Positives and negatives from the Raptors’ Western Conference road trip

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After a four-game, Western Conference road trip, the Toronto Raptors now sit on a dismal, tied-for-worst-in-the-league 2-8 record and the harsh reality of the situation is, with this being being a shorter 72-game season and all, they don’t have a lot of margin for error from here onward if they are going to turn their season around.

But while a lot of focus is rightfully on the team’s dreadful record and where they are in the standings, it’s hard to deny the fact that they looked to play a lot better while out west.

Even though they only managed one win through the four games, the team discovered important facts about itself and how it might actually start racking up wins and finding a way to reverse its fortune so far this season.

There were obviously bumps in the road as they were slowly beginning to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, but the forward progress the Raptors made — molasses slow as it may look — still looks to be something they can build upon.

They’ll need to figure out how to clean up the problem areas they encountered, but a blueprint to future success appears to have been laid out.

So, with that said, here’s a closer look at both positives and negatives from Toronto’s Western Conference trip.

Positives

Playing small and more like themselves: In the last 7:45 of the Raptors’ loss to the Phonix Suns to open the road trip, head coach Nick Nurse rolled with a smaller lineup of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, foregoing the use of a traditional centre.

The strategy ultimately proved too little too late, but it allowed the Raptors to switch more on defence and open more driving lanes and spread the floor more effectively on offence. In other words, the Raptors were playing more like the team that terrorized the league the last two seasons when Nurse decided to play small.

This revelation of playing small is one of the main causes for optimism around the team and it even led to a big win over the Sacramento Kings where the Raptors put up a franchise-record 144 points in regulation.

Discovering one’s identity is key for any team struggling, and playing smaller and being quicker appears to be the key to the 2020-21 Raptors’ success.

Pre-bubble Pascal looks to be back: Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism around the Raptors has been the play of Siakam while on this past road trip.

Through the four games, Siakam averaged 24 points, 10.5 rebounds and seven assists, while getting to the free-throw line a little more than seven times per game and shooting 52.9 per cent from the field. On Monday, he recorded his first career triple-double versus the Portland Trail Blazers and had a 32-point outburst playing against the Suns.

Basically, the Siakam that was named an All-NBA second team selection last season appears to be back and that’s very good news for the Raptors.

Boucher has been brilliant: Another bright spot for the Raptors on the trip has been the exceptional play of Chris Boucher of late.

Boucher currently ranks fourth in the league with a 2.6 blocks-per-game average, and we saw some of his finest work turning shots aside in his career during these past four games.

In the four contests, Boucher averaged 3.3 blocks per game, and even managed a six-block game Sunday against the Golden State Warriors.

And this strong play swatting shots was indicative of the overall game Boucher played while on the trip as he averaged 16.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting a scorching 65.8 per cent from the floor and 61.1 per cent from deep.

The Montreal native appears to be the only true “big” Nurse trusts these days and his ability hit three-pointers and roll and finish hard has made him an invaluable part of Toronto’s bench.

If not for Boucher, there’s a good chance the losses the Raptors suffered would’ve been absolute blowouts.

Negatives

Playing small is exhausting: For all the benefits playing small has provided the Raptors from what we’ve seen over their past four games, it is something of a double-edged sword.

Without a traditional big man out there on the floor — like an Aron Baynes or Alex Len — the responsibility to box out, grab defensive rebounds and set hard screens falls onto players who may not normally do that, adding more responsibility and exertion to a group that’s already running itself ragged with how quick the team needs to play offensively — with a focus on getting out and running in transition — and the energy-sapping switch-heavy defensive schemes the team uses.

So while playing small is likely the Raptors’ optimal play style, unless they’re able to blow open a game early and snowball that into an easy victory — like we saw against Sacramento — the Raptors are going to get themselves into a lot of trouble against teams with deeper rotations and less tired legs by the end of the game.

A perfect example of this is what happened Monday night against the Blazers. The Raptors led by as much as 17, but appeared to hit a wall and slowly but surely Portland chipped away at their lead until it had evaporated, setting up the game’s finish.

There was a five-minute, 23-second period where the Raptors managed only three points in the fourth quarter of that game — the team looked completely gassed and the Blazers capitalized on the apparent exhaustion of the Raptors. That truly proved to be the difference in the contest.

Closing woes: Of course, had one of the two Siakam’s game-winning attempts found the bottom of the cup, the narrative of exhaustion may not be a thing. But the Raptors’ inability to finish opponents off while on the trip and the apparent tiredness from playing small don’t feel like they’re mutually exclusive.

One feeds into the other and vice versa because, if the Raptors weren’t running on empty by the end of the game, they’d probably be able to better position themselves to win games. But if the Raptors could more effectively put opponents away earlier, then the issue of fatigue wouldn’t be an issue at all.

Kind of like a chicken-and-egg situation, it’s tough to know what comes first but the fact remains that Toronto just seemed to lack the necessary final burst to make it across the finish line victorious during their recent road swing.

They really needed at least a split: And that brings us to our last point here.

Man, did the Raptors need at least one of those three looks Siakam got to finish the Warriors or Blazers at the buzzer to go down for there to be some real upwards momentum around the team.

It’s easy to nitpick what Siakam could’ve done differently but it’s hard to find fault with them. He put up decent-enough attempts at the basket, but they just didn’t fall and instead of a 3-7 or 4-6 record heading into a long homestand now, the team is right down at the bottom of the barrel at 2-8.

The Raptors right now are a classic case of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” and of a “team better than its record indicates” because, hey, they only have a net rating of minus-1.4, a mark that has them looking more like a middle-of-the-pack team rather than a basement dweller.

But the problem with that line of thinking is moral victories aren’t real ones and while there are positives to have been found on the trip that could lead to brighter days for them, the evidence so far has suggested the Raptors just aren’t that team. And until they start actually filling up that win column, the truth of the matter is this team is exactly what its record says it is.