The Raptors are not the team they should be, and they’re not the team they are. Does that make sense? After dispatching the Kings, 120-105, on Tuesday night, we are forced to keep these two separate ideas in our heads at the same time. This is our version of load management.
First, the Raptors played tonight without Kawhi Leonard, their star player, and without two extremely useful rotation players, OG Anunoby and Jonas Valanciunas. Despite the result, this is not the team they are. Second, Toronto looked out of sorts on offense and defense for stretches tonight, which is to say they’re not the team they should be. Yes, a win in late January doesn’t mean a whole lot, especially against a team like the Kings (on the second night of a back-to-back and playing without two starters) who they won’t see again this season. But here comes those contradictory ideas again: it has to mean something, right?
The 2018-19 Raptors, as good as they’ve been for most of the season, are still a mite bit more frustrating to watch — and as a concept in and of themselves. It’s the conundrum every aspirant Raptors team has faced since 2015. There’s a new crop of players involved since then, what with Kawhi and Danny Green aboard, and guys like Pascal Siakam exploding onto the scene, and yet we’ve only seen it come together in fits and starts. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s been enough to win a league-leading number of games (now 36). But it was also my main takeaway from the Raptors’ sporadically satisfying win against the Kings.
With all that out of the way, we did see some new and novel things tonight from the Raptors. Without the trio of Kawhi, OG, and JV, the Raptors were left almost entirely to the devices of Kyle Lowry — usually a good thing. For his 34 minute effort, Lowry finished with 19 points, nine assists, and four rebounds, while shooting a Lowry-esque 4-of-9 from three (with a few fun step-backs and curling bombs just for fun). He also knew, of course, just how to maximize whichever players he was working with on the floor. With the starters Lowry dictated the action in the halfcourt, particularly with Serge Ibaka (a strong 15 points, 10 rebound performance); when tasked with steering the bench ship, Lowry pushed the pace and found shooters, a boon for the likes of Fred VanVleet and C.J. Miles.
The former, FVV, put together his own solo performance of 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists, while shooting 6-of-10 from the field (including 3-of-6 from three). VanVleet may still be “cranky” as coach Nick Nurse put it on Saturday night, but the “steady” moniker also still applies. The latter, meanwhile, appears to have defeated the hex that took him out of the first half of the season. In just 15 minutes off the bench, Miles went off for 15 points, shooting 5-of-7 from the field (and more importantly, 4-of-5 from three). Only a clanged dunk late marred a thoroughly encouraging night, the third straight good game from Miles. If the Raptors have this version of their sharpshooter for the rest of the year, they’ve rediscovered something special.
Speaking of which, much of tonight’s game against the Kings pivoted on the performance of Pascal Siakam in the third quarter. With a four point Raptors lead coming out of halftime, Siakam paced Toronto with nine points (on 4-of-6 shooting), three rebounds, an assist, a block, and a steal, and a lot of everywhere-ness in just that frame. With Sacramento going big and playing combinations of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Marvin Bagley III, and Harry Giles, it was Siakam who continued to put pressure on everyone — on both sides of the ball. He’d go on to finish with 18 points, while helping to push the lead to 10 in the third, and eventually to as large as 19, before calling it a night.
Rounding out the night, we need to give a special shoutout to Norman Powell for continuing his stout play in his return to the Raptors’ rotation. Powell had 11 points in this one, and combined with Delon Wright and VanVleet for some fun up-and-down action. Likewise, the wild countenance of Chris Boucher is something to see — he’s akin to Bebe in one sense, all arms and legs, except he’s far more likely to shoot. Boucher managed to go 2-for-4 in 11 minutes for eight points, acing an insane alley-oop in the process and getting us to question whether playing Greg Monroe at all is worth it. (For reference: Monroe had a scoreless 11 minutes tonight despite a few chances at the rim and four free throw attempts.)
And yet! This version of the Raptors still feels incomplete — for extremely obvious reasons. Without Kawhi on the floor, without the toolset of Valanciunas, without whatever mini-leap may still come from OG (could it still come?), we’re left with an murky picture. It’s possible to see how Toronto is supposed operate — what with a plethora of shooters, versatile set of lineups, and a pair (or trio?) of All-Stars — but still we wait to see how they will look night in and night out.
This is how those contradictory ideas of the Raptors continue to persist. They’re the team with the talent, but not the mental toughness; the squad that looks the part, but has yet to have the opportunity to actually play the part. It’s how we celebrate yet another win, but also worry about what comes next. In fairness, nobody said this part would be easy.