Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark

The Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark

We’re 21 games in! How about a quick check-in on the Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark?

The bench has been the best part of the season

This is the story of the Raptors season, to be certain. Coming in to the year it was really unclear how the Raptors would replace Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and PJ Tucker, and how the young guys would respond. So far they have exceeded every expectation.

The youth amongst that group is kind of unbelievable. Outside of bench dad CJ Miles you have a rookie: OG Anunoby. Three sophomores: Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. Two third-year players: Norman Powell and Delon Wright. A fourth-year player: Lucas Nogueira. And all of those guys were drafted by the Raptors or acquired in draft day trades. It’s pretty much unheard of to build such a solid second unit out of your own picks, all of whom came out of drafts following playoff seasons. I think we have to give Masai Ujiri, Dwane Casey and the coaching staff, and all of these young men a ton of credit.

The depth has also helped them weather minor injuries extremely well; the Raps have had a few small injuries (Jonas Valanciunas, Norm, Serge Ibaka), one potentially serious injury (Delon) and one baby birth (CJ). They haven’t missed a beat! I’ve been frustrated at times with Casey’s long bench, but I’m starting to come around; everyone can play, they can all play together (except maybe Ibaka and JV—see below) and when an injury does happen, guys fill in seamlessly. It’s enabled Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to get more rest (even at the same time), which, hopefully, will reduce the likelihood of any injury to them this year.

The new offense looks great—until the Raptors abandon it in close games

The ball movement and three-point bombing has been fun to watch, hasn’t it? They’re third in the league in both scoring and point differential (+7.3); 37% of their shots are threes (up from 29% last year) and their assist rate has jumped from 47% (dead last in the league!) to 57% (still only good for 19th, but hey…). They’re even running on occasion—7th in the league in fast break points per game. All good things!

Thing is, the old habits creep in whenever the games get close. They walk it up. The ball doesn’t get swung from side to side. It goes to DeMar DeRozan and it sticks. Everyone clears out and it’s the DeMar iso-ball show. It’s cost them a winnable game in Boston and maybe another one at Golden State. And sure, sometimes when the defense tightens up that’s all you can get… but I think the old habits are dying hard in high-pressure moments.

The Serge Ibaka/Jonas Valanciunas pairing is not working out

Serge Ibaka is not rebounding. Jonas Valanciunas is not defending. They have the two worst defensive ratings (and net ratings) on the team. It was understood when signing Ibaka that he was a better fit in today’s NBA playing centre. But the Raptors aren’t using him there enough. And the game has just passed JV by, sadly. His type of centre play just isn’t the way the game is played now. Of course, the problem is they are #3 and #4 on the Raps’ salary chart, so can you sit one of them? Maybe you don’t have to. Maybe you just sub JV out sooner (three minutes) against most teams, and bring Siakam in; and bring JV back in sooner, replacing Ibaka, to play a little more with the second unit. And against certain teams (Detroit and New Orleans come to mind) he gets more run. Poeltl remains your third centre.

Kyle and DeMar have been good, but not great

At this point I don’t know if either one of the Raptors’ all-star guards will be selected to the team this year. Both are putting up totally fine numbers but Kyle started slowly and has picked up, while DeMar started strong and has tailed off a bit (only 4.4 FTAs in the last five games). I mean, I can’t complain—the team is 14-7 and in third place, after an incredibly tough schedule to start the year. But I can’t help but feel we haven’t gotten peak play from our backcourt yet. They can’t be tired—their minutes are both down and the stretched-out schedule has meant more off days. They could be a bit banged up I guess. Or maybe they’ve finally caught some of that regular season fatigue? If that’s the case I’m gonna have pretty damn high post-season expectations, especially after their well-known playoff struggles!

Those third quarters…

I wrote about it the other day, but, the Raptors third quarters are really the only negative on the year. On the one hand, you could call those Knicks and Pacers games outliers; after all, on the year they’re only getting outscored by a point in the third. But… looking a little deeper, their net rating in the third is a negative 5.3, good for 22nd in the league; their defensive rating is 115, good for dead last. So it’s something that still needs work. Subbing JV out sooner, as noted above, may help. But mostly I think it just comes down to coming out of half-time being prepared to play, not taking a lead for granted or taking teams lightly. CJ said last week it’s all mental and I tend to agree.

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Overall I’m extremely pleased with the team at the quarter-mark. The early schedule has been tough (and they’ve got another four-game west coast trip coming), to be here at 14-7 after the departures the team saw in the offseason is damn impressive. Let’s see if they can keep it up for another 61!

Image via Getty images 

Five thoughts on Game 19: Raptors 112, Hawks 78

Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks, Nov 25

A few thoughts from the Toronto Raptors blowout victory over the Hawks in Atlanta on Saturday night:

Early on, it was clear both teams were on a back-to-back

It was a slow, sloppy first quarter as both teams tried to find their legs after playing the night before. Each team had 6 turnovers in the opening frame, and yet neither team converted any of those turnovers into a single fast-break point; that’s the very definition of sloppy! For the Raps, it was clear they wanted to get their big guys going. Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka combined for 9 shots early, and Jakob Poeltl came in and added three more; that’s 12 of the Raps’ 20 shots in the quarter. I appreciated that the Raps were trying to establish JV, as he struggled on Friday night, but I think he may have been pressing too hard—he had 3 of those 6 turnovers.

The bench dominated the second quarter

The Raps were without CJ Miles again, but it didn’t matter on this night. The Raptors all-bench unit (Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Lorenzo Brown, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam blew the Hawks out of the air in the second quarter, opening the frame on a 21-3 run. Fred VanVleet had another solid game; he’s really settled into his role now, and I have to respect that, after he struggled earlier in the year. The Hawks added 6 more turnovers in the quarter—Norm and Pascal each had 2 steals—and the Raptors turned them into 13 fast break points. Pascal, Norm and Poeltl combined for 38 points in the half, and the Raps turned a 3-point first quarter lead into a 28-point(!) halftime lead.

The Raps didn’t come out sloppy in the third

After getting killed in the previous two third quarters, and with a healthy lead already in this one, I suspected the Raps would go into a lull and let the Hawks back in it. Instead, they buckled down and didn’t let the Hawks catch their breath. Once again the Raps chose to feed JV, and he settled in and scored 12 in the quarter, on 5-6 shooting. The Raptors were +13 in the quarter, and that meant the starters could rest the entire fourth—a much-needed respite for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (each played less than 28 minutes). DeMar had another rough night so hopefully the rest will do him good!

Marco Belinelli is wasted on this Hawks team

Jack and Matt opined on former Raptor Marco Belinelli in the first quarter, and about how he could help a winning team. As he drained two threes I couldn’t help but envision him back in a Raptors uniform and I thought: I’d trade Lucas Nogueira for him in a heartbeat. Bebe still has potential and could use lots of playing time on a bad time to develop it. The Raps need more three-point shooters (and fewer centers). Makes sense! But I actually went to the trade machine to try this out – doesn’t work, unless you also throw Bruno Caboclo in too. I might still do it! Maybe.

That was a bogus flagrant on Jonas Valanciunas

The refs stopped play (in the middle of a possession) to review another “body control” situation—this time, JV caught Dewayne Dedmon with an elbow on the previous play. It was dumb enough to stop play—Jonas was gathering into his shooting motion when he was stripped of the ball, and his momentum kept his arms moving in an upward motion, and Dedmon stuck his face in. But not only did they stop play—they assessed him a flagrant 1! What a ridiculous call. Especially in the third quarter of a 30-point blowout.

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Overall it was an unsuccessful and unsatisfying 1-2 road trip for the Raptors. They don’t play again until Wednesday, the first of three in a row at home—here’s hoping they come out of that stretch better than 1-2!

 

Five thoughts on Game 18: Pacers 107, Raptors 104

Toronto Raptors at Indiana Pacers Nov 24

A few observations from the Toronto Raptors loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, the Raptors’ second in a row on this three game road trip:

It was another game of runs early.

The Raptors started out 5-0, off of a Kyle Lowry three and a Serge Ibaka steal and dunk. The Pacers then went on a 12-0 run and it looked like this was gonna be a long night. But the Raps then went 7-0… before giving up a 13-0 run, while looking like the same team that rolled over to the Knicks in the third quarter on Wednesday. So the Raptors naturally decided to end the quarter on a 13-4 run. And Fred VanVleet kept it going with a little 6-2 run of his own to tie it at the start of the second.

Third quarters are becoming a problem

That’s two straight games the Raptors have had double-digit leads at halftime, only to give it up in the third and enter the fourth trailing. On this night, the third quarter certainly wasn’t as bad as Wednesday—the Raptors only lost by 11, not by 31—but still. It’s a little concerning that your starters—ostensibly, your best unit—can’t hold a 10-point lead.

Casey did some experimenting tonight

Some of this was due to CJ Miles absence (his wife delivered their first child on Thursday night) and Delon Wright’s injury, but there were a couple odd sub patterns in this game. DeMar DeRozan got a longer run with the bench at the end of the first quarter, and both he and Kyle played 39+ minutes—not ideal on the first night of a back-to-back. After being the first centre off the bench in recent games, Lucas Nogueira was behind Jakob Poeltl on this night—and he only played 2 minutes. Most notably, though, was Jonas Valanciunas starting the second half on the bench, with Pascal Siakam inserted into the starting lineup. This is a move that Raptors Twitterarti have been asking for; the thinking being, Serge Ibaka and JV can’t play together and Serge is better served playing centre. The stats back it up; the Raptors give up 113 points per 100 possessions with Serge and JV on the floor together, but are plus-10 when it’s Serge and Pascal. But it didn’t work on this night, as the Raptors squandered their lead with Serge and Pascal on the floor.

I honestly didn’t even know Lance Stephenson was still in the league

I was shocked when he got into the game; I assumed he’d played himself out of the league by now. Naturally he made me pay for my foolishness by catching fire in the second half and all but sealing the game: he went 6-7, 3-3 from deep and had 7 rebounds in 15 second-half minutes. He also committed two egregious fouls on DeMar DeRozan that weren’t called, that might have swung the game back in the Raps favor. I’ll let it slide, since I suspect Pacers fans are still smarting from the non-call that DeRozan got away with in game 7 against the Pacers two years ago.

This was not a good DeMar night

Aside from getting bullied by Stephenson and softballing the potential winning layup (there may have been contact, but come on DeMar—you gotta take it strong there), DeRozan only shot 6-16, only shot 2 free throws, and had 3 rebounds and 2 assists (and 4 turnovers) in 39 minutes. His backcourt partner picked it up with a near-triple double (24-9-10, include 5-9 from deep) but without CJ and Delon, the Raptors really need DeMar to be his usual self (or better) to win. 13 points (and lackluster defense) isn’t going to cut it.

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The Raptors need a strong performance in Atlanta tonight to salvage this trip. They’ve already allowed Cleveland and Detroit to surpass them in the standings (I know it’s way to early to scoreboard watch, but I can’t help it) and need to get back on the winning side of things!

Five thoughts on Game 11: Raptors 122, Pelicans 118

Toronto Raptors at New Orleans Pelicans Nov 9

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors entertaining victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night:

This Pelicans team reminds me of… the Raptors

They’ve got great players who at times look like throwbacks in today’s NBA. And they’re trying to be a ball-movement-oriented, three-point shooting team. When it works, it looks great! DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are good passers, when they want to be, and can handle the ball, and have range. And overall the Pelicans probably have more shooting than the Raptors do. But when the two bigs combine with starting PG Jrue Holiday to shoot 5-19 from behind the arc, that’s trouble.

The Raptors shot threes in volume

42 three pointers! They only hit 16, although there were some timely ones, especially from Kyle Lowry. But more importantly, I think, was the willingness to let fly. Even if the shots aren’t falling, for the offense to work you have to keep shooting! Within that 42, there are some good signs: Kyle Lowry and CJ Miles, the teams’ two best shooters, shot 18 of them. Over time, they’ll hit more than 6. DeMar DeRozan took 6! The two he made were from the corner, which is a spot I’d like to see him shoot more from. (One he missed was a hilariously all-advised turnaround fadeaway, which had zero chance of hitting). Norman Powell shot 5, which is a good sign his confidence is coming back.

The Raptors big men played as well as they could…

Facing Cousins and Davis is no easy task. Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl were better than most! They held the Pelicans’ twin towers to 38 points on 38 shots, and the Raptors outrebounded the Pelicans 48-38.

… but Jrue Holiday exposed their weaknesses

Ibaka and Valanciunas are not great at guarding in space, and when smaller players drive off a pick-and-roll, they’re often left behind the play, flat footed. Holiday scored 34 on 20 shots, most of those coming at the rim after leaving a Raptors’ big in his wake. Still, if you have to pick your poison, I’ll live with taking away the opponent’s two best weapons and asking their third-best player to beat us.

I think OG Anunoby has solidified his case for more minutes

Dwane Casey played 12 guys again, which is insane to me. (The Pelicans played 8; granted, they have a couple injuries, but still.) OG’s stat line—3-4 from the floor, 1-2 from deep, 8 points, 2 rebounds in 14 minutes—is solid enough. But his defense on Holiday in the fourth quarter was splendid. After torching the Raps for 32 through three quarters, he scored only 2 points on 1-4 shooting in the fourth, and the credit goes to OG for hounding him on the perimeter, forcing pick and rolls to start farther out, using his size and strength to keep Holiday out of the paint. (Fred Van Vleet, by the way, was 1-7 in 14 minutes. I think it’s time, Dwane.)

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The Raptors head out on the road now for a tough three game trip: At Boston, at Houston, and then on to New Orleans for a rematch with the Pelicans.

Five thoughts on Game 10: Raptors 119, Bulls 114

Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors Nov 7

Five quick thoughts on a Toronto Raptors victory over the Chicago Bulls that was much closer than it had any right to be…

The starters might have played their best game of the season

Every starter except Norman Powell shot better than 50%, every starter hit a three, and every starter except Norm had at least four rebounds. OK, it was another tough night for Norm. But overall the starters played a complete first quarter, a complete third quarter, and held the fort in fourth when things looked dicey…

This time, it was the bench that (almost) squandered things

On Sunday, the bench brought the Raptors back against the Wizards, and the starters blew it, giving up a late 12-2 run. On Tuesday, the starters began subbing out up 18 in the third; the Bulls slowly started catching up, 17, then 15, then finally Bobby Portis went on a mini-run and it was 108-98, and Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Norman Powell came back in. The momentum had clearly swung and it got as close as 3 in the final minute before the Raps closed it out.

Three-pointers were the difference—in the Raptors favor, for once

The Raptors had their best shooting night from distance, going 13-25 from behind the arc. That’s still not enough volume on threes—they need to be shooting at least 30 a night to make their offense really sing. But getting CJ Miles 6 shots is a good thing. Lowry’s 1-4 remains disconcerting, though he did finish 7-13 overall (and, you know, didn’t get ejected). And I’m still not willing to get too excited by DeMar DeRozan’s 2-2 night.

The passing still isn’t where it should be

The Raptors assisted on 22 of 44 made field goals, which is not terrible but again, not where they need to be to succeed as a ball-movement oriented offense.

The rotation is still too deep

I know it’s only 10 games and there’s still lots of time to figure it out. But I’m surprised Dwane Casey’s still playing 12 guys. I know it’s not an easy call, but, that’s why he’s the coach! I think he needs to shorten the rotation to 10, maybe 9. To me, the first two choices have to be Fred VanVleet (fine last night, after his great performance the other night) and Lucas Noguiera (invisible in 10 minutes last night). The third choice is the most difficult; it should be one of Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby, and they’ve been very, very similar so far this year. I do think Anunoby might’ve the slightly higher upside, though, so I might give him a 10-game run.

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The Raps have one game left in this mini-home stand before going back out on the road for three. Here’s hoping they close it out with a win against the Pelicans on Thursday!

 

Five thoughts on Game 9: Wizards 107, Raptors 96

Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors Nov 5

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors predictably dropping their homecoming game to the Washington Wizards on Sunday night:

The Raptors were at full strength, and the Wizards weren’t… for a few minutes, anyway.

The Wizards’ John Wall, their top player, was on the shelf with a shoulder sprain; meanwhile the Raptors welcomed back CJ Miles from his stomach bug. You’d think the Raps would be at an advantage, but Kyle Lowry decided to even the matchup by getting tossed in the second quarter after picking up two technical fouls for arguing calls. You can definitely make the case that the young ref, JB DeRosa, should have had more patience with Lowry—they were about the two fastest techs I’ve ever seen, and definitely not for the worst arguing I’ve ever seen. But, he decided to flex his muscles and Lowry was done. (One of the veteran officials made it up to the Raps a little by tagging the Wizards’ Markieff Morris with a non-deserving tech two plays later).

Regardless of depth, the Wizards ran the Raptors off the court for the first 2.5 quarters

The Raptors were behind right out of the gate and it looked like a repeat of the Denver game, only this time at home, without the road or the altitude to blame. It was definitely a case of “we’re just happy to be home” as the Wizards took it to them; the Raptors were down 15 after 6 minutes, missing everything short, including free throws (6-13 in the first quarter) and getting beaten flat-footed on defense. Meanwhile the Wizards were running, hounding the Raptors’ guards and pounding the glass, and showing a ton more energy. In the first quarter they forced four turnovers that led to 10 fast-break points, and had three offensive rebounds that led to 8 second chance points.

Pet peeve alert: Dwane Casey, always late with the timeouts

I know I’m not an NBA coach so it’s easy for me to sit here and judge from my couch. But Dwane Casey always seems to be consistently one or two plays late when calling timeouts when the other team grabs momentum. And he used to work for Rick Carlisle, who’s one of the best! I think he needs to buy Gregg Popovich a bottle of wine and get Pop’s tips, because Pop’s the master of the momentum-stopping timeout.

The Raptors bench got them back in it, but Casey took it away from them

Speaking of Casey, I have to question his lineups down the stretch. The bench brought the Raptors all the way back in this one, with Fred Van Vleet leading the charge. FVV looked to be essentially out of the lineup, and deservedly so, after his poor performance so far this season. But with Lowry tossed, VanVleet got a second chance, and he made the most of it. He finished with 10 points on 5-7 shooting, and had a 6-0 run to close the third quarter and cut the Wizards’ lead to 8. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Lucas Nogueira were all contributing on both ends, providing much needed energy and lift, enough to cut the Wizards’ 19-point lead all the way down to 3. But Casey chose to go with Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka down the stretch, and they promptly threw the game away, giving up a 12-2 run and sealing it for the Wiz. Shame on Casey for that one; his bench earned the right to close that game and win or lose it themselves.

I’m not sure how I feel about this Wizards team

On the one hand, they’ve developed a couple young projects into legit solid NBA players—namely, Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre. That’s what the Raptors are trying to do with their young guns. And you can’t help but be impressed by Wall and Bradley Beal; Beal is very much an evolutionary DeMar DeRozan. He doesn’t have DeMar’s strength and doesn’t get to the line as much, but he’s got great footwork, can get what he wants from the midrange, and he has the 3-point shot that DeMar is missing. But this Wizards team plays dirty. Watch for the little shoves in the back, the jersey grabs and the elbow hooks on rebounds. Look out for the elbows and nudges when going through the lane. And how Marcin Gortat doesn’t get called for jamming out his hip on every screen he sets, I don’t know.

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Well it’s a disappointing result but one pretty much everyone saw coming. Thankfully, the 2-6 Bulls are here again Tuesday night, which should give the Raptors an opportunity to bounce back.

Five thoughts on game 8: Raptors 109, Jazz 100

Toronto Raptors at Utah Jazz Nov 3

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors bouncing back from a terrible performance to close out their road trip with a win against the Jazz in Utah.

The Raptors’ depth is proving to be a real advantage…

After one game with a full squad, the Raptors were down a man again, as CJ Miles missed this one with the flu. But the Raptors still played 11 players, and all of the frontcourt subs—Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Lucas Nogueira, and OG Anunoby—got a chance to play and contribute.

…although it might be giving Dwane Casey headaches

Coach is gonna have to make some tough decisions about who gets playing time; I don’t think playing 12 guys a night is going to work. But who’s the odd man out? Fred VanVleet seems an obvious choice, as he’s played the poorest, comparatively, out of all the subs, but backcourt depth isn’t the issue. All three centers—Poeltl, Nogueira and starter Jonas Valanciunas—have played well. All the forwards—Serge Ibaka, Anunoby, Siakam—are also playing well. Miles and Normal Powell are also nominally forwards and they’re much needed. Ultimately I think Bebe’s minutes are the most likely to drop; despite all the pluses, he’s still mistake-prone, and consistency is critical for bench units, and that’s something Poeltl brings. I think VanVleet will also be relegated to the bench more, with Delon Wright playing alongside one of Kyle Lowry or DeRozan, or Powell or Miles playing more in what is essentially the 2-guard spot with one of Siakam or Anunoby on the wing.

Let’s talk about Pascal Siakam

The injuries have opened up minutes for Siakam, who barely played in the first two games, and he’s made the most of them. His effective field goal percentage is 59.6—good for 36th in the league in players who are playing more than 15 minutes a night (on admittedly a still-small sample size). He uses his length extremely well; he forced back-to-back turnovers at one point in the fourth quarter last night, and scored on a beautiful fast break layup—on which he used those long arms to keep the ball out of reach of the defense—in between. Perhaps most importantly, he never tries to do too much; he doesn’t force or rush things, and consequently, doesn’t usually find himself out of position or in the wrong spot, which is something you often see from young players. I’ve been really impressed with his development; I would love for him to continue working on his 3-point shooting and add that dimension to his game as well.

I want to appreciate DeMar DeRozan for a moment too

He finished with 37 on 20 shots, and scored 10 straight in the third as the Raptors took control of the game (after letting a second quarter lead slip away) and then locked it down with another 6 straight in the fourth. It’s easy to take DeMar for granted, especially because his game is easy to tire of—the mid-range jumpers, the head fakes, the free throws, etc. And it’s easy to point out the flaws and deficiencies (the lack of the three-point shot). But let’s just appreciate how damn good he is at the those things he does well. Kevin Durant singled him out for his excellent footwork on Bill Simmons’ podcast last summer, and that’s a no brainer. He gets to his spots effortlessly, whether it’s on post-ups, straight up drives or spin moves. The head fakes and ball fakes—everyone knows they’re coming, but they still work. It’s his 9th season and he’s still getting to the line 9 times a game. Yes, I’m as frustrated as anyone that a player who works as hard as he does hasn’t worked that hard (it seems) on developing a 3-point shot. But I have to appreciate the things he does do well. (And hey—3-7 from downtown last night, including a 4-point play! Maybe it’s coming…?)

The Raptors finished the road trip 3-3, which is probably as good as expected

You could perhaps have looked at these six games and declared 4 of them winnable – LA, Portland, Denver, and Utah. Toronto looks better on paper than those teams, it’s probably fair to say. But factor in the road arenas and sheer length of the trip, and anyone on our near the team was probably happy to get away with 3-3. The season is now about 10% done and the Raps are 5-3, which, again, should be where we expected them to be. They’re currently fourth in the east behind the surging Celtics (7 wins in a row!) and the shockingly good Pistons and Magic (each at 6-3).

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It’s a quick turnaround to tomorrow night’s 6pm home start agains the Wizards; those first home games back after long trips are often terrible performances, because you’re so glad to be home you don’t prepare properly for the game. Let’s hope the Raptors come out strong against Washington, one of the teams that—surprises like the Pistons and Magic aside—the Raptors will likely be fighting with for top playoff seeding come April.

Five thoughts on Game 7: Nuggets 129, Raptors 111

Toronto Raptors at Denver Nuggets Nov 1

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors dropping a stinker in Denver against the Nuggets:

The Raptors were back at full strength for the first time since game 2

Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka both returned from injury, and with Lucas Noguiera healthy as well, the Raptors had their full roster available. Jonas was rusty, and mostly invisible; Ibaka, naturally, came out gunning, and airballed his first three. It was on the defensive, end, though, that Ibaka was exposed—a common theme for the Raptors on this night. Ibaka allowed Paul Millsap to score 11 straight points and picked up a foul on a MIllsap three pointer (he gave him a four-point play in the 2nd quarter as well) within the first five minutes. The Nuggets hit their first 7 shots and jumped out to a 20-10 lead—and that led to the quick hook for JV and Serge; Pascal Siakam and Nogueira came in at the the 6:17 mark. It didn’t help, as the Nuggets extended the lead to 34-19 by the end of the quarter.

This Nuggets team is an odd mix, but they can score

The Nuggets don’t start a traditional point guard (heck, they don’t even really have one on the roster) or a traditional centre (and I’m not sure what position Nikola Jokic even is) but it’s a group that works extremely well together on offense. They’re very aggressive and they move the ball extremely well—not just in the amount of passes they make, but the ball really pops when they pass it, and they cut with purpose after making passes (as Jack Armstrong pointed out on the broadcast, the Raptors have seemed oddly vulnerable on give-and-go cuts this season, and the Nuggets exposed them. Which is stunning, since that’s a basic basketball play teach you in the third grade). Beyond that they get out on the break and aren’t afraid to bomb threes. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris may not be a traditional backcourt, but they can score.

The Raptors three-point shooting continues to be a major problem.

It’s not just the misses, it’s also the unwillingness to take them—and/or, the knowledge that they can’t make them. Case in point, in the second quarter, Kyle Lowry broke down his man on the right side of the floor; Nogueira flashed into the paint as the defense shifted and Lowry found him. As the defense rotated, Bebe turned and found DeMar DeRozan in the left corner wide open. (Bebe is a great passer; often, too willing a passer, but he sees the floor well.) But that’s not DeRozan’s shot. Instead, he drove… right into the defense… and settled for a midrange J that missed. At this point, the Raptors just aren’t threatening from deep, and teams will give the Raptors the three-point line until they prove they’re dangerous from out there. And we all know, that three-point shooting is the way the league is going; if you can’t shoot it, you won’t be able to keep up. Look no further to the Raptors’ two playoff exits vs. the Cavaliers the past two seasons to see what I mean. They finished 11-31 but most of those makes came in garbage time.

There are always nights like this…

Every team has them; some nights, nothing works, you fall behind early, and it just gets ugly from there. (I suspect a lot of teams have them in the altitude in Denver.) I don’t read too much into it, especially this early in the season; as long as there’s not a “hangover effect” in Utah on Friday night, as long as the errors we saw don’t turn into habits, then there’s nothing to panic about. (Well, except maybe the shooting.)

…so, you try to look for the bright spots.

Norman Powell had his second “just OK” offensive game in a row, which is a big step up after the five “oh God Norm what are you doing” games in a row he had. He finished 6-11 with three dunks, and led all starters with 14 points; of course, 4 of his 5 misses were 3-pointers. He also finished -26, a rarity for Norm. Alfonso McKinnie saw his first action of the season, and made the most of his garbage time minutes—he didn’t miss a shot. OG Anunoby had a couple lovely drives to the hoop, but needs to learn to finish strong. Delon Wright finally saw a couple threes drop… yep, that’s about all I’ve got.

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Let’s see how the Raptors fare in their final game of the road trip in Utah!

Five thoughts on Game 3: Spurs 101, Raptors 97

Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Oct 23

Five thoughts on the Raptors’ first road game, and first loss, of the season:

  1. There are two obvious answers to why the Raps dropped this one, after keeping it close for most of the night: Shooting and rebounding. Two kinda important things! But the Raps shot 10-37 from three (34-80 overall) and were out-rebounded 55-34. Perhaps the Spurs would’ve blown the doors of them if they themselves hadn’t shot so poorly from distance (5-20) and the free throw line (16-23). I won’t read too much into the shooting this early into the season but the rebounding is a concern. The Spurs are big, yes, and the Raptors were missing their starting centre, but one has to wonder if this team as constructed has enough size? Norman Powell is small for a starting SF, and CJ Miles is small for a backup SF. Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet are a small backup backcourt (and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan aren’t huge either). Yes, the Raptors seem to have a glut of centers but Lucas Nogueira is unreliable, Jakob Poetl is still foul-prone and Serge Ibaka, who can slide in there, isn’t a huge rebounding presence. Again, it’s game three so not something to panic about—but something to watch.
  2. Speaking of centers, Poetl was undeniably impressive off the bench yesterday. He was the Raptors’ only rebound presence (he had 12; Nogueira had 6; no one else had more than 4). He showed his quick hands and soft touch again, getting the ball off the glass and up on the rim quickly. He blocked shots, got his hands on loose balls and ran the floor well; he ran a great pick and roll with Miles. It’s only three games, but three excellent games, and he showed enough promise last year that I’m starting to think they may have really struck gold with this guy.
  3. Bebe, on the other hand, was a disappointment. This is a big year for Bebe, his fourth in the league; it’s the time that he really needs to show whether he belongs and if he’s worth a second contract beyond his rookie deal. And, getting the start for Jonas Valanciunas, this was a great opportunity. But he looked lost out there. He looked good against the Sixers, and I know the Spurs, with their incredible execution, make a lot of players look bad, but he had a serious quickness advantage over Gasol and Aldridge but didn’t bring anything to the table. He executes the pick and roll as well as anyone on the team—he sets great screens and finds the seams beautifully. And he plays with energy. But I’m not sure there’s much else to his game.
  4. The starting lineup was overall a disappointment again. I still managed to observe a few highlights, not the least of which was Kyle Lowry getting all ornery with Dejounte Murray and one of the officials, getting a foul call, then a bucket, then getting called for a foul. I love ornery Kyle. (And speaking of ornery… Ibaka does seem to have a way of getting under people’s skin, doesn’t he? He and Aldridge went at it in the fourth!) Norm’s game didn’t show up in the stat sheet, and his shooting was off again, but he made a number of nice plays (including a steal and bucket at the end of the first half that should have counted). Overall though, the Raps need more from their starting five than 59 points on 40% shooting and 16 (!) rebounds.
  5. The Spurs remain the Spurs—good, and ageless. It’s amazing that guys like Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili (and Tony Parker though he’s hurt at the moment) contribute so much so late in their careers. And the young guys they find… I mean, Patty Mills and Danny Green are known quantities now. But Kyle Anderson? And Murray! I’m super impressed by Murray. He’s aggressive, shoots the ball well. Their scouting department is top notch.

Let’s see if the team can get more balanced production between the starting unit and the bench Wednesday night against the champs.

Five thoughts on Game 2: Raptors 128, Sixers 94

Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Oct 21

Five thoughts on another easy Raptors win:

  1. The bench was great again, but the starters showed up a little better after starting slowly on opening night. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan looked like themselves again, combining for 47 points on 24 shots and 18 free throws. Serge Ibaka dropped in 21, and Jonas Valanciunas was off to another decent start before spraining an ankle and missing the second half.
  2. Jacob Poetl continues to impress as the backup to Jonas, and Lucas Noguiera had a stellar season debut in relief as well. Poetl’s got excellent hands, catching tough passes and snagging loose balls, and I love how quickly he gets the ball up on the rim. As for Bebe, the lead was already double digits by the time he came in, and the Sixers were on the second night of a back-to-back, so I won’t get too ahead of myself. But he brought tons of energy and managed to play under control, ending up with 10 points and nine rebounds in 15 minutes.
  3. The Raptors shot 44 three-pointers. 44! Sure, they only hit 13 (Ibaka had five of them), but the way those shots opened up the floor for DeMar to get into the paint was critical for his big night. Much was made of the Raptors new-look offense and how DeMar would fit in, since the three-point shot isn’t his forte. If it turns out that everyone else jacking threes gives him and the bigs more room to operate, then I think that’s fine; important to note, though, that better, more veteran defensive teams won’t scramble as much on those threes as the Sixers do. The Raps will need to shoot closer to 40% to keep teams honest.
  4. The only starter not to show up tonight was Norman Powell, and that was disappointing. He picked up a few dumb fouls, never got into a rhythm, and only ended up with two points in 17 minutes. I’m really looking for Norm to bring consistency night-to-night this year, something the Raps have lacked in the small forward spot for years.
  5. The Sixers have tons of great young pieces, but they’ve still got some ways to go, especially on defense. And I know they were missing their best player in Joel Embiid, and playing their third game in four nights. But,  the Raptors got a lot of open looks and had a lot of drives with the defenders back-pedaling, which led to a lot of free throws. Young teams usually struggle at the defensive end so that’s not a surprise; but many pre-season predictions had the Sixers taking a big leap this year, and I think that was overlooked. Another thing overlooked: These guys have never played together! Embiid has only played 30 games; Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are rookies; J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson are new to the team. Every time a “superteam” comes together, we say, “hey, these guys will need time to gel;” well, I’d say that’s even more true of a young team like this. This team has a ton of potential, but, I think a little patience is warranted.

The Raps now head out on an incredibly tough six-game road trip. Glad they got these two early wins!