I almost feel like the rest of these recaps, from here to the end of the regular season, need a disclaimer. Something along the lines of, “take all these thoughts with a big grain of salt, ‘cause the Raptors don’t really give a crap right now.”
That’s definitely how yesterday’s game felt to me — that the game meant a lot more to the Pistons, and that the Raptors just kinda shrugged and said, OK, sure, you guys do what you gotta do, we’re just gonna do our thing and whatever happens, happens.
What happened was another loss to Dwane Casey. Here’s what I think about what transpired.
Do We Appreciate Casey Enough?
Coaches usually gets lots of blame but little credit, and it’s been that way forever. With Casey, it was easy to focus on the failures, because they were so glaring, on the biggest stage, and so embarrassing. But Casey was, and remains, a good coach, and I think now, seeing what he’s doing with this Pistons team and with almost a year of hindsight after his firing, we should admit that. His Pistons team is oddly constructed — especially before the trade deadline — but he’s integrated Wayne Ellington seamlessly, he’s got Luke Kennard contributing significant minutes, he’s got Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin — who looked like they hated each other two months ago — playing well together, and the team busts their asses on D despite not having anyone you’d consider a top-level defender.
Casey’s a heck of a coach.
And now that he’s gotten his series sweep, I would like very much to not talk about him again for a very long time.
Execution vs. Outcome
If the game doesn’t mean anything to the Raptors, then, the execution has to, right? Not being concerned about wins and losses is one thing, but the point here is to fine-tune things for the postseason... and yesterday, that tuning didn’t look so fine.
Obviously the Raptors were missing two key guys and that makes a big difference. Eric Moreland would not be out there getting dunked all over the place if Serge Ibaka wasn’t suspended; the bench units would be deeper, and would have a much shorter leash overall; and if Kyle Lowry starts and finishes, well, this is an entirely different game.
Still! You saw Danny Green and Pascal Siakam mix up assignments on defense. You saw the Raptors being unaware of time and score when they needed to foul late. You saw them not send a double quickly enough when Griffin got switched on to Danny Green. You saw Fred VanVleet throw a lackadaisical pass that sealed the win for Detroit.
If the regular season is practice, then these are the short of things you need to see eliminated.
Fred VanVleet Came to Play
You’d never know that Fred VanVleet missed five weeks of action, because he was pretty much 100% ready to go yesterday. He looked great! He moved the ball well, he shot the ball well, he was aggressive on defense... man, was he sorely missed.
My favourite things were the hockey assists he racked up; at least three times, he moved the ball smartly and quickly to another player, who then easily found a third player for a wide-open shot or an easy bucket. Like this one:
VanVleet has had some frustrating moments this season. There were times when it seemed like the Raptors didn’t know what to do with him and Delon Wright. I hope the post-deadline Raptors have carved out the right role for him, because if he can bring what he brought yesterday to every game, he is a significant difference-maker in the playoffs.
Pascal Siakam vs. OG Anunoby
Were the Pistons and Raptors to meet in the playoffs, how many games would it take for Nick Nurse to insert OG Anunoby into the starting lineup for Pascal Siakam?
Siakam just can’t guard Blake Griffin; Griffin’s too strong and can score at will in the post. Anunoby’s upper body strength makes him a better matchup. Is that worth missing out on Siakam’s offensive firepower? Possibly.
Siakam was the only Raptors starter in the negative side of plus-minus yesterday; the starting group with Siakam (and either VanVleet or Jeremy Lin) played 24 minutes and was +2, but the same group with Anunoby in Siakam’s place was a +9 in only four minutes.
Those numbers aren’t quite enough to justify a change, but I’m certain mad scientist Nick Nurse would consider it, should Blake continue to overpower Siakam in a playoff series.
Kawhi Makes It Look Easy. Does He Have Another Gear?
Kawhi Leonard often looks like he’s coasting out there, but then you look up and he’s got 27 points on 16 shots after three quarters. He’s so darn good that he makes it look like he’s not even trying.
So I have to wonder: Are we seeing the real Kawhi Leonard? Or are we going to see a different Kawhi in the playoffs?
If it’s the former, I guess that’s nothing to complain about. The guy’s averaging 27 and 7 with 60.8% true shooting, after all.
But if it’s the former... if he can be more aggressive, if he can ratchet things up on defense, if can tilt the floor and open things up even more for others... well then the Eastern Conference is in trouble.
Kawhi might be treating these games like practice, but I for one can’t wait for these practices to end, for the stakes to become real and for Playoff Kawhi to be unleashed.
The Raptors are back at it tonight, at home against the Knicks — who are also on a back-to-back. The Knicks should be an easy win, but Kawhi will probably sit, Lowry will probably sit, and this is the third and final game of Ibaka’s suspension. So it might be closer than we think. But remember: it’s just practice. The real season awaits.