raptors lead the league in passing, making 316 passes a game, up from 292 last year, when they ranked eighth. That current number would have been second to the Warriors last season, but the Warriors created 55.8 potential assists (shots that came directly after a pass) and 78.9 assist points (points that were assisted on), whereas the Raptors sit at 52.2 (fourth) and 67 (13th), respectively. The Raptors also have the second-lowest time-per-touch and the third-fewest dribbles per touch.
In short, they are moving the ball more quickly and more often than just about anyone. That’s a real positive, and it shows that the Raptors players are buying into Rajakovic’s system and trying to execute it, for the most part.
However, another way you lead the league in passes is by having long possessions where you have to pass a lot because a shot doesn’t materialize, and the Raptors take more late-shot-clock attempts than anyone except the Knicks and Nuggets. Even as one of the league’s best transition teams, the average Raptors possession takes 14.1 seconds, a bottom-10 mark in the league.
Again, this isn’t unexpected. A new system takes time, and this particular system requires players to learn each others tendencies and far more on- and off-ball actions than they’re used to.
A telling example that drives that home: The Raptors are cutting way more than before. Based on data provided to Sportsnet, the Raptors are cutting off off-ball screens 54.8 times per 100 possessions this season, a 35-per cent increase over last season … but they’re the worst team in the league scoring off cuts.
The process is coming along. It might take a little while still for the results to come around.
There are a few questions I hear regularly from non-sports fans who are curious about my job. At the top of that list: What is it like to be around so many tall people? Does your neck get sore?
My answer: You get used to it quickly. OG Anunoby? Objectively a large human, measuring in at 6 feet 7 and 232 pounds. I barely notice when he walks by me. Even Jakob Poeltl, who is 7 feet tall, gets no reaction out of me. “There is a normally proportioned individual” is what I think to myself, if I think anything at all. Your everyday surroundings become normal. We are hardwired to make that the case.
Over my 15 years covering the NBA, there have been exceptions. Most memorably, I was heading back to the media room from my seats closer to the court in Washington, when the Wizards swept the Toronto Raptors in 2015. My head was down, so I didn’t notice what was going on around me. I was held up by a security guard for a moment, so I paused, looked to my right and saw a giant torso. A checked dress shirt covered that torso, and my head went up to, maybe, the fourth button. I’m 6 feet tall, but former Washington centre Gheorghe Muresan is 7 feet 7, listed at 303 pounds. I’m guessing that measurement was from his playing days, because he looked bigger. I was sufficiently jarred.
Accordingly, when I see a gentleman bend his knees at the free-throw line, and the man beside him still struggles to reach his shoulders — and that man is a once-in-a-generation prospect? Well, you better believe I’m writing a running diary of Victor Wembanyama’s first game against the Raptors.
“Just super unique,” Anunoby said. “Never seen anyone that tall in life.”
But the Raptors have some star power too as Scottie Barnes put the Raptors on his broad shoulders in the fourth quarter to wrap up perhaps his most impressive game of what has been an outstanding start to the season. Barnes took over down the stretch and finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three assists and three steals in 42 minutes.
With apologies to Wembanyama, he was the best player on the floor for either team.
That said, Wembanyama was as advertised, which is to say, spectacular. He finished with 20 points, nine rebounds, four assists and five blocks in 38 minutes.
The No. 1 overall pick in the draft this past summer and a prospect many seasoned NBA observers believe is the best basketball prospect to join the NBA since LeBron James arrived in 2003 provided multiple plays that you could only giggle at by the end of the first quarter alone.
He got things rolling early when he sprinted along the three-point line off a screen, caught the ball cleanly, gathered all of 7-foot-4 of him into a controlled stop as he simultaneously squared to the basket and made a three-pointer that Golden State Warriors all-time sharpshooter Klay Thompson would nod at approvingly. As a bonus, he made the free throw after OG Anunoby fouled him on his follow-through for a tidy four-point play.
Then he caught the ball going left at the top of the three-point line, slammed on the brakes, got low and reversed direction, using a tight, crisp dribble to split Gary Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes before taking one more dribble to get all the way through the lane for a dunk. If there is another player in the NBA who could put that sequence together it might be Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, but not necessarily.
And about that defence. At 6-foot-7 Anunoby might be giving up nine inches or so to Wembanyama, but the burly Raptors forward is probably 40 pounds heavier and orders of magnitude stronger than the slender Spurs rookie. Anunoby tried to use his strength to move Wembanyama as he attacked him one-on-one, and it worked: Anunoby’s shoulder moved the Spurs forward a couple of feet off his line. But it didn’t matter. When Anunoby tried to put the ball on the backboard at point-blank range, Wembanyama simply reached over and pinned it on the backboard. It seems too easy for him.
So: in just over eight first-quarter minutes Wembanyama had 9 points, four rebounds, two blocks and a minimum of three hit-the-person-beside-you highlights. Not bad.
Not perfect, mind you. There was some questionable shot selection and some wild ball-handling misadventures, but nothing that can’t be forgiven for any young player trying to find his feet in the world’s best basketball league.
The Spurs were cooking offensively with multiple high performers. Malaki Branham scored 16 points while Zach Collins had 21 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists. They shot 49.5% from the field and 31.3% from deep. Defensively, they held Toronto to 35 points in the first half, and just over 30% shooting from the field.
They faced a very different Toronto team in the second half. The Raptors came out aggressive, using their length and strength to harass the Spurs ball-handlers with pressure and attack the paint.
“We knew they would come back in the second half with that pressure,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after the game. “Hopefully in the future we handle that a bit better.”
The Spurs turned the ball over 16 times, often getting disrupted by Toronto’s pressure defense. The Raptors played a full court man-to-man press for a bulk of the second half.
On top of that, the Raptors caught fire in the second half, hitting 12 shots from deep. They shot 39.6% from three overall. When Wembanyama was off the court, they attacked the Spurs drop defense, and got easy looks for Dennis Schroeder and Jakob Poeltl in the pick and roll. Schroeder had 24 points, Poeltl scored 16 and had 10 rebounds.
It was the Raptors young star who made the biggest difference in the second half. Scottie Barnes has been on a roll as of late, and kept it going in San Antonio. He had 30 points (27 in the second half), 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks. He hit 5 three-pointers, punishing the Spurs for leaving him open from deep.
Despite all of the Raptors advantages, the Spurs still were just a rebound a way from surviving their surge. After Johnson hit two clutch free throws to put the Spurs up two, the Raptors rushed down the floor and found an open Schroeder for three. His shot clanked off the rim, where Wembanyama seemed to have pulled down the rebound. Cedi Osman inadvertently ripped the ball from Wembanyama’s grasp, leading to a game-tying put back by Anunoby.
The Raptors went on to dominate the overtime period. Outscoring the Spurs 11-4.
“It’s a young group playing a very experience group,” Popovich said. “It’s like the biggest small team you can imagine, Toronto is with their length and athleticism. Down the stretch, scoring-wise, we had a little more trouble with their length, their aggressiveness, their ability to get in passing lanes. I think it slowed us down to the point where our offense wasn’t smooth.”
It was a tale of two halves for the Raptors, as they looked listless on both ends of the court for this matinee game. Wembanyama’s presence in the paint threw a fit on the Raptors’ offense in the first half, but plenty of their issues were self-inflicted. The Raptors shot 31.7% from the field in the first half while allowing the Spurs a Nexus pass to the basket for 52.3%. The Raptors’ perimeter shooting carried their offense for the most part, shooting a scorching 19-for-48 from the perimeter compared to the Spurs’ 10-for-32.
The Raptors’ offensive and defensive adjustments in the second half led to a much better return over the next two periods. Still, without Scottie Barnes anchoring this team (and with a healthy contribution from the bench) and refusing to lose in the second half, we could be talking about a much different game. Pascal Siakam continues to struggle but hit a clutch trifecta in OT. Still, coach Darko Rajakovic needs to do a better job putting Siakam in a position to succeed offensively, as the issue is not whether Barnes and Siakam can play together; it’s about how coach Rajakovic can put his best two players in a position to succeed offensively.
The game started sloppy for both teams, but the Raptors took advantage early, with Anunoby’s three-pointer from the top of the key getting them an early 7-2 lead. However, the Raptors’ defense allowed the Spurs to go on an 8-0 run to take a 10-7 lead. The Raptors had several opportunities to seize control of the game early, thanks to Schroder’s play, but Siakam’s off to an ugly start.
Instead, the Raptors got caught in WembyMania, and saw how much of a cheat code he is. His first play back in the game, he caught a pass from the top of the key — moving to his left — and swished a trifecta for an and-1. Anunoby would have been close enough to contest the shot if it was your typical big wing, but he was nowhere close. Up next, he faked a handoff and took two steps for a dunk. In the next play, Anunoby challenged him in the post, only for Anunoby’s shot to get swallowed by Wembanyama.
Despite the Wembymania, the Raptors’ perimeter shooting found its pulse late in the quarter and survived the first frame with a 22-26 deficit.
The Spurs’ defense tightened after the break, as coach Rajakovic’s 0.5 offense continued to self-destruct while simultaneously allowing the Spurs’ non-Wembanyama minutes to build a 17-point lead. Several Raptors bricks later, Siakam set up Poeltl for a floater to put an end to an 11-0 run. Wembanyama got back in late in the period and splashed a trifecta, but thanks to Siakam’s ability in the drive-and-kick Anunoby was set up for a pair of three-pointers to keep the Spurs from blowing this game open. Toronto ended the first half with a 35-54 deficit.
The Raptors found their half-court offense via Poeltl to start the second half, but couldn’t stop the Spurs on the defensive end. Siakam finally got his first basket on an and-1. The Spurs continued to shred the Raptors’ defense, and it wasn’t even Wembanyama doing the damage. Barnes, Anunoby, and the bench made one more push late in the third to keep the game close enough, trailing the Spurs, 71-86.
Anunoby continued his perimeter barrage in the final frame, but Barnes imposed his will with his two-way play. His steals and heady play offensively cut the Spurs’ lead to nine, forcing coach Pop to call for time. Barnes continued his assault, hitting back-to-back threes, with the bench unit providing the energy and perimeter shooting to support him, cutting the lead to five. Coach Darko shifted to Trent Jr. and thestarters, and after cutting the lead to two, the Raptors hit a dry spell, allowing the Spurs to push their lead to eight. The Raptors fought back, and Barnes’ pull-up three tied the game at 108 with 37 seconds remaining.
Wembanyama had his on the way 20 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots. A three-point attempt in the final minute of overtime, with the Spurs down by four, would have been the capper but it spun about halfway down before bouncing out.
“I am not saying anything new, he’s a generational talent, but we matched O.G. (Anunoby)’s minutes with his minutes and Wembanyama ended up being minus-16 for the game,” Raptors coach Darko Rajakovic said. “I thought O.G. did the best you can do against that kind of talent and size and skill.”
Anunoby finished with 24 points, a career high seven three-pointers and new admiration for Wembanyama.
“Just super unique,” Anunoby said. ”Never seen anyone that tall in life. So, yeah, he’s just really tall, covers a lot of ground. Yeah, he changes the game.”
But Gregg Popovich, one of the best basketball minds of all time, is still trying to figure how to maximize Wembanyama’s considerable talents.
“It takes some time just to see where he’s most comfortable on the court and where advantages are for him based on what is abilities are,” the Spurs coach said. “Most of us, all we saw were highlight films, I wasn’t paying attention to him … We’re taking time to just let him play, that will lead us in the direction of how we can help him grow.
“We don’t assume we know how to grow him without knowing.”
While Wembanyama’s offensive skills are fluid and quick and almost majestic, his defensive chops are built on instinct and athleticism.
“Every time you’re by the rim, you just got to really watch out for him, see where he’s out on the floor because you know he’s coming to try to block your shot,” Barnes said. “So just try to be aware of where he’s at on the floor. I think that’s why we got a lot of good kick-out threes today.
“That was mostly one of the effects of that, him just being ready to block a shot.”
Wait until he sees teams a second time.
“He is a good shot-blocker and he’s learning footwork and obviously has to understand who he is guarding, he doesn’t know any of these guys,” Popovich said. “He’s never played against any of them so each outing is an experience for him. So he’s collecting information, basically. But he’s pretty smart so he catches on quickly.”
Barnes is showing he’s a quick learner, too. He has taken to a slightly new Raptors offensive system like he has been playing it forever and Sunday’s game was his sixth in a row with 20 or more points.
Maybe in an alternate universe, a Toronto rebuild would have resulted in both Barnes and Wembanyama playing together this season on a Raptors team that would have had two of the league’s most exciting young stars. Barnes was once again brilliant for Toronto, with crucial buckets down the stretch as Toronto clawed its way back from a 22-point deficit. After nailing eight straight points in the fourth, Barnes called his own number in the final seconds and nailed a step-back three-pointer to tie the game up at 108.
An Anunoby put-back after a Dennis Schröder missed three allowed Toronto to force overtime after a pair of Keldon Johnson free throws had put San Antonio ahead. From there, impressive defense from Jakob Poeltl and a game-clinching three from Anunoby, his career-high seventh three-pointer of the game, allowed Toronto to move to 3-4 this season.
It was almost comical seeing the 7-foot-1 Poeltl dwarfed at the opening tipoff by the Spurs’ big man. Wembanyama won the tip easily then got to work wreaking havoc on Toronto’s offense. He blocked Poeltl at the rim in the first quarter and easily smothered an O.G. Anunoby layup attempt when the Raptors forward tried to back down Wembanyama for an ill-advised shot attempt. Wembanyama just smothered the ball as the Spurs started the fastbreak. Jalen McDaniels’ layup attempt met a similar fate, blocked at the rim by Wembanyama.
Toronto was clearly concerned about Wembanyama, hesitating at times to take three-pointers, usually understandably. His ability to somehow defend both the paint and the three-point line almost simultaneously is like nothing the NBA has ever seen before. His size and speed allows him to collapse inside and then recover back outside, blocking an Anunoby three-pointer in the third, for example.
The Raptors did themselves no favors, though. Maybe the early start time threw them off because it seemed like Toronto was sleepwalking through the first half with lackluster energy at both ends of the floor. Pascal Siakam was once again quiet, with three of Toronto’s 11 first-half turnovers.
Wembanyama, meanwhile, had no trouble scoring on Toronto’s lackadaisical defense in the first half. He easily nailed a mid-range jumper over Anunoby who spent most of the night with the Wembanyama assignment. An overly aggressive closeout by Anunoby allowed Wembanyama to convert a four-point play as the Spurs jumped ahead in the first quarter. The attention Toronto paid to Wembanyama allowed the rest of the Spurs to get going as Keldon Johnson and Doug McDermott put San Antonio up 22 in the first half.
Toronto did wake up, though. Poeltl got things started near the hoop with a couple of floaters from Dennis Schröder and Barnes. Barnes later found Gary Trent Jr. in the corner for a transition three-pointer early in the fourth quarter to pull the Raptors to within nine. Barnes followed it up with back-to-back three-pointers and a dunk over Jeremy Sochan, which put the third-year forward over the 20-point threshold for the sixth straight game.
Down 19 after a half and by as many as 22 earlier in the second quarter, the Raptors needed to win the final quarter by 15 just to force overtime where they pulled away for the win.
Wembanyama came as advertised, blocking shots mere mortals have no chance of even getting to, not to mention his smooth shooting stroke which took him to a 20-point night to go along with his nine rebounds and four assists and five blocks.
He looked every bit the phenom or unicorn you have heard about, but once the Raptors got their heads into this game (a tape of Darko Rajakovic’s halftime speech we suspect would be highly entertaining), it wasn’t Wembanyama you found yourself watching as much as Scottie Barnes who took this game over in the fourth quarter to even give the Raptors a chance at the win.
Barnes finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, 17 of those points in the fourth quarter while tying his career high of five threes.
With each passing game he puts a disappointing sophomore season in the rear-view and brings back the more positive memories of his rookie season.
And right there with Barnes in terms of impact on this victory was Raptors lockdown defender O.G. Anunoby, who hounded Wembanyama all afternoon, while putting up a career best seven three pointers on his way to a 24-point, seven-rebound game.
Anunoby finally earned All-NBA defensive honours this past year, an overdue honour many of those who have watched him up close for his whole career would suggest.
But with a worldwide audience, Anunoby had the opportunity to make more believers and did so holding the 19-year-old Frenchman who had just recently torched the Phoenix Suns for 38 points to a mere 20 in this one.