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Toronto Temperature: The Raptors and Kawhi are kicking it in style

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Winners of six games in a row (again), Toronto keeps finding new ways to put games away. Now we ask: who’s responsible? (And who is falling behind?)

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

We’re running out of superlatives here for the Toronto Raptors. I know it’s still early, I know there are things to improve upon, I know the facts and figures of a long season. But I also know that the Raptors are 18-4 and keep finding new and exciting ways to win.

The past seven days saw the Raptors play in four games, and win all four. They blew up the Hawks, they mercy killed the Wizards, they staved off the Heat, and then they came back against the Grizzlies. Next up: the Warriors, the true measuring stick for Toronto. Can they beat them too?

I don’t see why not. Now let’s look at who has been carrying the water for the Raptors, and who’s been making a bit of a mess.

Who’s Hot

Kawhi and his Kicks

As reported by Yahoo’s Chris Haynes — noted Raptors insider — Kawhi Leonard is set to become the new face of New Balance Basketball. (Admittedly, this isn’t a hard thing to do; his main competition for the role was Matthew Dellavedova.) The jokes of course are flying online as one of the league’s most stolid players becomes the spokesman for the world’s most, uh, functional shoe brand.

Still, kudos to Kawhi for steering into this whole vibe. New Balance does the job, and doesn’t have a lot of time for additional flair — and so it is with Leonard. In the bigger business picture, it takes guts to step away from Jordan Brand, the shoe world’s true megalith, to represent a plucky outsider group that most don’t quite take seriously. Kawhi could be commended for that (and for averaging 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists over the past week).

Hmm, this recalls another situation involving Kawhi, but I can’t quite put my finger on it...

Fred VanVleet

We’ve been dogging on VanVleet for a little while now, not because we think he’s a bad player but because we know he can be so much better. FVV is the guy who came out of nowhere last season to steady the Raptors bench, and who also calmly did what needed to be done in crunch time. Chalk it up to some new lineups, injuries, or just a mini-funk, VanVleet looks like he’s just now getting back to being himself this week.

Over the past four games, VanVleet finished fifth on the Raptors in plus/minus at 9.8, while averaging 13.0 points and 5.0 assists, and shooting 63 percent from the field (and 61.5 percent from three). Most of those eye-popping numbers are due to last night’s tremendous performance in the clutch against Memphis. VanVleet was dynamite on defense, and happened to go 6-for-6, with a flurry of late 3s to ice the game. It was beautiful to see.

Canada

You heard Klay Thompson right? He was just minding his business before being asked to look ahead to the Warriors coming match against the East-leading Raptors. And as Klay is wont to do: he gave an honest and earnest answer, ending with a quote that should sing out across the land: “They got something really special up there in Canada right now.”

Klay, the Raptors heard you. We in Toronto heard you. And the whole of Canada heard you too.

Who’s Not

C.J. Miles

Before the season began, whispers abounded regarding Miles’ place on these Raptors. Last season, with the surprising bench unit, Miles acted as a spring-loaded release valve, ready to fire up 3s with reckless abandon. That young group needed the safety net; but with the addition of Danny Green (the prototypical 3-and-D wing), and with the re-jigging of some of Toronto’s lineups, it’s not as obvious where Miles fits.

Sadly, C.J. hasn’t helped himself at all by being a huge negative on defense, while also going through a massive shooting slump. It says something that even after hitting his two 3-point attempts last night against Memphis, coach Nick Nurse opted not to bring Miles back into the game in the second half. There’s enough shooting on the Raptors now that Miles’ weakness on defense is keeping him on the bench. Sadly, I don’t think there’s a way to fix the situation for C.J.

Gregg Popovich

This has been talked up and down already by everyone all over the place, but I’ll take my little stab into it (again) too. LeadershipGate, as I’ve since taken to calling it (because it is ridiculous), really only makes Popovich look bad. There’s no reason he had to mention Kawhi’s name, the Pop quotes out there from a couple years ago certainly indicate that he had no problem with Kawhi’s style before he left the Spurs, and it’s clear that he only uttered Kawhi’s name because it still stings to see him elsewhere (and flourishing with a new shoe brand no less). I get all that — which is why Popovich probably should have known better and kept Kawhi’s name out of his mouth.

That is, unless, you believe Coach Pop does indeed know better — like a fox.

Pessimistic Attitudes

I’m as guilty as anyone here, to be honest. The Raptors, as I’ve followed them for the past 20 years of my dang life, have almost never been what you’d call a confident team. They’ve never been inevitable like Michael Jordan, or Shaq, or LeBron, or the Warriors dynasty. They’ve been, in a word, suspect.

This is why it becomes so easy to immediately fall into depressive moods when the Raptors show any signs of struggle. In the days leading up to last night’s Grizzlies game, and after their speed bump three-game losing streak, we had begun to worry the Raptors were not everything they believed themselves to be. Is it possible the team was about to be exposed by tougher competition? Were they just padding their record by crushing teams they were supposed to beat? Had we set ourselves up for yet another fall, another collapse, another tumble into the abyss?

It was all very much possible.

Then last night on Tuesday, the Raptors flat out executed. They were down 12 points at half to a Memphis team set up to defend well, grind the game down, and play smart, self-contained basketball. They were not pushovers, is my point. Except the Raptors started cranking up their defense (even throwing out a discombobulating zone for a stretch), and then began making the shots we believe — we know — they can make. The end result: a satisfying win on the road, and yet another boost of confidence.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been so worried in the first place. Maybe the past is really the past. Maybe this time — yes, this time — the Raptors are for real.

We dare to dream... again.