The 2019-20 Toronto Raptors are not only defending their championship, they’re also replacing two starters at key positions on the wing. Each week on Swingin’ Wings, we’ll be tracking the progress of those possible replacements.
December 11-December 17
The Raptors went 2-1 last week, and although — as is usually the case with this year’s team — contributions came from up and down the roster, the wing players had a lot to do with that record.
But there’s plenty of potential intrigue at this point as well. Fred VanVleet is injured, and Norman Powell has been a scoring machine in his absence. Does that mean Nick Nurse might make Powell’s starting role permanent? Patrick McCaw is back and being featured, big-time, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has seen his minutes cut.
Nick Nurse says he likes to keep things fluid, and that describes his wing rotation to a tee.
Who Did What?
OG Anunoby and Norman Powell started all three games at the three and the two, respectively. OG was quiet but effective, with a couple highlight-reel dunks — as usual, with OG. Norm? He played decent defense and made some questionable decisions on offense — as usual with Norm — but he was insanely efficient scoring, posting 20+ in all three games. Highly unusual!
Patrick McCaw played in all three games, his first action since October. He played 28.5 minutes against Brooklyn — his high in a Raptors uniform — and somehow managed to get seven shots up, tying his Raptor high. (He only hit one of them.)
Terence Davis had a rough night against Brooklyn, missing all six of his shots and only collecting one board and one dime in 13 minutes. He was fine in the other two, though, and looks to be showing some promise as a pick-and-roll facilitator with Serge Ibaka.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played only seven minutes against Brooklyn, his lowest MP since his very first game as a Raptor. Then he got a DNP in the Cleveland game, though Nick Nurse indicated he was a little banged up.
Malcolm Miller played garbage time in all three games but didn’t score. Matt Thomas and Stanley Johnson remain injured.
Wing Stat of the Week: .828
That’s Norman Powell’s true shooting percentage in the past three games, an absolutely insane number — especially considering his 24.3 points per game in the last three are second on the team behind Pascal Siakam’s 29.0. It’s the first time in his career Powell has scored 20+ in three straight games.
Wing Highlight of the Week
There were many, many Raptors highlights to choose from against the Cavaliers, but this one literally made me jump out of my seat.
As Powell said post-game, Siakam made him go and get it — but get it he did.
What are the Wings Saying?
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, on breaking out of a slump as a team:
Enjoy the game, man, at the end of the day. I’m sure you guys have seen, when we get to those moments of adversity, when a team goes on an 8-0 run, I feel like we gotta understand that’s basketball, you know. We’re playing teams with some good players, we’re playing teams that have players in the NBA at the end of the day so they’re gonna make runs, it’s part of the game, but understanding that this is what we gotta do, we gotta enjoy the process, enjoy the fight, enjoy it and just be passionate out there, and enjoy our teammates and that’ll help us get over that hump of like, aahhhh, we’re fighting, we’re fighting. And some people may not feel right about their misses or whatever the case may be, but all that is a part of basketball.
(Rondae is one of my favourite quotes on the team. I really enjoy his grounded outlook!)
Norman Powell, on his ability to get to the rim:
I think I’m really comfortable, you know just being able to read what the defences are doing, how they’re playing, where their bigs are at, whether it’s a finish, or￼￼￼￼ a kick-out or drop-off to the bigs, I’m just taking what the defenses are giving me, and being aggressive and thinking of trying to go up there and dunk the ball. Even if I’m not dunking it, that mindset gets me there, aggressively, and being able to finish, whatever it is, left [or] right. So just reading the defense and just playing my game.
Patrick McCaw, on coming back after an extended absence:
Naw, it never gets easier, it’s just how mentally strong you can be, how tough you handle your situation. Who knows what could have possibly happened with my knee, so [I’m] thankful, I thank God every day that the surgery was a success, and just being back with my teammates again, back in the flow, that’s all that really matters now. At first it did [scare me], but I’m glad everything turned out for the better.
(I may give McCaw a hard time, but obviously only wish good health for everyone, and I am glad that he’s back healthy.)
What’s Coach Saying?
Nick had a lot to say about the possibility of mixing up the starting lineup spot after Monday’s game! Shoutout to Josh Lewenberg for saving me the transcription time:
A couple things. Just fit sometimes, like what guys fit with the first group or the second group a little better. That’s one thing. Or just some guys that have maybe risen their level of play that deserve more minutes, and you get them into a starter’s rotation and that’s the easiest way to get them more minutes. And the other thing is as you guys remember from a year ago, I like to use some flexibility in the starting lineup throughout the course of the year because I see in the playoffs that you may have to do that sometimes. You may have to switch your starting lineup and seems strange time to do it for the first time all year, or to be so rigid all year long and then ask your team to all of a sudden be open-minded and flexible. So that would be another reason to change around a little bit.
If we do make a change it’s not like those things or actions are etched in stone either. It’s kind of a moving thing so could be one night one way in the next night the other and the third night that week another way. The guys we’re talking about, there’s probably seven of them that could all end up starting two of the three. So it’s not the banishment of the bench for the rest of the year whatever. And you’ve gotta explain that. If you do those things it’s more of an eye for later. It’s not a short-term thing, it’s so that we’re more flexible later.
From my past experiences it felt like we were always locked into a starting lineup and then all of a sudden we were facing a team and we had bad matchups to start the game, and then it was almost impossible to have those conversations that were switching. Like [it would be] devastating that time of year, you start all 82 and then all of a sudden here come the playoffs and you’re not [starting]. So I just think I’m trying to lessen the devastation factor￼￼￼￼.
(“Devastation Factor” sounds like a bad 1990s Avengers crossover comic. I love it.)
According to Josh, Nurse also clarified the comments (in a way that completely muddied them):
Also of note, Nurse was asked if it would be difficult to tell VanVleet he's going back to the bench:— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) December 17, 2019
"I don't know that it would be Fred. That's why I'm hesitating to answer your question... I don't know that it'd be Fred."
I think we can safely assume that Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam are safe as starters, and surely they’re not starting anyone at C other than Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka (or Chris Boucher in a worst-case scenario). That means there are two starting wing spots for Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby (assuming as well that McCaw, Davis and Hollis-Jefferson remain as second-unit guys).
I assume Nurse is just being coy here. I don’t think starting Lowry, VanVleet and Powell is a great idea; the team needs OG’s size and defense in the starting lineup, and I don’t think he’s enough of an offensive threat (yet!) to provide the scoring punch the Raptors’ bench needs. We shall see!
What Are the Rest of us Saying?
Twitter gave Patrick McCaw a rough go of it Saturday night, including yours truly, tweeting from the Raptors HQ handle:
Pat McCaw has been on the court for more than 10 minutes now, which feels like, I dunno, 9.5 too many— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) December 15, 2019
But as this thread shows, McCaw redeemed himself Monday, and Twitter was appreciative:
Or— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) December 17, 2019
Patrick McCaw: The New No-Stats All-Star
I’m pretty pleased with myself.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) December 17, 2019
Wing of the Week: Norman Powell
It really can’t be anyone but Norman Powell this week. While it’s true that Pascal Siakam is starting to break out of his offensive slump, the Raptors still needed another scoring spark, and Powell provided it. He scored from everywhere on the floor, ran hard in transition, and sparked a re-regression for the team’s three-point shooting: After a brutal sub-30% cold sip, the team shot 35% last week, with Powell shooting 11-for-18 from downtown.
And against Cleveland, Powell even filled up the rest of the stat sheet, with six rebounds, five assists and four steals. That’s more than good enough for Wing of the Week!