The Toronto Raptors capped off their long, slow week (one game in seven days!) with a home Sunday afternoon game against the LA Clippers, who had just traveled East to start a long road trip the night before in Detroit. While it could have been a “trap game” for the Raptors, in the end, talent and fresh legs won out.
Down with “Reputation Defenders”
One of my least favourite things about the NBA is when a player manages to garner a reputation as a strong defender... and that means the officials start letting him get away with a little bit of extra pushing and shoving.
Avery Bradley somehow has that reputation, though as Raptors fan, it’s fair to wonder how he got it, since DeMar DeRozan used to routinely eviscerate him.
Last night it was Kawhi Leonard’s turn to embarrass Bradley, and it didn’t take long to do so. Leonard used those massive shoulders to shrug Bradley off for five quick points and two fouls the first quarter (both obvious fouls, for which “strong defender” Bradley was incredulous), and then in the second, had Bradley scrambling every which way in a stretch where Leonard scored eight straight.
It wasn’t Leonard’s best performance — he seemed to be sleepwalking through stretches — but folks, Avery Bradley, whether he’s a good defender (he’s not) or overrated (he is) cannot guard Kawhi Leonard.
The Importance of the Quick Start
The Raptors ran off a 17-2 run in the first quarter, which is exactly the thing you want to see from a well-rested team taking on a tired one: punch ‘em in the mouth, get them on their heels, put the game away early.
This is especially important against the Clippers, who employ perhaps the best bench gunner of this generation, our old friend Lou Williams, who can single-handedly turn games around when he comes in... just like he did on Saturday night, when he scored 18 fourth-quarter points to lead a huge comeback over the Pistons (who only scored 14 themselves in the fourth!).
No lead is safe against Lou Williams, so it behooves his opponents to make it as large as possible.
And true to form, the Clippers took it all back by the end of the first quarter! As soon as Williams came in the game, the Clippers went on a 12-0 run to finish the quarter tied at 23.
Now, some (most?) of that comeback can be laid at the feet of the Raptors terrible bench performance in the frame, rather than Williams’ play. And an even closer inspection, it was another Clippers bench player who really provided the spark...
Boban Marjanovic, Game-Changer
As it turned out, the Clippers bench run I feared was not led by Lou Williams, but rather, Serbian Giant Boban Marjanovic.
Without Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors have no one that can match up with Marjanovic (uh, does anyone?) and he made his presence felt in a big way in the first quarter. He played four minutes, hit his only field goal (plus an and-1), and split a pair of free throws for four points. He pulled down four boards. He completely intimidated any Raptor who even sniffed the paint. The Raptors missed seven straight shots and turned the ball over four times in those four minutes!
I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a player as big as Boban can be a game changer, but I suppose challenge for Doc Rivers is figuring how to harness it. The Raptors figured it out after first quarter ended, putting Boban into more pick and rolls to draw him away from the hoop. Hitting three-point shots helped, too — the Raptors opened the second with a C.J. Miles three, and the Clippers never tied it again.
What Has Happened to OG Anunoby?
OG Anunoby has had a tough season. Sophomore slumps are common, and he’s gone through some things off the court so I hate pick on the young man.
But I’m really shocked at how awkward his game looks right now. Everything just looks... off, like he just doesn’t have the body control of his arms and legs that we normally see on NBA players; his limbs just seem to be moving at awkward angles, and flailing away from his body at all times. Even the way he runs just doesn’t look natural.
He looks like a high school kid in his junior year, who had a four-inch growth spurt over the summer after his sophomore year and is still adjusting to his new body. (I suppose it’s not impossible that Anunoby has actually had a growth spurt at age 21 — Scottie Pippen famously grew seven inches over his first three years of college ball, which is the same age range as Anunoby — but it seems unlikely.)
Yesteday would seem to have been a good opportunity for OG to get some good reps in and shake off some rust, what with the Raptors running away with the game in the second half. But even though he played 24 minutes — his most since coming back from his five-game absence — including 9.5 in a garbage-time fourth quarter, he only managed four points on three shots, with five personal fouls and two turnovers.
Thankfully the Raptors’ wing depth has meant the Raptors haven’t missed him too much, but it would be really great to get the OG of his rookie season back.
Bring Back My Bench Mob to Me
The end of the first quarter yesterday showcased everything wrong with the Raptors bench unit to date: Lack of movement, guys unwilling to shoot when they do get it, one-on-one drives right into a fully set defence.
And then, suddenly... they turned it around! A couple of three-balls dropped and the floor opened up. Norman Powell and Delon Wright were getting to the rim, Miles was bombing away, Greg Monroe was dunking!? OG Anunoby was, um, there.
With Kyle Lowry resting, the rotation moved up a spot, meaning no DNP-CDs for the wings, and everyone contributed. Well, except OG. This is exactly what we all envisioned, looking at the roster at the start of the year; the bench would contribute every game, and when a starter missed time, everyone could slot in nicely.
It just hasn’t happened, due to a number of factors — regression from OG Anunoby and Miles, overall health — but I suppose it’s possible that, with better health and a somewhat lighter schedule, the bench turns it around, much like they did within the game itself yesterday. I’m not hopeful, though, which is why I think this might be a busy week...
Should the Raptors be Trade Market Buyers?
I haven’t had the chance to express my opinions on all of the action happening out there, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I think the Raptors should be buyers as the deadline approaches. In fact, I think Masai Ujiri should do everything he can to acquire Anthony Davis, up to and including trading away Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and two or three future picks.
Two months ago, I may not have felt so strongly about it, but I feel like December and January showed us that this Raptors team isn’t quite good enough as currently constructed. And if this is the only season we’re going to have Kawhi Leonard, and I believe it is, then they should do everything they can to win the title this year.
Acquiring Davis this season gives them a hell of a shot.
And yes, I’m willing to mortgage the future. Five years of shitty teams with no lottery picks? If the Raptors win a title then it’s worth it. Shoot your shot, as the kids say.
Beyond that, I’m also OK with moving Wright, Miles, Powell or even OG for a solid, proven bench scorer who can stroke the three-ball. I’m not sure who that is, and maybe that person is even available post-deadline on the buyout market, but I do think the team needs a little something to shore up the offense for a deep playoff run.
With Tuesday’s game at Philadelphia, the Raptors will cap off a tough six-game stretch, with a stretch of “easier” games on the horizon; of the four remaining opponents before the All-Star Break after Philly, only Brooklyn (currently 28-26) holds a .500 or better record. A nice little winning streak heading into the break would feel good!