The brand of basketball we saw last night wasn’t high art, but the Toronto Raptors did just enough to pull away late and defeat the Phoenix Suns 107-98. After the game, though, everyone’s thoughts were on Kawhi Leonard’s left foot
The Collective Panic Attack of Kawhi Leonard Going to the Locker Room
With about two minutes to go, Kawhi Leonard came out of the game and casually strolled to the locker room. Was he hurt? The broadcast had no replays and no info. What happened? Internet sleuths found a play where Leonard appeared to turn towards the bench gingerly after a play, but no injury seemed apparent.
You could hear the collective clenching of the entire Raptors fan base. Our season might be going up in smoke!
It reminded me of when Vince Carter first went down in the 2001-2002 season, like all hope and light in the world just got thrown in the trash.
Post-game, however, Leonard seemed fine:
Kawhi on his foot: “I think it’s going to be all right, nothing major. I just pushed off on it and kind of rolled it and I wanted to get it looked at.”— Mike Ganter (@Mike_Ganter) November 3, 2018
Let’s all utter a collective “phew,” now, shall we?
Going Small has its Downside
It’s hard to complain about the Raptors’ platooning of Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka at the centre spot; the team is 8-1, after all, with a point differential of +8.4.
But going with only one traditional big has exposed a fairly predictable weakness: Rebounding. The Suns were a +10 on the boards last night, and hauled in 12 offensive boards.
Overall, the Raptors are only grabbing 48.9% of available rebounds, which ranks 22nd in the league; their defensive rebounding rate is 68.3%, 27th in the league. Kawhi Leonard leads the team with 7.6 a game; Ibaka and Valanciunas are also just over 7 per game as well.
It’s not clear what the solution is, or if it even needs to be major concern; the Raptors are far from the only team playing a bit smaller, after all. Nevertheless it is something to keep an eye on.
A Couple of Lineup Choices left me Scratching my Head
Last night we saw a full strength Raptors squad for the first time all year. Fred VanVleet was first off the bench (Kyle Lowry had two fouls) and he was soon joined by Ibaka, OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles and... Norman Powell?
This isn’t a knock on Norm, who’s been playing fine. But we have an entire season’s worth of evidence that VanVleet and Delon Wright are great together. I’m already giving Nick Nurse the side-eye for splitting up VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, now he’s splitting up VanVleet and Wright?
I hope this was simply Nurse trying to keep both VanVleet’s and Wright’s minutes down as they both get healthy.
The other curious choice Nurse made was going back to his starters with six minutes to go, and the Raptors up by 18 points. The bench unit outlined above was on a 22-8 run, C.J. Miles had hit two straight three-pointers, and it looked like they were going to put it to bed.
I’m surprised Nurse didn’t give them the chance to do so.
Colour me Impressed with Deandre Ayton
On draft night, I thought Phoenix was going to take Luka Doncic with the first overall pick. They needed a playmaker to pair with Devin Booker, and their new coach, Igor Kokoškov, had coached Doncic in the past.
Instead they went with Deandre Ayton who, though clearly a talented player, was cut from the traditional big man mode—a role that’s disappearing in today’s NBA. I wasn’t sure it was a good choice.
But he looks pretty damn good! He looked comfortable and confident against Valanciunas, showed great footwork and flashed a couple of smooth spin jump-hook shots. He even completely stuffed JV on a fadeaway in the third quarter! Ayton had a double-double by halftime and finished with 17 points on 10 shots and a game-high 18 boards.
Now if only the Suns had a playmaker to get him the ball even more...
Is the Slow Start Something to Worry About?
It’s not a stretch to think that the Raptors came in to Phoenix and took the Suns lightly; the Suns had lost six straight, after all, and the Raptors do have more noteworthy games to come on this road trip, including tomorrow’s matchup with LeBron James. It certainly would explain their low-energy first quarter.
Has this team already gotten to the point where they think they’re good enough not to care about certain opponents? I know it’s been a great start, but I sure hope that’s not the case. This team still has a long ways to go, and that 8-1 start has included victories over the Cavaliers, Wizards, Mavericks and Suns, who are a combined 5-28. Slow starts aren’t a problem against the Suns; other teams a little higher in the standings will take advantage of them. Let’s not develop a bad habit, or get too high on ourselves yet!
The rest of this roadtrip (Lakers, Jazz and Kings) should be a pretty tough test; you never want to take LeBron lightly, the Jazz are always great at home, and the Kings are a surprising 6-3.
Even with the slow start, I don’t know that a Raptors win was ever really in doubt. And it looks like Kawhi Leonard will be fine, so all is well in Raptorland for now. Tomorrow we’ll be seeing our nemesis, LeBron James, in his new uniform, and we’ll finally see how having an elite defensive player like Leonard can help slow him down.