Is it real? Did it happen? Have the Raptors, somehow, against all odds, stopped losing games by a narrow margin after building big to gigantic leads? Yes, as it turns out it is real! It also turns out that the Raptors have been a pretty good team all along.
They are certainly not without their faults, but when the franchise set an NBA record for lowest point differential in losses earlier this week, it was confirmation that Toronto is a team that is/was floundering while trying to rebuild a roster that lost two integral pieces over the offseason.
Now, an important caveat here is that while the Raptors did go 3-0 this week, those three wins came against a tired, short-handed Dallas Mavericks team and the Charlotte Hornets, twice. As a matter of fact, Toronto nearly threw away both games against the Hornets in true 2020-2021 Raptors fashion, as they carried big leads into the fourth and nearly squandered them before managing to narrowly escape with victory.
So are the Raptors for real? Has the emergence of Chris Boucher and a semi-solid rotation started to right the ship, or was this week a mirage? Let’s find out!
Stanley Johnson, Pest Extraordinaire
Now here’s a perfect example of “burying the lede”. That semi-solid rotation that was mentioned three sentences ago is not possible without — and allow me to gather myself before I type these words — the emergence of Stanley Johnson.
Long left for dead in the Raptors rotation, Stanley Johnson has taken the opportunity given to him by Nick Nurse and ran all the way wild with it. Noted for his defensive prowess and peskiness, Johnson was never able to stay on the court due to his misadventures on the offensive end. Frequently dribbling the ball out of bounds off his foot, or hoisting ill-advised jumpers early in the clock found Stanley starved for minutes in Toronto’s rotation, but, like Chris Boucher, something seems to have finally clicked for Johnson.
Although the sample size is small, Stanley is shooting 44% from three point range and has dramatically reduced his turnovers with only two over the last three games. While much of this can likely be attributed to consistent playing time, Johnson’s confidence and ability to stay ready can’t be understated. It’s a helluva ride, but rooting for Stanley Johnson feels so right.
Chris Boucher, Standing His Ground
Speaking of guys who it feels so right to root for and something clicked in their game, how awesome is it that Chris Boucher has been this good? I mean, come on, look at this.
Chris Boucher last 6 games:
The Raptors have outscored opponents by 55 points when he’s on the floor in that span (leads team).
— StatMuse (@statmuse) January 19, 2021
As much as those very impressive numbers should be mentioned, there is another area that has led Boucher to consistent minutes for the Raptors this year: staying down on the pump fake.
See, Boucher is, and probably always will be, a block-chaser and on the defensive end that tends to yield mixed results. When Boucher is in the paint leaping for blocks, it’s almost always a positive.
Chris Boucher’s averaging 2.6 BPG (4th in the NBA)… Watch his TOP BLOCKS from the season so far!
Watch the Raptors & Hornets TONIGHT (7:30 PM/ET, TSN) in the Game of the Week presented by @Bell. pic.twitter.com/fPUVPuLhIr
— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) January 14, 2021
When he’s running out to block a three pointers, sometimes it’s incredible and sometimes his exuberance leads to wide open looks or a broken, four-on-five play for the opposing team. He gets the block in the clip below, but if he misses, look at how far out of the play he would have been.
Where things clicked for Boucher is defensively in the midrange. Before his recent run of incredible play, his eagerness to swat the shot would see Boucher leap at every feint and sleight that was thrown at him. This, seemingly, infuriated Nurse and was a trait that saw lead to him catching an early hook back to the bench. But again, like Stanley Johnson, something clicked and Boucher has been more patient in standing his ground in the midrange, which has enabled him to stay on the court for longer. That, in turn has earned him more trust from the coaching staff which has equated to extremely elevated play.
Norman Powell, Decision Making
When Norman Powell is playing in the flow of the offense, he’s one of Toronto’s best weapons. Usually, that means that Powell is moving around the perimeter as the ball swings side-to-side and is staying ready for the three point shot.
When Norm is on automatic from beyond, it not only opens up Toronto’s spacing, but it opens up options for Norman to drive the ball. This is an area that can sometimes spell trouble for both the Raptors and for Powell, but is essential for the sustained success of both the club and the player. On the other hand…
Normal Powell, Decision Making
When Powell’s shot isn’t falling, he has a tendency to force almost every other aspect of his game. Jump passes that lead to turnovers, anticipated drives that lead to turnovers, ill-advised shots that are so far out of situational basketball that you kind of can’t believe what you’ve just seen.
Incredibly boneheaded play by Norman Powell lets the Hornets close on a 6-0 run. Raps lead 66-64 at the half.
— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) January 17, 2021
The boneheaded play in question was a sequence that saw Powell turn a two-for-one opportunity into a hoisted 27-footer over two players with six seconds to go, which, of course, led to the Hornets scoring at the buzzer due to all of the time Norm left on the clock.
These kinds of decisions are what drives Raptors fans — and surely the coaching staff — insane. Powell is at the point in his career that is likely who he is, so as long as he is a Raptor, fans are going to have to take the good with the sometimes very bad.
The 9th Man, One More Piece
With the starting five seemingly intact — until Nurse has no other choice but to remove Aron Baynes — the Raptors bench corps of Norman Powell, Chris Boucher and Stanley Johnson seem to be set. Nick Nurse has never been a stranger to extending his bench when things aren’t working, so who will be the player to fill the 9th spot in order to keep Toronto’s starters fresh throughout the condensed season?
Early on, that player looked to be Matt Thomas but with only four minutes played over the last ten games, Thomas has fallen out of favour on account of his defensive miscues. DeAndre’ Bembry received an early look, but, like Thomas, Bembry has barely played since his early audition. That leaves Yuta Watanabe, Paul Watson Jr. and [redacted] fighting for the final slot. Watanabe, for his part, has looked active and ready to do whatever is asked of him whenever it is asked of him.
Only having played 10 total minutes on the season, Paul Watson Jr. stays ready but is rarely used. [redacted] continues to get opportunities but can’t seem to stay out of his own way through lackadaisical defense and an inability to not put his hands on people.
All of this means that Nurse will continue to experiment with situational usage in that 9th and even 10th spot until he finds something that works on a consistent basis.
Alex Len, Waived
Someone who won’t be getting that opportunity is Alex Len, as the Toronto Raptors waived Len on Tuesday. After putting in a solid effort to become the backup big that Toronto was looking for, Len couldn’t translate his game to Toronto’s expectations. Unless you’re a defensive genius like Marc Gasol, you really can’t be an interminably slow centre and survive in Toronto’s hyper-aggressive defensive scheme. We wish Len all the luck wherever he lands!