Toronto Raptors still learning about themselves at quarter point of season

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TORONTO – After 18 games a season ago – what turned out to be a quarter of the way through their abbreviated 2019-20 NBA campaign – the Raptors had a pretty good idea of who they were and what they could become.

Despite some notable turnover at the top of their roster and a series of injuries to key players, they were well on their way to establishing an identity. Of course, that’s always easier to do when things are going smoothly.

At 14-4, Toronto had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. The team ranked in the top-10 in both offence and defence and was in the middle of a long winning streak. They had just won a championship and were defending it admirably, even without Kawhi Leonard. It was a simpler time.

They’re in a different place now, in more ways than one. Twenty-five per cent of this bizarre new season – which isn’t so new anymore – is in the rear-view mirror, and the Raptors are still in the process of learning about themselves.

That’s what happens when things aren’t going according to plan. A shortened training camp, a temporary relocation, a slow start, and uneven play from just about everyone on the roster – it all adds up and makes this team a difficult one to evaluate, even for those who get paid handsomely to do so.

“I think we’re kind of in an extended part of trying to figure out who we are and who we can be,” head coach Nick Nurse said on Thursday, coming off a 115-108 loss to Milwaukee, which dropped his team’s record to 7-11 on the season.  “[We’ve been] pretty competitive most nights out, it’s just trying to play longer periods of good ball and clean up some of the mistakes and develop some consistency at both ends. That is the challenge right now.”

The quarter point snuck up on them quickly – a week or so earlier than it would have in a standard season, with each team playing 10 fewer games this year. If this is when teams usually start to get a sense of where they’re headed, you can understand why Toronto may need more time to figure it out. There are more than a few teams out there that probably feel that way.

Although everybody has been getting accustomed to the new normal in the NBA – the many protocols that come with playing basketball during a global pandemic – the Raptors are the league’s only club that’s had to do it while also settling into their home away from home. The move to Tampa, combined with the rushed start to the season and the loss of their veteran centres – Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol – had them playing catch-up from the get go, and they’ve been trying to dig themselves out of that hole ever since.

It’s uncharted territory for many of the team’s core players, who have only known what it’s like to win during their time in Toronto, and for some, going back even further than that.

“For me, it’s been tough, it’s been tough,” said Fred VanVleet, who came from a winning program at Wichita State. “Just taking it day by day. For the most part, just understanding there’s a lot of basketball left to turn it around. We’re not that far. Start looking at the standings, look at the teams in front of you, look at the records across the league. There are good teams that aren’t playing their best right now all over. Just understand the situation and the scenario and keep perspective on things and understand we still have a chance to make things right. I’m very confident that we will.”

“The losing is [difficult] when you’re not used to it,” Nurse said. “It’s certainly a different kind of animal to handle, especially after games – your emotions are high, you just put your heart and soul [into it]. The coaching staff, we put a ton of prep and film work and all that stuff into it, and guys go out there and play really, really hard for the most part. We’ve played 18 games and I bet we’ve given an honest effort, played really, really hard in 16 of them, probably.”

“It’s just we buried ourselves a little bit in a hole early here and we’ve dug some [of the] way out, we’re still digging, but I have every confidence that we will. I think the play and the attitude and the hustle and the effort shows me that we will play our way out of it.”

It’s hard to get a read on this Raptors team through 18 games. Their good moments have been sandwiched in between some of their less encouraging moments. They’ll take a few steps forward (three straight wins earlier this month, culminating in a decisive victory over Dallas), followed swiftly by a big step backwards (last Wednesday’s disheartening loss to Miami). They haven’t been consistent on either end of the floor.

On most nights – win or loss – they have looked better than their record, though, and that’s one of reasons why they’re optimistic about the direction they’re trending in. They’ve got the 14th-best point differential in the NBA, having outscored opponents by 0.5 point per game, but the 24th-best record. One bounce here, or a helpful break there and maybe their luck would be different.

Still, going into Wednesday’s game against Milwaukee, they had played the fourth-easiest schedule in the league, according to basketball-reference. Only four of their first 18 games have come against the NBA’s current top-eight teams. After hosting Sacramento and Orlando over the weekend, they’ll play nine of 10 games on the road, including visits to Brooklyn and Boston, and a couple more games against the Bucks in Milwaukee.

Things aren’t going to get easier before the season reaches its halfway mark in March and the rest of the schedule is released shortly before that. The hope for the Raptors is that they’re getting closer to turning the corner.

With the odd exception, their effort and energy level has been more consistent of late. Nurse’s rotation is starting to take shape, with guys like Chris Boucher, Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe establishing themselves off the bench. OG Anunoby and Norman Powell have bounced back after slow starts, and VanVleet continues to perform like an all-star. Now they need the same from Pascal Siakam, who has struggled – apart from five or six-game stretch early in the New Year – and is recovering from a knee injury.

The first quarter of the campaign hasn’t gone the way the Raptors imagined, but they still have 54 games to change the narrative.

“I think we’re learning a lot,” Nurse said. “I think there’s been a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation, just trying to figure out the rotations and who to get in there. We’re doing a lot of good things, but we need to do a few more and eliminate some glaring mistakes here and there.”

“We’re getting there, I think. At least for the most part, there have been some guys who, for whatever reason, have kind of not been themselves, but have kind of come back a little bit here and there. There have been all kinds of things we’re trying to smooth out and iron. It’s an interesting challenge, that’s for sure, but I think we’re getting there.”​