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Five Raptors plays that will define the 2018-19 Season

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It’s too early to draw grand conclusions about the Raptors, but a few instances from Monday’s win offer hints of what we’re likely to see from them all season long.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Monday’s 127-106 win over the Hornets didn’t tell us much about the Raptors we already didn’t know. It’s an extremely good team, with a superstar who’s already looking way closer to the old version of himself than the chronically injured question mark Masai Ujiri traded for in July, and a co-star whose playing out of his gourd through four games. Charlotte isn’t relevant or challenging enough to reveal anything of substance about the nature of Toronto’s overwhelming goodness.

The game did, however, offer reinforcement of some budding early-season trends that are already on the brink of becoming full-fledged pillars of the 2018-19 Raptors experience. In an entirely not shocking turn of events, most of those things are fun as hell to behold. Here are five plays from Monday’s win you’re likely to see over and over again in the coming months.

#1 — The New Guys, Doing New Stuff

I call this one the R.C. Buford Special.

“They got Danny Green, too!?” has been the rallying cry of NBA internet this week. And no matter how many people spit out the same take, it won’t make it any less absurd that Toronto nabbed Green as a throw-in to the Kawhi Leonard deal. Toronto’s wings have historically brought one of three or D to the equation; blending those two skills together? Jason Kapono laughs in your face.

Green’s an inclusive soul — there’s room for all valuable modern wing skills in his game. And when paired next to an equally terrifying defender who also happens to be a slept on dime-slinger, thrilling stuff — like the above exhibit — happens.

Deflections and steals that lead to roof-shaking buckets like the one Green orchestrated here are going to become the new normal in Toronto. Not every slapped down pass is going to ring out so loudly it pierces through the wall of game ops sound the way this Green disruption did, but the Raptors’ jacked up, more aggressive defensive style, if coach Nick Nurse has his way, is going to feed the offense all season long.

“I think we created a lot out of our defense tonight which I was probably more happy with (than the strong offensive play),” said Nick Nurse after the win. “Eight blocked shots, got our hands on a lot of balls and got out and capitalized on a lot of it.”

#2 — Kawhi, Being a Superstar

The stock of whatever company makes those chemistry class eyewash stations surely skyrocketed on Tuesday morning, what with all the threes Kawhi left in the corneas of his poor, defenseless Hornets opponents on Monday.

Prior to the Raptors racking up 36 assists on 50 made buckets against Charlotte, there was a touch of hmm-ing going on with regards to the Raptors’ slightly depressed assist percentage through three games — just 52 percent, well off the 59 percent last year’s Raptors accrued in their extensively-covered, reconstructed offense.

There might be dip in the ball-sharing department this season. But that doesn’t mean the Raptors will be worse off or less offensively healthy or less efficient. It just happens that a superstar of Leonard’s stature is going to hijack a few possessions, in turn giving you the efficient makes lesser teams and players need 18 seconds of actions to create. Leonard has a lot of insane features as a player. One of the more startling is his ability to create separation on his jumper just by ... I don’t know ... raising his arms in a shooting motion? Leave the intricate labyrinths of screens and cuts to the Jazz. Sometimes it’s okay to let a dude as talented as Kawhi cook up a little fast food.

#3 - Kyle, Creating in the Fourth

The 2017-18 regular season was mostly free of frayed nerves or pulled hairs. Toronto crushed shitty teams, and a lot of good ones, too. When crunch time did pop up, though, the Raptors lost their way a bit. Per NBA.com, the Raptors posted a kinda dumpy 103.2 / 105.2 / -2.0 efficiency slash line in clutch scenarios last season.

One (correct) theory on the matter was that the drop off had to do with the decision to relegate the team’s best player — Kyle Lowry — to off-ball decoy duty for some of the most important possessions of games.

Lowry’s fourth-quarter Usage Rate last year sat at just 22.2 percent to DeMar DeRozan’s 34.9. As if a microcosm of the jacked up playoff environment, DeRozan’s brilliant and deft approach to offense would become food for ratcheted up defenses. In fairness to Dwane Casey and DeMar, DeRozan’s utility was tied to the ball being in his hands. Lowry, even if miscast as a decoy, was more of a burden on the mind of a defense as a spot-up guy than DeRozan. At some point, though, it really would have been nice to see the scales skew towards a more even balance.

As we’re seeing through four games this year, and in sequences like the one above, the Raptors are just insanely, unstoppably good when Lowry shepherds the offense. His gravity meddles with defender’s brains, as Nurse made note of Monday night.

“As his deep threes are extending them out, he felt the defense as he was coming across half court a little bit so he knew it was time to turn the corner,” said Nurse, who before the game made note of how he’s tried to get the ball in Kyle’s hands late in games this season, referencing games last week in which he subbed Fred VanVleet out in crunch time for that reason.

“I think it was opening night, I was probably leaning towards going to Fred and Kyle again at the end but Kyle was playing so well that I decided to get him back on the ball, so I put Pascal back in,” said Nurse. “Pascal’s maybe not a guy you’d think hey he’s one of our closers, but he had a good game going and I wanted to get the ball back in Kyle’s hands.”

So far this year, we’re seeing the balance the Raptors couldn’t achieve last year. Lowry’s fourth-quarter Usage has been jacked up to 27.0 percent; just about equal to Kawhi’s 27.8.

A lot was made of Lowry not driving to the rim or taking guys off the bounce with the same virility he had in prior seasons a year ago. There was talk of a decline in his athleticism, of him moving on to a more perimeter-oriented phase of his career. Maybe he simply needed the opportunity to dictate the offense on his terms. It looks like giving him that green light is a priority for this year’s Raptors.

#4 — Norm, Working through it

With all the decadent basketball Raptors fans are going to get to gobble up this season, it’s gonna be important to stop and munch some veggies with an eye on long-term health. Those health foods will come in the form of little, Norman Powell-centred digressions from the typical throttling of opponents the Raps are liable to get caught up in this year.

Toronto is pot-committed on Norm. He is owed more years a than any player on the roster, and his $10ish million cap figure will be a pressure point if the Raptors hope to keep Kawhi and build a championship-worthy roster around him beyond just this season. Whether it’s in the interest of building him into a trade piece some team might take a chance on, or to just make him into yet another good ass player on an already stacked roster, it behooves the Raptors to try and find the old Norm somewhere lurking in that twitchy six-foot-four frame.

Letting Powell ride the high of a classic Norm jam by letting him workshop an ISO on the next trip down the floor might not always produce instant results; entirely discouraging him from doing the things he once did so confidently might have longer-lasting ill-effects. Norm needs time and space to rediscover what once made him so vibrant. The Raptors should eagerly give it to him. They’re going to win most of their games, anyway.

#5 — Pascal, Spicing up Life

Fred’s crossover was fun and all, but four games into VanVleet’s turn as the new TJ Ford, his burst and first-step already feel old hat. Pascal Siakam line dancing up the length of the bench in response to Fred’s deconstruction of poor Miles Bridges, however, is a new addition to his repertoire.

Siakam has quickly emerged into one of the most gregarious personalities on a squad comprised largely of all-business dudes. Apart from running fast breaks off boards and canning 65 percent of his seven-foot push shots, Siakam’s role on this team will be to inject levity. It’s a heavy season with Finals expectations and the courtship of Leonard running as through lines. Once the novelty of a season-opening winning streak and all the tingly butterflies of newness wear off, it will be easy to get lost in the heft of this season. Early signs point to Siakam being a constant reminder for both the fans and Raptors players alike to enjoy every minute of this year while it’s happening. Lots of the plays and sequences the Raps produced against Charlotte will surely be repeated as this season carries on. They might only be memories by the time next season appears on the calendar.

Enjoy every flourish this ridiculously dope basketball team offers up with the same zest and footwork Siakam does.