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Toronto Temperature: The Raptors are who we thought they were

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The Raptors finished a perfect 3-0 while putting the rest of the league on notice.

Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It’s wild to think, let alone type this, but the injuries to Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Patrick McCaw have been extremely beneficial for the Toronto Raptors. Now, you never want to see your top players go down, but when your bench is stuck in some heavy mud and newly acquired players or rookies aren’t buying in with the coaching staff’s required fire, a monumental shove into “put up or shut up” territory can go a long way. And what a long way it’s been.

In the twenty or so days since Lowry fractured his thumb and Ibaka decided to roll his ankle so he could flex his immaculate wardrobe, the Raptors have seen the likes of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher and Terence Davis II solidify themselves as not only viable bench options, but big minute contributors when the need arises. RHJ has been a Swiss army defender capable of locking up the opponent’s number one option. Boucher has been a spark plug corralling huge rebounds and rising up with the confidence of the best shooter of all time from three. Oh, and Davis? If TDII were featured in a larger role, this kid could win rookie of the year.

So after reaching a season low in available bodies in Philadelphia, the Raptors extremely took care of business as they finished the week 3-0. That perfect mark featured a thorough dismantling of Eastern Conference darling 76ers, as well as a take care of business win against the Magic, and a closer than it should have been victory over the Hawks.

Who’s Hot

Marc Gasol, Father of NBA Centres

I don’t care if Marc Gasol hibernated on the bench against the Magic and the Hawks, there was just no way he was going to be held out of the Who’s Hot section of this column after what he did to Joel Embiid in Monday night’s victory over the Sixers. For posterity:

Zip zero for Embiid in a loss to the Raptors.
Marc Gasol’s early Christmas present to Joel Embiid.

While finishing with zero points is hilariously embarrassing for a guy who loves to taunt other players, the way Embiid finished with that zero is even worse. It’s not as if Joel was missing bunnies at the rim — Gasol was forcing Embiid into horrendous, early shot-clock heaves and tremendously low-percentage deep midrange chucks. When Embiid wanted post position, Gasol was there to bang with him. When Embiid tried to attempted to work at the elbow, Gasol was whispering sweet Spanish nothings in his ear and lulling Joel into innocuous hand-offs.

While Gasol was once again a complete train wreck shooting the ball (4-of-17 for the week), he averaged nearly six assists per game and was the quarterback of one of the best defenses in the league.

Fred VanVleet, Steadily Securing the Bag

Earlier I mentioned how admirably the bench guys have stepped up since the myriad injuries the Raptors have suffered. You know who else has really stepped up?

Fred VanVleet has been balling of late and his three-game slate this week was no different. VanVleet averaged 24.3 points, 8.0 assists and chipped in 1.7 steals per game on a 47/35/88 slash all while playing his usual brand of pesky defense. Is he an All-Star? Is he in the running for MIP? Are there seriously three candidates for MIP on the Toronto Raptors right now? I love this team so much.

What has all of this lead to for Fred? Well folks, have a gander at the new sauce-God and face of AND1 Basketball.

Pascal Siakam, Unquestionably Spicy

Pascal Siakam is being asked to do a lot for this Raptors team. He needs to be the number one option on offense, which comes with the responsibility of creating your own shot, keeping your teammates involved, and playing a ton of minutes against teams game-planning to stop you.

You would think that rattling off a 34-point night on 18 shots against the Hawks would take top billing in Siakam’s week, but I suspect the final minute against Philadelphia might have something to say about that.

Outside of single-handedly securing victories, Siakam has also had to be everywhere on the defense end — including guarding the league’s premier players. Pascal was especially good this past week averaging one steal and 1.6 blocks per game over this three game stretch. But as is with most of the other Raptors, it’s not the counting stats that are most impressive. Nurse has installed brilliant defensive sets and counts on Siakam’s rangy length to be the fulcrum.

Who’s Not

ESPN Rankings, So Wrong

If there is even a shred of “fine, I suppose” about this top-10 ranking from ESPN, it’s that each team has an identical or better record than the Raptors. You know what, though? There isn’t, because I’d like for everyone to hop in the comments and tell me which of these teams has been missing their most valuable player for two weeks as well as their platoon centre/sixth man. You want to know how deep that list is? None, there is no team on this list that can boast either of those two things. The Heat missing Justise Winslow is as close as you can get.

Injuries aside, why don’t we look at strength of schedule — perhaps that can be of assistance? According to strength of schedule and relative percent index (all housed on ESPN), the Raptors are tied with the Nuggets for the 10th most difficult schedule to date and five of the teams ranked above them have had easier schedules than the Raptors. What? There’s more?! The Raptors are the fifth best team overall according to RPI? For shame, ESPN. For shame.

Shoutout to Kirk Goldsberry for at least putting some respect on the Raptors’ name.

Norman Powell, Searching for Consistency

Have I been too hard on Norm in this column? Maybe? Is it because I only want the best for Norm and subsequently for the Raptors? YES!

After Nick Nurse praised Powell’s game last week all while calling it “a little up and down”, there was belief that there might be a new, more efficient and, perhaps temporarily, less voluminous Norm waiting in the wings? What did we see this week? More of the same.

Norm finished the week averaging a tidy 15 points per game; however, it was a total of 45 points on 38 shots. And while Powell did finish a +6 over the three game span, he contributed little else in the way of counting stats averaging three rebounds and one assist per game. I know I said counting stats don’t tell the whole story, but they do matter.

So we find ourselves back at square one in the Norman Powell show. Some really high highs and some terribly low lows with no rhyme or reason as to which you’re getting when. Which raises the question, what happens when the Raptors get healthy?

OG Anunoby, Real Canadian

OG is a cold boy, k?

OG in Stone Island for the Toronto Raptors.
OG Anunoby seen freezing indoors in Mississauga.