Before the Raptors departed on their current five-game road trip, I predicted a 3-2 record, with both losses coming in L.A.
And that was before Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka got hurt.
The Raptors proved me, and just about everyone else, wrong about their chances in L.A. last night, dropping the Lakers 113-104 through a complete team effort on both ends of the floor.
Sometimes, it’s great to be wrong.
That Defense, My Goodness
The way the Raptors protected the paint and the rim in the second half last night was just plain terrific.
I mean just look at this:
Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher had five blocks combined in the second half, and the team held L.A. to just 32% shooting after halftime. While missing their best rim protector (Serge Ibaka) and an all-around plus defender (Kyle Lowry).
Now, did the Raptors get away with a foul (Chris Boucher swatted away a Kyle Kuzma layup attempt that was a clear hack) that led to a Davis 3-pointer the other way? Sure did. But sometimes you need a bounce or call or two to go your way.
The Siakam+Bench Lineup is the new Lowry+Bench lineup
With the score tied at 78, the Raptors started the fourth quarter with Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Matt Thomas.
It will not shock you that that five-man group had played zero minutes together before last night.
But guess what? They started that quarter with a 10-0 run and the team never looked back. And Nick Nurse, showing confidence in his bench (and in Hollis-Jefferson in particular, playing his first real non-garbage time minutes), ran with it for a full 4.5 minutes, until he brought in Fred VanVleet for Thomas — and ran that group for another four minutes until Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Marc Gasol came back in.
It’s obviously too early to say if that was a one-game blip from the bench or the start of a trend, but coach Nurse has to be happy with what he got out of his depth last night.
So Let’s Talk About Chris Boucher
I have, like many others, wondered about Chris Boucher’s future. He’s so rail-thin, and so often looks lost on defense (even with his rim-protection abilities) that you could easily see him washing out of the NBA. And at times last night he indeed looked lost on switches, got easily beaten on the perimeter, and even passed up an open dunk to kick a ball back out.
But we also got all the highs that make you realize why he’s on the roster in the first place. He rebounded, ran the floor, banged a triple. He manned the back of the zone well, getting his hands on multiple passes. He executed a beautiful double team on Anthony Davis at the end of the third, and opened the fourth with a dunk and a tip-in. And then he blocked a LeBron James drive and a Davis layup!
Again, one game does not make a trend, but that energy, timing and activity level... that can definitely carry a person to a healthy NBA career.
Too much on the Perimeter for Pascal
Siakam has shot the three-ball well this year (41% coming in to last night’s game), but he settled for the long ball far too much last night. Five of his first 13 shots were three-point attempts, and another two were long twos; he missed them all.
Thing is, I can’t entirely blame him. The Raptors didn’t do nearly enough to help free Pascal up for better shots; he was left on an island against Anthony Davis multiple times, with the other four players on the court not doing much of anything.
Why weren’t the Raptors running more screens for Siakam? Especially from guys like Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, to try and force a mismatch? Or from Marc Gasol, to give Siakam a touch of space to get into the paint? When they did go to this action, they got results (pour one out for Kyle Kuzma).
Ultimately Siakam had a better second half (6-for-12, 1-for-3 from downtown) and filled the stat sheet (24 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal). But without Lowry to take some pressure off of him, I definitely want to see the team do a better job helping him generate better looks.
Nick Nurse, Winner
So Nick Nurse won his first coach’s challenge last night (on a call I really thought would be upheld; I guess the hand really is part of the ball!) and the bench hilariously mock-celebrated like they just won another ‘chip. You gotta love just how much these guys like being around each other. I hope somebody saved that game ball for him!
More importantly, though, Nurse is showing us that last year wasn’t a fluke, and that the team didn’t just win 58 games because of Kawhi Leonard. His creative schemes, including that zone D anchored by the ridiculously long-armed Boucher, are paying dividends. The way the team helps and recovers in man-to-man defense is almost always picture-perfect. His unorthodox lineups have put the team in position to win, and to be in the two games they’ve lost right to the end. And his ATOs and out-of-bounds plays continue to produce highlights, like Matt Thomas’ first-quarter buzzer beater.
He’s not been perfect (see my Siakam note above), and the rest of this road trip (and however long Lowry and Ibaka are out) will continue to be a challenge, but I don’t see any reason to doubt nick Nurse so far.
So that’s one win against a member of last year’s championship team (and thanks, Danny Green, for the goose egg), can they make it 2-0 tonight against Kawhi?