There wasn’t much frustration in the Raptors’ locker room afterwards, that was the telling thing. That’s not to say the team wanted to lose either game this past week against the Miami Heat or the Houston Rockets — nor does it suggest previous iterations of the team would wild out after every loss. There was something calming about the post-game mood both times though. What’s more, the feeling after Toronto’s comical win over the Utah Jazz that preceded these events — the one in which they took a 40-point lead into halftime — was much the same.
Heading into this homestand, the Raptors were 14-4 and coming off a sluggish win against the Magic on the road. They began the week with the league’s second-best defensive rating at 102.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, and were running hot with the seventh best offense too at a 110.4 rating. They were also pushing for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, as their old friends the Bucks continue to run away with number one, and were anticipating the returns of both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. In all, the past week was the perfect time to take the pulse of where the Raptors stood as a squad and in the broader picture of the league.
“It’s been two games and we’re 15-6, and I’m sure the world’s not falling right now,” said Lowry after his recent return to the lineup, underlining the Raptors’ recent ethos. “So we’re just gonna get better and worry about ourselves and continue to get better.”
In that spirit, what did the past week teach us about this version of the Raptors and how they can get better?
The Raptors Can Roll
“You’re just mad. Like, I’m mad at myself as a competitor. I’ve always been that way.”
That was Pascal Siakam after Sunday night’s domination of the Jazz in which he had a comically efficient 35-point outburst on 64 perceent shooting from the field. The previous game against the Magic had seen Siakam struggle to score (he went 4-of-22), and he rarely has back-to-back bad performances. True to form, Siakam led the way for a relatively easy 130-110 win over Utah, highlighted by a first half in which the Raptors looked unbeatable. Toronto shot 60 percent in those opening 24 minutes, including 13-of-19 from three, stacking up 21 assists along the way, and generating 18 fastbreak points off 11 steals. Siakam is a smiley guy, but during that run he played with a certain contained fury.
“You understand that there’s bad games and you’re going to have games where shots are not going to fall,” said Siakam. “But at the same time, coming into the next game, as a competitor, you always have that mentality to get back to it. You want to get on the floor. For me, I wanted to play yesterday. That’s how bad I wanted it. But it’s part of the game. You continue to learn, continue to grow. Games where you’re not going to score, you’ve got to find a way to help your team in other ways. And as long as we win, we’re good.”
If there was a downside to the Jazz game, it was that the Raptors somehow let their opponents back into it. They weren’t quite in danger of losing, but after a disastrous third quarter Toronto’s lead did shrink to as little as 15 points, enough that true garbage time eluded the squad until the last possible moment. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand how a team could lose focus after running up a 40-point lead; on the other hand, it foreshadowed what these Raptors look like when they’re not playing with their usual sharpness and intensity. Their ceiling comes down in a big way.
“[Y]ou also see in the third quarter when you don’t defend at the level, and you don’t play with the intensity that’s required,” reminded Marc Gasol afterwards. “I think we gave up 49 points, which you select all and delete it, straight to the trash.”
The Raptors Can Struggle
Unfortunately, you do just have to tip your hat to the Miami Heat. Year after year, regardless of personnel — and they’ve had some huge names on their roster — coach Erik Spoelstra has his squad playing at a fearsome level. They don’t always come out on top, and indeed didn’t even make the playoffs last year, but they’re an incredibly difficult team to put away — even before having added closer Jimmy Butler this season. The Raptors have known this fact for years, their 2016 playoff series against the Heat having achieved legendary status for its resolute ugliness.
So, a test then. The Heat would bring it, but could the Raptors match their intensity? For his part, coach Nick Nurse knew going in it would be tough. He also acknowledged that the Raptors had been up to the challenge so far. While his clever deployment of different defensive schemes grab attention, Nurse’s pride stemmed from something far more elemental. “Just the effort, really. I think that’s always where it starts,” said Nurse. “If you’ve got some guys that want to give you effort to play defense, you’re never going anywhere unless you have that. We’ve come out with some willingness and desire to play it.”
Against the Heat, the Raptors would also receive another boost: the return of their captain, Kyle Lowry. Since getting injured in the same game as stalwart big man Serge Ibaka in early November, the Raptors had strung together some impressive wins. The team's rotation, once thought to be too short, had been forced to form a new identity on the fly — and it worked. This begged the question: what would Toronto look like when Lowry and Ibaka came back?
After Ibaka's return in the Utah laugher, Lowry was pressed into duty against the formidable Heat. In all likelihood, it would not be a night off like it had been for Ibaka. And true to form for Miami, it wasn't. In the face of this pressure, the Raptors struggled to put together enough good minutes of basketball, on either side of the ball, to take control of the game. For his part, Lowry managed just 12 points on a brutal 2-of-18 line, including 0-of-11 from three. In truth, it’s an excusable outcome, one Lowry was quick to acknowledge was a problem of rhythm and timing.
Despite Lowry’s rough play and the near-constant hole they found themselves in, the Raptors forced OT — and then watched their efforts come undone in less than a minute behind a scoring explosion from Butler. That was the game. It would have been tempting to chalk it up to an off night, one in which the Raptors were trying to re-jig their rotation and rediscover themselves with a more complete roster. Except there was another problem: Siakam's sudden inability to shape the game in any meaningful way.
Rarely is Siakam mute during a game these days. His performances have a way of becoming extremely loud in one way or the other, especially after poor showings. A list of Siakam’s faults remains short too, even though it does exist. The first is a psychological feat, being able to execute constantly at an alpha dog level for the Raptors regardless of the situation. The second is more tactile: bad matchups that take Siakam out of his rhythm completely. Unfortunately, the Heat possess such a matchup advantage, their starting foward Bam Adebayo.
So what happened on Tuesday night? Siakam was a -15 on the night, took just 14 shots (hitting five), and while he did grab 12 rebounds, his contributions to Toronto’s overall defense was deeply in the negative. A glance at the team’s individual net ratings indicates as such: Siakam was a team-worst -17.3 on the night thanks at least in part to Adebayo’s ability to stone wall or intimidate him at every turn. Admittedly, we were confident Siakam had figured it this issue as recently as last Sunday, but progress isn’t always linear in the NBA. Despite his fast success, Siakam is still mapping things out. “I think I’ve got to understand I’ve got to be in attack mode all the time,” he said. “That’s who I am. And being one of the leaders of the team, I have to expect to go out like that, 100 percent of the time, every single game.”
Still, Toronto’s post-game mood remained steady, a bit ticked off but not destructive. “You’re mad at yourself,” said Fred VanVleet the next day. “Think[ing] of a lot of plays that you want back, things that you could have done better. Everything that we did last night was controllable, but give [the Heat] credit. They played a good game and we didn’t. That’s how it goes some nights. In the NBA, you don’t win them all.”
And surely the Raptors, particularly Siakam, would bounce back, right? That's been their way all season.
The Raptors Can Experiment
The story of the Raptors game against Houston starts with their game plan to deal with James Harden. Few (if any) teams rely so much on one player to generate almost all of their offense. And try as every team might, fewer still can stop Harden from doing what he wants with the ball in his hands. While Raptors fans surely had Siakam in the back of their minds — were we due for a big game from him? — it would be difficult to beat the Rockets if Harden ran wild.
So the experiment began in earnest. The Raptors double-teamed Harden when he crossed midcourt, running a triangle-and-2 variant that usually had VanVleet scrambling between one side of the court and the other, while Siakam zoned up two shooters on the wing, and Gasol backlined the paint. In one sense, the trap worked: the Raptors held Harden to “just” 23 points and three assists — though he still did shoot 7-of-11 (and 3-of-5 from deep). Instead Toronto fell into a different trap, allowing the rest of the Rockets to shoot 19-of-50 from three-point range. In short, they gambled and lost.
Credit to Nurse though, he did not seem particularly perturbed by the outcome. He also stuck with the strategy throughout the game, something other coaches may not have dared do after the Rockets ran their lead up to 16 in the second quarter. Afterwards he noted the scheme’s limitations, while also mentioning theoretical improvements. “It was a pretty interesting experiment. I’d have to look at the film and see what we could do a little better,” said Nurse. “If the result turned out the other way around, we’d probably say it was a great experiment. We’ve got to look at it a little more closely to see. I’d never run that scheme before, at all. There’s probably a lot of polish we could put on it to make it better. But it was interesting.”
Of real concern, however, was Siakam’s play. Despite a 14-point first quarter explosion, the Raptors’ star was slowly taken out of the game. He had four points in the second frame, six in the third during the Raptors’ comeback in which they briefly took the lead, and then, critically, zero in the fourth. In fact, there were periods down the stretch when Siakam barely touched the ball, an unconscionable turn of events for the Raptors. In all, Lowry was much better against the Rockets (19 points, 8 assists, 5-of-8 shooting), VanVleet was his usual dogged self (20 points despite all that running around on defense), and Norman Powell put in his second straight performance of energetic game-saving play. But Siakam’s absence was glaring.
Now, the Rockets do employ one of the all-time man-up defenders in P.J. Tucker, and Harden was rock-solid in the post, but matchups don’t quite explain Siakam’s passivity here. It points again to that psychological adjustment Pascal will have to make for the Raptors moving forward. Unlike last year where Kawhi Leonard was always there to save the day, this time Siakam has to be that guy. It’s perhaps the biggest — and most significant — realization for a franchise player to make. “I think this is a little bit of a learning process for [Pascal] about what’s going on each night, what coverages he’s seeing, where help is coming from, etc.,” said Nurse. “I think you have to get to that stage where you can still be aggressive, but when there are more bodies there, you’ve got to be able to find the next play out.”
What Nurse says is true. And while Siakam could only note that he should have found something to do in the fourth quarter against Houston, he was “pretty satisfied” with what the Raptors did as a whole. In this, he’s not wrong either. And as Lowry said after his return from a month-long layoff, the world is indeed not falling right now.
So then what did we learn from the Raptors after this past week? Just that. They’ll continue to work, continue to try to get better, and continue to grow into something we haven’t quite seen yet. It’s true their relative lack of success against teams over .500 (now at 3-6) suggests a lower ceiling than the previous iteration of the team. But it’s hard not to believe in Toronto’s efforts, and to find satisfication, too, in their calm.