The Raptors are good as hell. Even when they lose the odd game here or there, it will be important to not lose sight of that. This is the most talented team ever assembled in Toronto, and it won’t last forever. So rather than getting hung up on the things the Raptors do poorly, this column is designed to appreciate the silver linings even when the score line doesn’t favour the good guys. There are only so many games in a season — why not enjoy all 82?
This is What Didn’t Suck about the Raptors’ 105-92 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
First, a note about what did suck from the loss against the Bucks. An L like that, while probably ultimately meaningless in the wider scope of the entire six-month season and playoffs to come, can’t entirely be dressed up with silver and gold and ribbons and bonbons. There were some undeniably shitty aspects of that loss — most notably, the starting lineup and its’ slight variations.
Yeah, Serge Ibaka’s been overworked with Jonas Valanciunas sidelined, and yeah Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard have only played like 30 games together so there’s some massaging of that on-court relationship still to do. But like, what fresh hell is this offensive possession, clipped from what should have been a time where the Raptors were pulling out all the stops to complete one of their many attempted comebacks against Milwaukee on Thursday.
Who gives a damn if this water polo ass possession led to a three. The whole team moved a combined 10 steps on the play. It wasn’t the only trip down the floor after the starters plus-Fred took over for the bench in crunch time that looked like a sixth-grade Valentine’s dance floor, either.
What looked like the team’s spine is showing signs of brittleness. Since December 1st, the Raptors’ starters have been shitcanned by 7.3 points per 100 possessions; on the season they’re down to a +5.7 NET Rating, which is totally well and good, but doesn’t stack up against some of the most leaned-on lineups for Toronto’s most direct competitors. And this is all despite each individual piece save for Lowry having what on the surface look to be career years.
“Not quite enough energy and togetherness there with them,” said Nick Nurse of the Raptors’ slow start against Milwaukee. “It carried over into the third, or to start the half, again, with that group, yeah.”
“I certainly like those guys as individual pieces, maybe it’s a group thing,” Nurse continued on with regards to his starting five. “I gotta take a look at it and think about it again. Like it seems to be coming and going a little bit, right ... A lot of it’s a pace and energy thing.”
Encouraging stuff! That said, this game was probably a bit too extreme an example to extrapolate grand meaning from. Danny Green had a bout of runny bum that limited him to just 13 minutes, and we’re still in the throws of the Lowry-Leonard acclimation process that had to almost restart when Leonard came back from four games against Houston last week. (I will hang on to this crutch until July if I have to).
Toronto doesn’t play a back-to-back for over a month now, and Valanciunas is about to come back. Please recall back in November before the team’s last extended stretch of day on/day off on the schedule when Leonard, Nurse and others predicted a run where rhythm and flow would be established, and then those things happened. There are still 29 games to go, which seems like fewer games than it is. Things are be primed to not suck in the very near future. But it’s probably wise to at least put a sticky not on some of the troubling trends of recent weeks.
Anyway, back to the shit that was good against Milwaukee.
It’s wild that we’ve gotten to the point now where the starters might be of more concern than the consistently stagnant bench unit, whose members have barely played a week together at a time. But here we are.
Part of the reason the bench has engendered somewhat sunnier feelings recently is the Raptors’ patron saint of not sucking: Pascal Siakam, whose 28 points on 12-of-19 shooting on Thursday had more oomph and importance to the Raptors than any of his other scoring outbursts this season.
Siakam’s buckets aren’t usually all that pioneering. He occupies a patient orbit around Toronto’s two stars, lying in wait for the chance to attack a closeout, backdoor a probing Leonard post-up, or leak out for a touchdown catch from Lowry. Against Milwaukee though, Siakam scored in a more go-to fashion than usual — in large part because Nick Nurse put him on bench support duty for long stretches of the game.
Siakam’s first call to anchor the second unit against the Bucks came just a minute after he sat down with the starters in the first quarter.
Poor Greg Monroe, man. He’s got those hauntingly beautiful eyes and soothing baritone voice but man is he ever out of his depth in 2019. Over the last couple weeks, Moose sightings have gotten gradually more sparse. He almost never sees the floor in second halves, and his stints with the starters are getting pared down almost nightly as Nurse’s patience for his many foibles grows thinner.
Thursday night’s was among the briefest Moose jaunts yet. Near the end of the first quarter, Monroe subbed in with the typical bench crew — Fred, OG, Delon and Norm. He lasted all of two defensive possessions. On the first of which, George Hill scored over him on a switch. The next time down, Sterling Brown would have done the same if not for an ass-saving VanVleet dig down and deflection that won the ball back for Toronto. At that point, 68 seconds after Monroe hit the floor, Mike Budenholzer subbed Giannis back in, and Nurse countered with Siakam at the five. Monroe never saw the court again. Siakam hit a wing three on the next possession.
We’ve got diddly squat in the way of sample size for lineups with Siakam at centre surrounded by reserves. And in fact, the five minutes we saw of it against the Bucks were -75 points per 100 possessions worth of disastrous. But it kind of makes sense that it would work, right? The league is skewing smaller than ever, and the team rebounds just fine when Siakam’s on the court (the team’s on-court rebounding percentage is higher only when Green and JV are out there); getting pounded on the glass was always feared to be the dark underbelly of playing Siakam as a solo big.
It’s going to be a necessary look in the post-season at some point. Siakam seems like a perfect foil for the aging Al Horford in a potential Boston match-up; we saw flashes of Siakam giving Milwaukee fits as a five on Thursday, too. It’s awesome that Valanciunas is coming back soon, but it also bums me hard that all those plodding Monroe minutes we’ve been subjected to in the last two months could have been data points in the Siakam-at-centre experiment. I feel cheated, Nick.
Anyway, Siakam’s most notable instances of brilliance as the bench’s top option didn’t even come with him playing centre. For big swaths of this one, Siakam was flanked by Serge Ibaka in a funky mishmash lineup that sadly bumped Anunoby out of the second half plans. Siakam, Ibaka, Powell and the back-up point guards were the reason Thursday’s game was ever close. With Siakam isolating on what seemed like every second trip, Toronto cut the lead from 24 to six in about six minutes of game time.
“That almost makeshift second unit that we had that made the run had a heck of a stretch, man,” said Nurse, though admitting that he probably ran that lineup a couple minutes too long into the fourth before subbing Leonard, Lowry and Green back in.
Regardless of whatever coaching mistakes Nurse thinks he may have made in crunch time, he found something legit in those Siakam plus-bench looks. This whole season’s been an exercise in work-shopping. And if there’s a criticism to be levied Nurse’s way, it’s that he’s perhaps hung too long onto groupings that don’t work well together; VanVleet has been given one (thousand) too many chances to pound the life out of the ball while Lowry and Leonard stand idly by, for example.
That brings us back to the starting lineup, and Nurse’s hinted trepidation about its across-the-board cohesion. After two months of being kind of butt, perhaps we’re on the brink of a shake-up before it’s too late on in the season to fully reboot the team’s chemistry. Siakam’s performance on Thursday highlighted one possible change that almost makes too much sense.
What about an OG-for-Siakam swap, wherein OG assumes the low-usage/high-necessity starting role he excelled in as a rookie, while Siakam takes command of the bench, free to ISO and spin-move to his heart’s content without having to defer to Lowry and Leonard? The starters gain a slightly more reliable catch-and-shoot threat with just enough off-the-bounce juice to not be a liability. The bench gets the dynamism it’s been thirsting for since jump street, whether it’s with Siakam next to Valanciunas or as a centre surrounded by shooters. Ibaka could also be mixed in a little bit.
This seems almost too drastic, too panicky a change for a 37-16 team to make with just 29 games to go. Siakam’s a borderline All-Star (fuck Brooklyn, by the way). You want him playing north of 30 minutes, because he’s extremely good and fun and important. Starting him is the most surefire way to get him there without falling into the Patrick Patterson sub pattern of playing the last 18 minutes of every half, water breaks be damned. Siakam seems like an eager, team-first type of dude, but who knows how he’d take to a demotion in title after all the names he’s taken and asses he’s kicked this year.
As alluded to before, Thursday’s game probably isn’t the one after which to make rash decisions.
But If the first two thirds of the season were about Nurse collecting information, the stretch run is about acting upon it. Nurse has had already had success getting buy-in from Valanciunas and Ibaka on their new roles this season. Maybe that example was the ground work needed for him to make a potentially course-altering change like flipping the team’s third-best and most-fun player to reserve duty in the name of team-wide togetherness.
All of this, and the answer to Toronto’s struggles could simply be the return of Valanciunas. Everyone could just slide back where they’re most comfortable, the roster might find stasis, and the Raptors could easily rattle off another November-like run with Siakam in his familiar starting role.
If not, though, Nurse can’t be afraid to be bold or act on his burgeoning feelings about the fit of Toronto’s most-used unit. This ain’t 2015-16. Luis Scola is gone. For the Raptors to make good on their immense ceiling, the answer to the question “What DID Suck?” can’t be the starting lineup anymore.