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Toronto Temperature: Steady as it goes on the road

The Raptors have sent their 2018-19 expectations through the roof by steamrolling through the weekend at 3-0, as part of their four-game road trip that took them to Phoenix, LeBrongeles and Utah.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

You have to go all the way back to the Raptors 2012-13 season to find a losing road record. Back then they went 13-28 under coach Dwane Casey, the season before taking off. Since then they’ve gone 116-89 in five seasons; last year they won 25 of 41 road games, which helped catapult them into playoffs.

Their weekend effort against the Suns, Lakers and Jazz told us a few things about the 2018-19 Raptors. It told us that Nick Nurse is really into playing Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka as two separate centres on two different units. We learned the Raptors can win — and win well — without Kawhi Leonard. And now we know the 2018-19 Raptors like to play pressure basketball where they grind down their opponents, sweat on turnovers, and transition at break-neck speed to entice better shots and scoreboard pressure.

With all that now known, let’s take a look at who’s hot and who’s not this week for the Raptors.

Who’s Hot?

The Ibaka-JV Combo

It’s a genius move by coach Nick Nurse: playing Ibaka and Valanciunas as two centres, alternating between the starting unit and bench team. It gives the Raptors more rim protection, strength on both units and flexibility with small-ball lineups. All credit here to Nurse for sticking with what he thinks works best for the team. Valanciunas is now averaging 13.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game, with typical 88 percent accuracy from the free throw line. Ibaka meanwhile is averaging a whopping 18 points, 7.4 rebounds, and even 1.1 assists, while shooting almost 60 percent from the floor (59.3 percent).

Name another team that has this same working situation or luxury?

Pascal Siakam

Siakam is playing with real venom right now, and looks a lot more confident attacking the rim these days. For example, against the Jazz, Siakam latched onto a loose ball and bolted to the rim with Jae Crowder in hot pursuit. The six-foot-nine forward had the presence of mind to use the right side of his body to hold off Crowder, while guiding the ball off the backboard for a left-handed bucket. Pascal made it look easy but that play showed the maturity of and belief in his skill-set. (He was not making left-handed buckets a lot last year.) Siakam is set for a big, and important, year.

Nick Nurse

What I like about Nurse so far is his ability to recognize when something isn’t working and to find a solution for it. When JV seemed to struggle against Rudy Gobert in Utah, he switched Ibaka on to him and then resorted to Greg Monroe when Ibaka got into foul trouble. I would argue, this is what haunted Casey: his weakness was his inability to move on things fast enough when they weren’t working, or making decisions too late to impact the result. The new NBA game is quick and things change. Nurse has his pulse on every bucket and non-bucket. This is good news for the Raptors.

Who’s Not?

Resting Kawhi

Kawhi has been absent four times from Toronto’s 11 matches so far, which means he’s on track to miss 25-30 games this season (at that rate). The good news though is that the Raps are developing ways to win when he is not there. But, selfishly, we all want to see Kawhi play most nights because: he’s really, really, good. Aside from his 26-point, 7-rebound, 3-assist average output, it’s the little things like his poise under pressure, ability to keep his feet in a 50-50 ball and total awareness that make him the complete player. Leonard creates buckets and scores buckets.

Hopefully the early season monitoring pays off later in the year when the Raptors need him most.

OG Anunoby

Through appearances in eight games OG has put up 7.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. He has somehow only shot one free throw so far, while managing to go 44.8 percent from field (and just 33 percent from three). It’s roughly the same level of output from his 2017-18 season, and while OG’s role has changed from starter to the bench unit, I think it’s fair to say we were expecting a bit more production.

That said, let’s remember, Anunoby had an interrupted pre-season, and has missed a few early regular season games. He gets a pass for now, until he can really get his feet under him.

Norman Powell

Powell is the depth that Nurse relies on so he can adjust his rotations with confidence on the fly. But his recent shoulder injury gives someone else an opportunity to play his role: not good news for Powell, but good for the Raptors as they can test how deep they are.

Powell has been averaging just five points and two rebounds in 14.9 minutes before he went down with a shoulder dislocation, but losing a solid rotation player can also impact momentum, runs and match-ups. During Powell’s sideline stint, expect C.J. Miles or Danny Green to get more court time, and possibly Malachi Richardson.