The Philadelphia win was one of the most fun regular season games I’ve ever experienced. As a personal anecdote, the Raptors recently moved my normal seat in games (this is Louis writing this part, by the way) from the gondola way above the 300s to the press areas in the 100s. The crowd volume hits harder there. So Toronto’s win over Philadelphia was the loudest game I’ve ever experienced, and I was at all the playoff games. There was a frantic, primal quality to the crowd that I’ve only ever heard before in the playoffs. This Toronto team just gets people going.
The explanation for this weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report, is fairly simple. Is it a literary journal? Maybe; it sure sounds like it. If it were, I would probably read it. There would be stories about ubermensches, like Pascal Siakam. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This column is for me and Samson Folk to simultaneously look forwards and back, explicating the under-examined and trying to explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board.
It’s also been brought to our attention that the Black Box Report reminds people of plane crashes. Well, we all need to remember our roots as Raptors fans. Times can be too good, and sometimes being a fan can be too easy. We need to remember where we came from.
LOOKING BACK – FOLK
7:30 pm EST on Saturday November 23 @ Atlanta Hawks – 119-116 W
7:30 pm EST on Monday November 25 against the Philadelphia 76ers – 101-96 W
7:30 pm EST on Wednesday November 27 against the New York Knicks – 126-98 W
Terence Davis, TPA, and the All-Rookie Team
Terence Davis II is beloved by the Raptors’ fanbase. He been exceptional on the court, improving everyday as an on-ball decision maker, making an unbelievable jump in shooting ability, and defending and rebounding with power and control. Beyond that, he embodies so much of what has turned this Raptors team into a juggernaut: hitting on undervalued players and watching them shine. Davis II hasn’t been so impressive that he would warrant the first overall pick in a re-draft, but he’s certainly made a case to be considered the best rookie so far this season.
His potential isn’t the conversation right now – but it’s an interesting conversation, especially within the Raptors organization – we’re talking strictly about contributing this year, and his place as a top-5 rookie is backed up by the eye test and the analytics.
TPA (Total Points Added) is a metric from NBA Math that attempts to quantify, in part, how much players are adding to their teams offensively and defensively. It leans on (and is derived from) OBPM (Offensive Box Score Plus-Minus) and DBPM (Defensive Box Score Plus-Minus). If you want to know the full breakdown that’s here.
Being well versed in catch-all statistics and analytics isn’t a prerequisite to knowing or understanding the game. I appreciate analytics, and I think any sports journalist worth their salt should at least dabble in them, at the very least to understand that aspect of the game. The same way a good sports journalist should also be able to read the game live, without numbers to support what they’re seeing. Meshing the two together seems to be the best way to approach it. And rightly so, that’s what Terence Davis II is doing.
Even though it’s esoteric to some degree, Davis II highlighted his place at the top of the rookie TPA leaderboards in an interview the other day.
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) November 26, 2019
After a week of wins averaging roughly 11-3-2.5 on 48/33/100 shooting splits, all the while providing meaningful bench minutes and ball handling duties to a top-flight team, Davis continues to press his case for a spot on the All-Rookie team. And even though he’s been a box-score beast, his nod to the analytics (in a Raptors organization that loves the analytics) could be a decent predictor of how he’s going to try and grow his game.
Getting away from the numbers, though, the pacing of Davis’ pick n’ roll game is improving. He’s starting to read the game better, and can adjust the speed at which he runs through sets in the same game, which is huge.
He forces a drive to the rim early in the clock on the strong side of the defense. The speed at which he ran the pick n’ roll made it so he couldn’t reliably slow down for a pivot and a pass back out to Gasol for the reset. The 76ers defense smothered him as he ran himself into their lengthy arms. Turnover.
Later on, Davis uses the pick n’ roll to get to the weak-side of the floor. As he’s coming off the screen he uses a hesitation to freeze Embiid instead of sprinting downhill like he did earlier. Davis’ hesitation allows him to get wide on Embiid and create a better passing lane to the short-rolling Gasol. After the pocket pass is made, Gasol makes a great read after Neto foolishly doubles him. Davis gets the layup because he drifted to the bucket on the weak-side. Great reads all around, and at a part of the game where the 76ers desperately needed stops.
Sneaky basketball is the best kind
It’s often something quite simple that unlocks a lane to the rim for a player. A good screen here, filling the lane properly there – easy stuff. It’s why a good screen setter (Aron Baynes, Marcin Gortat) can come in and revolutionize a dead pick n’ roll game. Players who had to work incredibly hard for space before, suddenly begin wading in more than they can imagine.
Kyle Lowry has long been a proponent of the sneaky screen. All the big guys are drawn out to almost the foul line, the defense is pushing up. The big man sets a screen for the ball handler and gets the edge. All that’s left is for him to beat the help-defe- WHOOP! Lowry with a back screen at the foul line! Kawhi Leonard skies to the rim for the hammer! We’ve seen it before, and it’s great.
OG Anunoby is an incredible physical specimen. He dominates players on the defensive end, using his strength and length to pacify some of the NBA’s best offensive talents. He’s also shooting an incredible percentage from downtown. There’s only one player league-wide who shoots more threes than Anunoby per game and hits at a higher clip, Marcus Morris Sr.
Considering that when Anunoby isn’t lighting the other team on fire from the corners, he’s lurking along the baseline, that makes him a prime candidate to enact the Lowry screen on opposing teams. If his primary defender follows him and he doesn’t come open, why not insert yourself into the chaos of the paint? Even if his defender switches onto the ball handler, Anunoby can seal the player he just set the screen on and dive to the rim. And that’s if the screen didn’t work as intended, I wonder what it would look like if it did:
There’s so many aspects of Anunoby’s game that smack you in the face with their impressiveness, but if he starts to master the subtle art of deconstructing a defense, there’s just so much more that he can become.
LOOKING AHEAD – ZATZMAN
7:00 pm EST on Friday November 29 @ Orlando Magic
6:00 pm EST on Sunday December 1 against the Utah Jazz
7:30 pm EST on Tuesday December 3 against the Miami Heat
7:30 pm EST on Thursday December 5 against the Houston Rockets
Reinforcements on the way?
Toronto has been without some of its most important players for some time now. Nick Nurse has declined to offer detailed injury updates on Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka for much of their time on the pine, but he says we may be able to expect them back on the weekend, against either the Magic or the Jazz. Don’t be so sure. Ibaka still has a limp and a wrap around his ankle, and Nurse implied that Ibaka would be back first. It’s possible that they both return on schedule, but even if they do, there will be questions attached to their return.
Most importantly, what happens to the back end of the rotation? Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has likely earned a definite rotation spot no matter what. Powell will be sent back to the bench, but his minutes are guaranteed. Lowry will start, and Ibaka will come off the bench, and that’s eight players. Likely one of Terence Davis and Chris Boucher will earn time, and Samson Folk rightly pointed in our weekly podcast last week that Boucher’s positives are also Ibaka’s strengths, though Ibaka makes far fewer mistakes. Davis has been so fantastic — as detailed above by Samson — that him falling out of the rotation would be a crime. It’s incredible that the Raptors have some of their best players returning, and it means that Siakam and VanVleet’s minutes should dwindle to normal, human levels. But other fun players will also lose some minutes, and there could be a short transition period for the team getting used to who’s on the floor again.
To that point of getting used to a new playing style again, Toronto has a very difficult stretch of opponents coming up this week. The Magic are the opposite of Batman without Nikola Vucevic, and though you’ll feel them on the defensive end, they can’t score. Toronto shouldn’t have much trouble with them, even though it’ll be a physically taxing game. But the Jazz, Heat, and Rockets are three of the NBA’s best teams, and they find success in very different ways. One neat tidbit is that all three teams are in miniature losing stretches, but that doesn’t mean much. As a more important commonality, there are star wing scorers on every team, from Donovan Mitchell, to Jimmy Butler, to James Harden. OG Anunoby will have his work cut out for him.
But the teams become very different after that. The Jazz are a defensive menace, and Rudy Gobert’s ability to eat the entire paint lets the wings and guards cover extra territory on the perimeter. It’s actually similar to what the Raptors have with Marc Gasol manning the middle, thought they do their damage in very different ways. The Jazz are coming off of two losses to the Bucks and Pacers, and they can be exposed by a strong defense. They lost to the Bucks despite hitting 21 3s; Giannis scored 50. TJ Warren was the man for the Pacers. All this to say: Pascal Siakam will need to maintain elite scoring rates against one of the best defensive teams in the league. He’ll likely have Royce O’Neale as a primary defender and Gobert rotating quickly. Jump-shot, don’t fail me now.
The Heat, also on a slight losing streak, have two defense-first stars in Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler surrounded by shooters. OK, maybe in that sense they aren’t so different from the Jazz. The Heat have a bunch of young, offense-first contributors in Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. Toronto should be able to score fine against the Heat as long as they get Siakam involved in actions to get him away from Adebayo. Perhaps more of a predictive aspect of the game will be whether the Raptors can force turnovers. Scoring in transition is such a huge part of their game, and young guards can cough it up a lot. The three of Nunn, Herro, and Robinson only average ~five turnovers between them, so they don’t cough it up a whole lot, even for catch-and-shoot players. Toronto will need to offer immense pressure on the perimeter. Powell, VanVleet, Lowry (if he’s playing), and Terence Davis will have to be hyper-aggressive. Davis’s offense has been his calling card early (see above), but his defense will be important this week.
The Rockets, losers of three of their last four, are the wackiest team in the history of the NBA. Maybe. That could be hyperbole, but it also may not be. James Harden is one of the greatest scorers of all time. Though Anunoby has actually had quite a bit of success against Harden over his career, the Rockets beat Toronto both times they played last year. It takes a village to slow Harden, and he can still score 50 against good defense. Toronto has often forced Harden to his strong hand, which seems insane for a scorer as talented as Harden, but takes away his step-back, as he prefers stepping back with his weak hand. Still, forcing Harden left has its own dangers, including letting a whirlwind scorer into the paint and forcing defensive rotations. This one could be on Marc Gasol to take away the lob while still offering rim protection.
The point in breaking down the differences between these teams is that the Raptors will need dramatically different game-plans across the week. They have shown an elite ability to shape-shift from game to game, but if they’re also finding a new rotation with Lowry and Ibaka back, it’s harder to think about opponents and not just themselves. This is a difficult week for guys to return. If the Raptors are going to lose a game, like, ever again, it could happen this week.
Before Lowry’s fracture inside a finger on his non-shooting hand, he was playing the best basketball of his career. His shooting was meteoric (42.6 percent from deep on career-high frequency), and he was getting to the rim more than he has since 2016-17. That was despite Lowry playing little basketball over the summer and continually saying he actually wasn’t in great shape yet. Well, Lowry has had a few weeks off again. Will he be in good shape? Will his jumper remain hot? Never bet against Lowry, but it will be difficult for him to get back to his heights from the beginning of the season.
If he does, Toronto is a full-fledged title contender.
Have a blessed day. – Samson