As you may have heard, the Raptors are quite good. As such, they’re not going to lose many games this year, which also means those losses are going to pack a disproportionate punch. Sports fans love to complain and nitpick, so on those rare occasions when the Raps do drop a game, many will find every reason to whine about the things the team did poorly.
But with this year’s Raptors, complaining after losses only amounts to a lot of wasted breath — breath that could be spent talking about the spectacular stuff this team churns out even on nights when the final score doesn’t go their way. That’s what this column is and will be for. To amend Ty Lue’s words, this season isn’t about wins and losses. For the Raptors, it’s about wins and lessons about how freaking good they are even when they lose.
With 8:37 to go in the fourth quarter of Monday’s loss to New Orleans, with the Raptors trailing 104-90 and having been picked apart by Anthony Davis-E’Twaun Moore-Jrue Holiday screening actions all night, Nick Nurse went to a contingency plan that’s been curiously whispered about, but not actually put into practice this season.
“It’s something I don’t think we’ll see very often,” said Nurse after the game, parroting words I’m sure were uttered during the Manhattan Project at some point or another, “but it is a circumstance when you’re trying to change the game. You’re just trying to find something or some combination that opens something up or gets you into some passing lanes or knocking the ball loose a little bit.
“It didn’t work out very well tonight, but it started out really good.”
That something was the Raptors’ nuclear option — a switch-everything death squad of a lineup featuring Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. That unit’s first run together this year last just three minutes and 59 seconds, yielding a -1 on the score sheet.
You can pull positive, joyous feelings from this four-minute stretch of getting slightly outscored for reasons that are two-fold. Firstly, it’s cool that Nurse decided to go to the lineup at all. Experimentation was his selling point as Toronto’s new coach, and the Raptors’ closest approximation to Golden State’s Death Lineup is some especially bubbly laboratory ooze. Going super small and athletic against a team with the team with the league’s best large person had a twinge of madness, but innovation doesn’t happen without being a little daring. In the Raptors’ case on Monday night, testing the boundaries almost worked. And while they ultimately fell short, the Raptors’ nightmare fuel lineup provided a second reason for excitement beyond Nurse’s risk-taking: flashes . Oh my sweet goodness, the flashes.
For example, here are the first two possessions of the fivesome’s time together.
Here you get reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Siakam juking perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis out of his shoes en route a soft lefty finish. On it’s own it’s a sweet play, illustrating Siakam’s refinement on offense. In the grand scheme of this lineup’s long-term viability, it displays how Siakam can overcome being the lone non-shooting threat on the court. Put the ball in his hands, and he can put his increasingly unstoppable array of around-the-basket moves to work on his own, or use the help-defense magnetism he’ll surely start generating to engage kick-out opportunities for the four very good shooters he shares the floor with, like he did, uhm ... 40 seconds later.
“A whole ‘nother level of confidence I think,” Nurse said before the game of Siakam’s development this year. “He’s always been an energy guy. With the ball he’s just exciting to watch, it’s fun, I think it’s fun. And it gives us a whole ‘nother dimension because if you’re looking at us and you think ‘OK Pascal Siakam’s out there, he’s not a great three-point threat,’ ... so you’re gonna plug and help and leave him open and go after these guys and double team and all this kind of stuff, well, then when we put the ball in [his] hands, somebody’s gotta guard him.”
Siakam’s not just a garbage man on offense anymore. He’s an active participant teams have to give a damn about.
Oh! And the defensive possession! Pretty simple stuff, really. Instead of the failed attempts to navigate Davis screens and stick to E’Twaun Moore the Raptors partook in with different personnel groups on the floor, they strictly stuck to a switch-all game plan to cope with Holiday and Davis. With Lowry stuck on Ian Clark, the choice for New Orleans was to involved Clark, a not so good player, in actions to try and zero in on Lowry, or just live with their best dudes getting trailed everywhere by Toronto’s best defenders. It worked, sort of, in the possession above, with Holiday being forced into a missed three by Siakam. And Anunoby had the rebound in his grasp before a borderline missed call against Davis resulted in The Brow dunking. Sometimes sound process gets bested by Anthony Davises.
As it happens, it can also be bested by ludicrous shot-making at the right times. Prior to this stretch of the game, Toronto’s defense had been picked apart by a collection of floaters, 70-plus paint points and a complete lack of ideas for guarding screening actions involving Davis. With the five man unit in question on the court, they tidied up those things, only to be beaten by Holiday and Moore pull-up threes straight to the eye.
“I thought we had them, man.” Nurse said of the quick 7-2 run the Raptors went on after their critical sub. “That was the moment when they looked us in the eye from about 25 feet three times in a row and drilled the three on us. We were switching, we had them in front of us. And they just all went in. And then it right back up to 12 or 14 or 18 or 28 or whatever it was.”
Nurse wasn’t crazy to think his sub would be what turned the game back over to the Raptors. New Orleans’ offense, apart from one possession where Siakam and Leonard weren’t clear on whether to switch, and Davis sprung free for a lob finish from Holiday, was on a string during those four minutes. Shit, even comically poor defensive efforts like this one from Green resulted in easy blocks.
But with Davis exposing the lineup’s small stature as Davis is wont to do, and some shots popping out that would normally be cash — including a beautifully crafted Anunoby pick-and-pop three, and a finger-roll by the guy famous for having really long fingers — the Raptors couldn’t weave together enough good luck and sound process to cut into the Pelicans’ lead.
“It was like ‘oh good this is it,’ we found it and quickly,” Nurse said. “And then it quickly went away. And that’s kinda what happens with those things a little bit. They usually have a quick shot of injection, and if you’re really lucky they continue on and you do change the game.”
Fortune didn’t favour them Monday night, but that doesn’t mean the Raptors should be afraid to go back to Siakam-at-centre looks again when the moment calls for it. There were enough examples of sturdiness and dynamism and downright terrifying potential that Lowry-Green-Leonard-Anunoby-Siakam’s status as Toronto’s behind-the-glass emergency lineup shouldn’t be altered.
You can choose mad about the Raptors’ second loss in 14 games if you want, and latch on to the shaky defense or Lowry and Leonard’s bricky nights or the fact that Lorenzo Brown stuck around for a few too many fourth quarter minutes. But like, those are things I’m sure the Raptors are aware they messed up on. Instead, why not get psyched about the introduction of the lineup folks dreamed about when it became clear Leonard, Anunoby and Siakam weren’t traded for one another, but rather would be on the same team.