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Toronto Temperature: The Raptors find new ways to be compelling

Thanks to another positive 2-1 week, the Raptors continue to build up their confidence in the absence of two of their star players. In that spirit, it’s time to take the Temperature.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

We were supposed to feel absolutely doomed about the Raptors when Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka went down with indeterminant injuries. I use that descriptor because we still don’t quite know how long either player will be out. Lowry is supposed to be reassessed this week, but what does that mean? Ibaka, meanwhile, is just listed as out indefinitely; will he be good by Christmas? No idea.

In some other time, we’d be pulling out what’s left of our collective hair. Except the Raptors are still the defending NBA champs, and, as an added bonus, have found a new way to be compelling. Yes, despite being down a handful of key players, Toronto went 2-1 over the past week, with just a narrow loss to the Mavericks against them. As has been the case since those aforementioned injuries, they just keep finding ways to win with their new star players and their once-motley crew of bench players.

It makes for a fun regular season. And now it’s time to take the Toronto Temperature once again.

Who’s Hot

The New New Norm?

So coach Nick Nurse, in his new confident gunslinger style, took a few casual shots at Norman Powell’s play recently. With Lowry out, the Raptors do need to lean on him more to be a play-maker, scorer, and, most of all, a reliable presence on the court. As has been the case with Norm throughout his career with Toronto, Nurse is correct on this point:

Credit to Powell then as this week has provided us with a modest Norm Renaissance. In the week that was, he averaged 15 points per game, shot 44 percent from the field (and 44 percent from three), and bumped his assist numbers up to 2.3 per game (including a career-high six vs. Charlotte). The Raptors still don’t need Powell to own the game, and it’s clear what his ceiling is now; but this version of him is certainly nice to have around. Kudos!

Rondae Having A Ball

There is a long legacy of Raptors’ hustle players to which the fanbase gets emotionally (perhaps irrationally) attached. Maybe it’s because of this city’s inborn hockey mentality, the one that enjoys a player willing to dive into the corners to do the dirty work not often celebrated on highlight reels. Or perhaps we just like to see a guy play with, and share in, the same energy we the fans bring to each game.

Whatever the case may be, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson definitely slots into this category of player. Over the past week, his minutes have gone up, his place in the rotation has become far more solid (even with the return of Toronto’s other core pieces), and his numbers reflect that. Rondae is now posting 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 59 percent from the floor. On top of that, he continues to hound the opposing team’s best player — in this case, guarding Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic — to often good results for Toronto. He’s only appeared in six games, yet Hollis-Jefferson has already entered into that special hall populated by names like Biyombo, Evans, and Williams. Long may he reign.

Matt Thomas Propaganda

That Matt Thomas really can shoot. Admittedly, this is more of a Yahoo Sports Canada beat, thanks to Alex Wong continuing to make a big deal about it, but, like, Thomas really really can shoot. On the season, the Raptors sharpshooter is now up to 57.6 percent from the field, and 56.6 percent from three. If there’s a knock to be found here (on the offensive end only), it’s that it’s been tough for Toronto to get him more attempts. Thomas is shooting just 3.3 times per game (2.3 of those from deep).

But wait, you say, didn’t Thomas put up a couple of fairly poor (for him) shooting nights this past week. Yes, you’re correct. He did indeed shoot 1-for-6 against the Blazers and 2-for-5 against the Hornets (despite the game’s abject blowout conditions). But even with those outings — plus a 4-for-5 evening vs. Dallas — Thomas’ true shooting percentage is at a toasty 77.2 percent. This is a truly absurd number. Has the Propaganda gotten to me? Maybe, but it does feel ridiculous not to comment on it.

Who’s Not

Potential Pascal Limits

There’s no doubt the leap Pascal Siakam is making right now for the Raptors is significant. The past week was, in a sense, no different, as Siakam still put up averages of 23.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game, while averaging an exhausting 39.1 minutes to lead the team. It’s telling however that Siakam’s shooting percentage dropped to 42 percent for the week (compared to 47 on the season), even as his three-point shooting held steady. It’s hard work being the number one option.

I’d say the main issue right now is two-fold. One is a function of usage and minutes load. Obviously with Lowry and Ibaka back in the lineup, Siakam won’t be called upon to do as much with the ball in his hands and won’t have to carry entire lineups as the only reliable playmaker and scorer on the floor. If there are times when Siakam looks tired, when his jumper has no lift, it’s because he is extremely exhausted.

The second thing, though, is a bit more ineffable. Siakam is a very good, even great player, but he’s still working his way to being that destroyer-of-worlds type that Toronto had in Kawhi. Or that we saw recently with the already capable Doncic in Dallas, and the peak mode of Lillard. That mental leap will be the next thing for Siakam. He’s done it here and there, picked apart defenses that made it easy for him. Now he’ll have to show he can do it consistently, even when teams make it hard.

The Black Heart of MLSE

As I’ve said before, I’m fine with Jonas Valanciunas and the other assorted Raptors of the 2018-19 season not getting a championship ring. In truth, if they wanted to get one, then, well, they should have played for a team that hoisted the championship trophy. Sadly, through faults both their own and not, JV and the rest were not able to do that. You may disagree with my personal sentiment on this matter, but that’s just how it is.

Still, to read Raptors GM Bobby Webster’s hemming and hawing response is to get a peek into the true heart of the MLSE thought process. The Raptors are a good organization, perhaps one of the best in the NBA and pro sports, but there are still limits to that goodness. They’re still a corporation. As I was reminded on Twitter, there’s no reason to defend said corporation for not spending a few more dollars on players that were once in their employ. Wherever you draw that line in a competitive sense, I get the broader point here: we should stick up for the individual where we can.

No Star Wars Night?

And now, speaking of corporations: what the hell is this? No Star Wars Night for Toronto?

This is some junk! I demand a refund! I want to file a grievance! Gimme the Star Wars or get out of my face!