Since last we checked in, the Raptors have gone 2-2: they beat the Clippers last night in a 24-point rout and they overcame Philly by 11 last week. The loss to the Nets in overtime stung, and the Raptors still haven’t figured out how to beat the Bucks, with their head-to-head record at 0-2 against them this season.
The good news: the Raptors are 22-7. They are on top of the East, clear by four wins ahead of the aforementioned Bucks. They currently own the best NBA record too. And there are no major injuries to key players (Norman Powell is set to return within the next week).
The best part about the way the Raptors are playing this season: they can win — and win well — without their main cog, Kawhi Leonard. Let’s dive into what’s Hot and what’s Not for this week.
No Kawhi, No Problems
Some top teams are the polar opposite of themselves when they don’t have their blue chip players on the court. They go from championship contender to a team that looks like they’re tanking. Two teams come to mind: the Lakers without LeBron; the Rockets without Harden.
Luckily for the Raptors, this is not the case when Kawhi Leonard sits out. As much as it is annoying, the Raptors fare pretty well when he’s out. Of the seven matches Kawhi has missed, the Raptors are 6-1 with an average winning margin of 18-points. Also, good things happen when Kawhi is missing. Consider: last night Kyle Lowry found his shot hitting 21 points, including four threes. This, after not being able to buy one over the previous five games. Speaking of which:
Lowry and His Shot
He’s back! Lowry broke the horrid run of poor three-point shooting and general scoring funk he was in last night vs. the Clippers, and that is cause for celebration. In terms of scoring, Lowry is still off his career average, and making fewer threes per game thanks in large part to the last few weeks. But Lowry’s assists are still at a record high — and leading the league — and most importantly: Toronto is winning.
Before the Clippers match, Lowry had gone 5-of-32 from three-point range in five games. In those five games he scored a total of 25 points, averaging five points per game. Safe to say, Lowry was back to somewhere near his norm with 21 points against the Clippers. Funk broken — for now.
This year is playing out like Serge Ibaka’s second coming. The 6-foot-10 centre has been given a new lease on life with a more fluid, flexible role with the Raptors this year. Full credit to coach Nick Nurse for trying some new things with Toronto’s line-ups. The experiment (that’s not really an experiment anymore) of splitting time between Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas as the starting bigs has worked and continues to do so. If you need proof: last night the two players combined for 41 points on the back of Ibaka’s 25.
In fact, Ibaka is trending up. In his last seven games he’s accumulated 118 points, good for 16.8 per game. On top of that, his worst shooting game was .444 — his best .667. Last year he averaged 12.7 points in a more defensive role. Ibaka and his offensive abilities have been unleashed this season and he has thrived in his new role.
Freddy’s up and down productivity continues. It’s an interesting situation. Even though his efficiency is somewhat down from last year, the Raptors are better than ever.
The more expansive bench role he’s now playing may limit his scoring at times, but in terms of the team, he’s still contributing with assists and his probing drives through the paint for the kick out (which is still something of a work in progress).
But as it stands, his last seven games have produced scores of five, 19, eight, five, two, 15 and a big fat zero. That averages out to 7.7 points in that stretch in 23 minutes per game. A start last night in L.A (with 14 assists!) is a step in the right direction, but let’s see what happens with the consistency.
Is it time the Raptors moved on from C.J. Miles (at least in the rotation)? Miles has hit nine threes in the past 10 games, despite being on the roster to hit exactly those shots. What’s working against C.J. is that everyone on the Raptors, potentially, is now armed to shoot the long ball: Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Kawhi, JV, OG Anunoby et al.
In 2018, the term three-point specialist might have lost its meaning in the league. No longer is it a special skill, especially when everyone is expected to nail the three if they’re in the right spot.
So what does that mean for C.J.? He’s a potential trade option for someone who desires a small forward that plays spot minutes, has reasonable three-point power, and is impartial to that player being a shot creator or at all defensive-minded.
The Raptors haven’t lost too many games so far this season, so it’s not worth getting to worked up about it. That said, two of the seven losses for Toronto have been against the Bucks, who sit 2.5 games behind Toronto. They have the Raptors number at the moment — and they could be there waiting in May.
While the average margin of loss across those seven defeats is just seven points, with four close losses (five points or less), the Bucks are a team the Raptors need to figure out how to beat.