The Toronto Raptors have had more than their share of losses in this young season, but the latest, a 123-115 loss to the Phoenix Suns, left a lot more room for optimism than the other five. The Raptors played pretty solid basketball for 48 minutes, their offense in particular looked more organized, and most importantly, Pascal Siakam had his best game since the last time the Raptors were in Phoenix — eleven months ago.
What can they take from this one going forward?
1. Welcome Back, Big Four
Last game I noted how frustrating it must be for Nick Nurse to only be able to rely on two of five starters; if you wanted to pencil Aron Baynes in for a slow start that was one thing, but the team needed consistent play from OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam too, not just Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
Finally, all four of the Raptors’ key players had good games last night, combining for 89 points on 33-for-58 shooting. Siakam had the breakthrough game we’ve all been waiting for, looking like his old self around the hoop and getting to the free throw line a career-high 14 times. The Raptors found ways to get him the ball on the move, and he used that momentum to abuse not just the slow-footed DeAndre Ayton, but also the solid-defensively and long-armed Jae Crowder.
Even the bench was not-terrible last night; Norman Powell didn’t look particularly great in his minutes but still managed to score 13, and Chris Boucher also chipped in two threes.
Unfortunately, with the Suns shooting the lights out, it wasn’t enough — but a strong performance against a good team should hopefully give the Raptors some momentum heading into a couple of winnable games in Sacramento and Golden State.
2. The Little Things
While I don’t think most of us saw the Raptors being this bad without Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, I think we all expected a slight drop-off from last year. And I think part of that means the margin for error is that much thinner. That in turn means little mistakes take on bigger importance.
Twice in the last two games the Raptors have flubbed inbounds plays after made baskets. Last night Yuta Watanabe had a silly turnover where he picked up his dribble 40 feet from the hoop, resulting in a turnover, and OG Anunoby made a lazy read on a dribble handoff that also resulted in a turnover. None of which is a huge thing on its own — but it adds up.
And then there’s the rebounding… hoo boy, the rebounding. Last night’s total rebounding numbers actually came out pretty even, but that’s a mirage — both teams shot the ball so well there simply weren’t as many defensive rebounds available. But the Suns grabbed enough offensive rebounds that it felt like a difference maker early on, and overall on this young season, the Raptors are woefully bad on the boards — 13th in total rebounds per game and dead last in rebounding percentage.
Again, all of these things add up. They Raptors are not that much worse on the whole than last year, but last year’s team made very few of these kinds of errors. A turnover here, and offensive rebound there, and it makes a difference; especially combined with the season-long road trip the Raptors are currently on.
3. 124.5 Points
That’s how many points opponents have averaged against the Raptors the past two games. Not great Bob! Not to keep comparing everything to last year, but that team gave up only 106.5 points per night — best in the league.
Truth is, the defense last night wasn’t horrible, but — as we’ve talked about before, many, many times – the Raptors are willing to concede threes, trusting that their defenders and closeouts are good enough to make shooters uncomfortable, and to force misses.
But A) occasionally teams simply have good shooting games, and B) the Raptors’s defense, while still good, isn’t quite as sharp right now, and that half-second lag is making a difference. That can turn a good opponent shooting game into a GREAT shooting game, like we saw last night.
It happens. It’s a shame it had to happen on a night that the Raptors’ offense (finally) seemed to be clicking.
It also makes the 1-5 record coming in to the game, and all those little mistakes, that much more frustrating. You can afford to let one of those “it just happens” games go with you’re 4-2, and when you clean up this mistakes. When you’re 1-5 and your margin of error is that much thinner… well, that’s when you end up 1-6.
4. Can’t Get Nothing From the C
The Raptors’ three centres combined to score 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting with eight rebounds and three turnovers in 41 minutes last night.
I don’t need to tell you that they need more than that.
The Raptors closed with their small lineup, featuring Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam and Anunoby; that’s a lineup that found decent success against Boston in the playoffs, and played excellent defensively last night. But with Norman Powell playing below par, offensively, it makes it that much harder to play it, especially in crunch time; Powell missed two three pointers and a free throw down the stretch that could have been difference makers.
I wouldn’t mind seeing that same lineup with Boucher at the four, or with DeAndre’ Bembry, who can’t seem to crack the rotation now. (Obviously, the preference would be for Norm to re-discover his mojo from last season!)
Other than that, centre is a position that Masai Ujiri might need to look to upgrade.
5. Vintage KLOE
For all of the ugliness we’ve seen from the Raptors this season, their soon-to-be-35 year-old point guard continues to be a bright spot.
Kyle Lowry had an absolutely classic Kyle Lowry game last night, a vintage combination of PU3ITs, barreling drives to the hoop, grifting and arguing with the referees (he even got a late technical foul for his trouble). About the only thing he didn’t do was take a charge.
This beauty was my favourite of the night:
Naturally, Lowry’s leadership extends off the court too. He and Chris Paul reportedly met pre-game to discuss what the teams should do in response to yesterday’s violence in Washington D.C., culminating in the teams linking arms during the national anthems, and said what most of us must be thinking about the day’s events:
“That man is a criminal, he should be charged, he told them to do it and somebody died … it’s crazy” — Kyle Lowry on Donald Trump.
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) January 7, 2021
Kyle Lowry Over Everything, including and especially Donald Trump.
For all the positives and good vibes we’re feeling about the Raptors this morning, they’re still 1-6 and have three road games coming up. Let’s hope last night wasn’t a blip and was in fact the start of a turnaround!