It was a week of anxiety, then relief, for the Raptors. A loss in Boston on Saturday put their backs to the wall in a fight for the East’s top seed, then confidence slid further as LeBron James and the Cavaliers put a beatdown on the team on Tuesday.
Thankfully, the young Raptors were at the fulcrum of a comeback on Wednesday, as the team returned (in spurts) to a defensive identity and energy that had been missing for the better part of a month. The really cool part of the win over the Celtics, one that basically assures them a #1-seed heading into the post-season, was that we saw every single young Raptors player have tangible impact. (Yes, you’re deducing that there were real and effective Bebe minutes.)
That’s been the story of the season, the bench as one unit that can lift the team up. It’s difficult to separate players from this unit identity, but we’re finally starting to see that happen a little bit with Fred VanVleet. The call for his Sixth Man of the Year Award is starting to warm up, and it really comes down to this — how much credit do you give VanVleet and how much of the Raptors success is attributed to a group mentality?
Let’s look at that and other high points in this week’s rankings.
3 Young Gunz of the Week
1. Fred VanVleet (last week: 1)
It’s a long shot, especially considering how great perennial 6ix man Lou Williams has been in L.A., but Fred has forced his way into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation. Some credit for that should go to his coaches and teammates, who have dropped warm quotes like this:
Dwane Casey: "Fred VanVleet is one of the great stories in our league. I'm probably being his agent right now a little bit, Masai probably won't like that, but his story is unbelievable." pic.twitter.com/pBa7bmkGUI— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 6, 2018
All power to him, though, VanVleet has been excellent. He’s averaging 8.9 points on 43% shooting, going from no confidence behind the three-point line to a team-high 42% on 3.5 attempts per game. He’s third on the team in assists (3.2), fourth in steals (0.9), and has worked his way up to 20.2 minutes a night.
This week, again, we saw him put in a big performance when the team needed it, as he had a bench-high 15 points (3-for-6 from deep) in the win over Boston on Wednesday
It’s no wonder he’s being pegged as the most trustworthy Raptors player going into the playoffs. We really haven’t seen any dips in his trajectory this season. He’s peaking at the right time, which is what you hope for the rest of the team in early April.
2. Delon Wright (last week: 5)
And yet, there’s still circles discussing that Fred should yield some minutes to Delon Wright come playoff time. Depth is a funny thing when it comes to narrative — you can never have too much, but it forces hard conversations.
Delon was awesome this week when the team needed him to be. With VanVleet’s size an issue against Cleveland, Wright was effective in his place, scoring 7 points with two assists and a steal. In the Boston win, he really shined, with a Jason Kidd-esque eight points, nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals, and two blocks to mark a +19.
Mark my words, there’ll be a place for Delon in the playoffs. It doesn’t necessarily have to come at the cost of Fred’s minutes either. The Raptors have found success with both of them playing together, for the simple fact that they both can defend. Being small is fine as long as you can compete.
3. Pascal Siakam (last week: 2)
Siakam struggled in both Boston games, but was primed for the Cleveland game. He didn’t show the fear or intimidation that seemed to kill Toronto in that game, as he finished with ten points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal.
In the last two matchups with the Cavs, it’s been apparent that Pascal is going to be asked to do a lot. He’s spent a lot of time guarding LeBron James (to varying degrees of success), and Cleveland has been fine leaving him open to shoot on the offensive end. Siakam will have space to pop a shot or create something else. If he can translate ball-handling from regular season to playoffs, it’ll be an important asset for Toronto.
The Other Guys
4. OG Anunoby (last week: 4)
Another guy that good teams will leave open is OG Anunoby. While his outside shot still hasn’t come around, it was refreshing to see his compete level in the Boston win, as his two made field goals came on offensive rebound dunks.
The Raptors have really struggled to get good performances out of their small forward spot, as C.J. Miles goes through a cold streak and Norm Powell is still M.I.A. The last few games of the season might be a good chance to give Anunoby more minutes (he played just ten vs. Boston) to see if he can be effective in those bridge lineups in the second and fourth quarters.
5. Jakob Poeltl (last week: 3)
While Poeltl was nullified in the two losses this week, he bounced back nicely in the Wednesday win. A 4-for-4 evening for nine points showed that Toronto had picked up on the details of Boston’s zone defense — which had stymied them on the weekend — and they resumed getting easy buckets for the big Austrian.
6. Lucas Nogueira (last week: 6)
We teased it at the top, but Bebe was huge in the Boston win as well. His bench-best +19 (matching Delon Wright) was the result of some tremendous hustle, as he finished 3-for-4 for six points. Nogueira is probably going into his last post-season as a Raptor, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him thrown out there as a change of pace if the team struggles. His length presents different opportunities for Toronto.
7. Norman Powell (last week: 7)
Norm didn’t have much meaningful impact this week, but was the sole reason the Cleveland game finished a respectable 116-112. He came in for garbage time and promptly made 3-of-4 shots, steamrolling Cleveland’s second unit for a 10-0 run and forcing a free throw game late. All I want for playoffs is for this to be the new normal.