The loss to the Miami Heat on Tuesday marked the 20th game for the Toronto Raptors, which puts us roughly at the one-quarter mark of the season. For a team that entered the season with significant uncertainty surrounding it, the Raptors have met or surpassed just about every expectation that was placed on them prior to the season. While many saw the loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green as a reason to write off the Raptors, Raptors believers clung to their 17-5 record without Kawhi last season like a lifeboat and claimed that success would carry into this year.
Now 21 games in, Toronto sits at 16-5, almost on the exact same pace as last year’s Kawhi-less Raptors. To make this start more impressive, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry have both missed roughly half of the season up to this point. That’s the Raptors’ second best player in Lowry, and Ibaka sits somewhere between fourth and sixth on the Raptors’ player ranking. The loss of these players has given Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet a chance to grow as leaders and top options. Additionally, the Raptors have gotten more out of their bench than anyone could have expected to start the season, a positive sign going forward.
It's been a fun start, with many individuals and moments deserving of praise. To highlight the things that deserve our attention, I’ve decided to commemorate these individuals and moments. Here is the best of the first quarter of the Toronto Raptors’ 2019-20 season.
MVP: Pascal Siakam
When people outside of our beautiful country have even mentioned your name in the same sentence as "MVP," there’s a good chance you’re not only the team MVP, but on the inside track to being a national hero. While it’s hard to envision Siakam beating out guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden for this year’s award, his claim as a top-10 player in the NBA is becoming increasingly compelling. After losing Kawhi, there were questions as to whether Siakam was ready to be a #1 option.
The Cameroonian Cyclone has answered those questions and is primed to once again blow his expectations out of the water. Averaging 25.1 PTS, 8.4 REB, and 3.9 AST, Siakam is putting up All-Star numbers while still playing solid defence and putting his trademark hustle on display. It has not been entirely smooth, as matchups with Jonathan Isaac and Bam Adebayo have given him trouble, but history suggests Siakam will eventually find an edge. Siakam is third in the NBA in minutes, (albeit behind Fred VanVleet, who leads the league) and has been the pulse of the Raptors this entire season. Through the first quarter, Pascal Siakam is clearly the team MVP.
Biggest Surprise: Fred VanVleet
Last year’s playoff run was the tale of two Freddies. In the Philadelphia series, VanVleet was borderline unplayable. Halfway through the series against the Bucks, however, he started hurling fireballs from beyond the arc and became a heat seeking missile on defense. It was reasonable to expect his play to fall somewhere in the middle this season. Like Siakam, VanVleet has surprised even the most positive of Raptors fans. He has stayed hot beyond the arc, shooting 39.6% from three-point range, and it always feels like he hits a three when the Raptors need it. He has been a steadying presence for the team and has clearly taken on a larger leadership role with the team, getting recognition from fellow undrafted rookie Terence Davis in that regard.
With Kyle Lowry injured, VanVleet was the only true point guard on the roster, and the fact that the offence continued to hum along smoothly is a testament to his playmaking. VanVleet is even making a reasonably compelling All-Star case. While it will be difficult to maintain numbers necessary to earn an All-Star spot with the return of Lowry, if voting were today, I believe VanVleet would be on most ballots. Beyond Kemba Walker, Trae Young, and Bradley Beal, I don’t think there are any guards that undoubtedly earn a spot above VanVleet. Even though he has perennially been an impact player for Toronto, his play this year is the Biggest Surprise of the season for the Raptors.
Best Moment: 113-104 Win over Los Angeles Lakers – November 10, 2017
If there was ever a game that the Raptors could lose and no fan would really be mad about it, it would be this one. They were in the midst of a five-game Western Conference road trip. (We really should be calling them "air trips" at this point. NBA teams aren’t exactly grinding it out on a coach bus anymore.) Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka had sustained injuries in the previous game. The Los Angeles Lakers have an argument as the best team in the league, and they had their full complement of stars in this game.
Instead, this game was a revelation. It supplied our first real Rondae Hollis-Jefferson sighting, who has since become a rotation fixture and Raptors fan favourite. Chris Boucher, the lone Canadian on the Raptors roster to get notable playing time, was impossible to miss with his frenetic play style, making impact plays down the stretch. Terence Davis II broke out and really showed how he could affect the game as an undrafted rookie. Siakam, though inefficient, and VanVleet both led the charge, making big play after big play in the fourth. Though the individuals noted above impressed, what really stood out this game was the team unity, energy, and chemistry as a whole. The players were excited for one another, (especially RHJ, the Raps clearly love that guy) and their effort overcame the mismatches that occur naturally when playing a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The next night, I found myself watching a game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons. It was like a different sport altogether, and I remembered just how rare it was for a team to go balls-to-the-wall in a road game in November. The Raptors are unique in that regard. It was over this road trip where the Raptors transformed from nice story to a team that could legitimately make some noise in the Eastern Conference, and it was encapsulated best in this game.
Best Nick Nurse Moment: First Correct Coach’s Challenge - November 10, 2019 vs Los Angeles Lakers
Coincidentally, this moment came during the game that I have highlighted as the Best Moment of the season thus far for the Raptors, furthering the good vibes emanating from the game. Early in the third quarter, Pascal Siakam was called for a foul on LeBron James, the King of the Phantom Call. Siakam knew right away that he didn’t foul James, so he turned to Nurse. Previously 0-6 on challenges, Nurse knew this was a time to strike. Not only did he win the challenge, but Nurse decided to really make a meal out of it, hugging first assistant coaches Sergio Scariolo and Nate Bjorkgren (who seemed significantly more concerned with the occurrences on the floor.) He then turned to a willing Lakers fan, and gave him a hug too, to the delight of announcers Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong.
Nurse has been on an extended heat check since the title now, from playing on stage with Arkells to wearing the hell out of those "nn" hats. His coaching itself has been masterful, but little moments like the successful challenge and ensuing celebration have made truly Nurse an icon in the 6ix.
Assistant Coach of the Quarter: Kyle Lowry
With respect to the Raptors’ true assistant coaches, the assistant coach who brought me the most delight was an injured Kyle Lowry. Lowry never has been one to fade into the background, as he made a habit of joining in on DeMar DeRozan’s post game interviews, and then did the same with Fred VanVleet after the Raptors won the championship. On the court, he does little to contain himself – from his extended, end-to-end conversations with referees to excitedly clapping to get the ball on an inbounds – Lowry is always active, demonstrative, and fairly chatty.
When he was sidelined with an injury, it was reasonable to expect we would still see our fair share of Kyle Lowry. He did not disappoint. If there was a timeout, Lowry would be in the thick of the huddle. Bad call? Lowry would be in the referee’s ear from his spot on the bench. You could expect to see Lowry in any meeting amongst the suit-clad contingent of the Raptors. Reportedly, his role was similar in Raptors’ practices as well. I would think someone with Lowry’s basketball IQ would make a good coach if he chooses to follow that path, and while we much prefer to have him on the court, his presence as a "coach" was a fun subplot this quarter.
Best of Jack Armstrong: "Rack it up Danny G!"
Though he splits time with other colour commentator, Leo Rautins, Armstrong is the one that has truly captured the hearts of Canadians. His excitement and blatant homerism resonates with Raptors fans, and he’s good for two or three hilarious outbursts a game. There’s nothing like hearing Jack’s high-pitched squeal exclaim "MGD!" or "Snickers!" during Matt Devlin’s measured ad reads to bring some joy and fun to the games. My current favourite of Jack’s is his use of "Rack it up Danny G!" Armstrong does this after a highlight play, demanding Danny G., presumably the producer of the games, give us another look at a play. He has been doing this for years now, but what I’ve noticed lately, is Jack will demand that Danny G "rack it up!" even in live action, seemingly unable to contain himself with all the excitement of the play. Once there is a stoppage, he will go back to the "Rack it up Danny G!" well, and likely throw in another Jack catchphrase as the highlight plays. Jack is a delight on the broadcast, and excitement about the game doubles when he gets excited.
It's been a great start to the year, and hopefully it will build as the season progresses.