Once a team built on rigidity and knowing exactly what to expect during the flow of a given game, the Raptors are exploring the uncharted lands of rotational fluidity and equal-opportunity offense this season. It’s brand new ground, even for the team’s most experienced travelers, let alone the troop of wide-eyed youths getting their first extended tastes of NBA life. Combine stars adjusting to a new system with a lengthy cast of unproven players — most of whom possess their own quirky on-court ticks — and you have an invitation for zaniness to creep into any game.
Leave it to the Pelicans and their funky ass roster to bring winds of strangeness with them to Toronto, acting as the catalyst for finally unlocking Toronto’s own weird underbelly. Thursday night’s 122-118 Raptors win was easily the kookiest game the Raptors have contested this season. Frankly, it’s stunning it took more than three weeks for a game to take hold of that championship belt.
As with the majority of the Raptors’ 11 games this year, the conversation about the Pelicans win begins with the oddities of Dwane Casey’s rotation. Having 12 players worthy of playing time is a good but tricky problem to negotiate. Performance is given little time to stabilize when guys are being shuffled in and out of the lineup. A player with one spurt of poor play might find himself quickly in odd-man-out position.
“No question, it’s tough,” said Casey when asked about his unpredictable sub patterns before Thursday’s game. “It’s difficult to go in and get a good rhythm, especially for Lucas and Jak and even JV’s minutes ... It’s not fair but it’s what we have. We have three excellent centers ... Until it shakes itself out, we’ll go with them and find time for all three of them.”
Lucas Nogueira helped clarify things on Thursday — at least for one night — with one of the most bizarre lines you’ll ever see: two points, one rebound, three personal fouls, 87 seconds. This was no mere collection of garbage time numbers. Bebe’s per-game-stats assaulting contributions all came as the first big man off the bench. Bebe Bebe-ing harder than he’s ever Bebe’d opened the gates to a wash of peculiar happenings in the front court over the remainder of the evening. The Raptors’ maligned pair of starting big men was heavily involved. As were the two Manticores opposite them.
Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are an oddball pairing in today’s NBA — in a good way, like peanut butter and celery. They represent a zig to the NBA’s small-ball zag; an offbeat superstar tandem that is one of the league’s most interesting thought experiments. They were right at home in Thursday’s weird-a-thon.
Entering the game, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka had shown next to no simpatico on the defensive end of the floor. With their struggles in mind, the blueprint for Thursday seemed simple enough: survive BoogieBrow’s impending 80-point, 40-rebound, soul-crushing barrage and hope the detritus comprising the rest of the Pelicans’ roster lived up to its ragged reputation.
Naturally, Ibaka and JV shut their counterparts’ asses down.
Cousins was harassed and frustrated all night — mainly by Valanciunas ... uhm ... somehow. Six of Boogie’s seven turnovers came before half-time, along with a technical foul. His end-of-night line resembled something out of his halcyon days of disgruntlement with Sacramento — 20 / 15 / 5 on just 8-of-24 shooting, 2-of-10 from outside.
Boogie credits one of his turnovers to JV flopping. "He's great at that"— Joseph Casciaro (@JosephCasciaro) November 10, 2017
Just showed this tweet to Jonas. His response: "I've never flopped in my life." https://t.co/pjoKFbVxHa— Daniel Reynolds (@aka_Reynolds) November 10, 2017
Anthony Davis, after averaging a totally not normal 31.6 points and 12.8 boards over his previous six games, was largely missing from the game’s touchstone moments. Toronto held him to just 18 points and seven rebounds on 6-of-14 shooting. It was startling to see Davis not shred the Raptors considering all we knew about the match-up coming in. But, I mean, what was he to do on a night where Valanciunas was out there masterfully blowing up pick-and-rolls?
Jonas Valanciunas, destroying Boogie-Brow pick and rolls ... you know, the thing he's known for. pic.twitter.com/agJvmzTGuI— Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) November 10, 2017
“I thought the rotation with JV, Yak and Lucas wore them down a little bit,” said Casey after the game. “I thought they did as well as they could with Cousins and Davis. They’re a handful, they’re so long, they’re so big, they can stretch the floor. “
Someone who hadn’t been giving the Pelicans much stretch in recent games was Jrue Holiday. Missing 16 threes in a row is freaking hard to do, no matter how butt a player’s shooting stroke might be. Holiday had done it, though. Coming into the game with Toronto, he had gone 12 days since cashing a shot in from outside. A 48-year-old Jameer Nelson had outplayed him at almost every turn through 11 Pelicans games.
Because Thursday’s game made no sense, Holiday went a special kind of off: 34 points, 11 assists and five rebounds on 14-of-20 shooting. Sure, man.
Much of Holiday’s outburst came against the Raptors bench — yes, the same Raptors bench that has routinely propped up the sub par starting five this season. Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright, normally humanoid PEDs for the Raptors’ plus/minus, posted a per-100 efficiency slash line of 88.8 / 138.3 / -49.5 in the 13 minutes they shared the floor. I’m telling you ... the subplots of this game were weird as hell.
We shouldn’t be totally surprised. And we should certainly expect more intense oddness to be baked into the Raptors’ box scores going forward. Without the dependability of a set rotation and tried and true offensive scheme, there will be nights where the inexplicable dominates. Delon Wright is going to hit two threes sometimes — he did that against New Orleans, by the way.
Dwane Casey’s nightly crank of the crunch time slot machine is going to churn out unorthodox combinations. Sometimes OG Anunoby will get the call to be the Jrue Holiday antidote. We’re due to see a three-point guard closing group at some point, I’m sure. The possibilities are virtually endless.
As is the weird potential for this Raptors team as they work through the kinks of a new offense and a rotation with length matched only by Bruno Caboclo’s arms. Not having a nightly structure almost definitely drives Casey a little crazy, and it will probably translate into the odd loss that might have been curtailed by the more trusty Raptors teams of the last few years. Those losses will sting in the moment.
But with each Raptors game taking on a snowflake-like identity, it won’t be too long before the pain of an avoidable loss is replaced by the jubilation of an Anunoby crunch time jam or a daggerous three off the fingers of, I don’t know, Bebe or someone like that.
The regular season is long. Toronto’s wonderful weirdness is here to liven it up.