The Raptors had a 2-1 week with satisfying wins over the Lakers and Knicks. But the most exciting news to come out of this week had nothing to do with basketball.
As we watched yesterday, Serge Ibaka released a teaser. This was not just any teaser, it was one in which he asked Kawhi Leonard if he’s going to stay in Toronto for next season. It was a captivating marketing campaign to say the least. So as we wait for that episode to come out, we can instead acknowledge some other good things about Ibaka — even though he missed all three of the Raptors’ games this week — such as his effective pick-and-roll defense.
Let’s take the Toronto Temperature.
Pascal Siakam, Evolving
Pascal Siakam is one of the most intriguing players to watch on a nightly basis because his game is constantly evolving. At the beginning of the season, Siakam was still mostly relying on chaos for offense, but his superior finishing ability allowed him to fill up box scores. Then, once coach Nick Nurse realized Siakam was such a good finisher, all of the isos and post-ups started coming.
In the past month or so, however, Siakam has taken it a step further. He is now experimenting with mid-range jumpers. We’ve seen it a few times where he takes a few jab steps, considers driving, and boom, he vaults up over his defender for the shot. Siakam isn’t shooting it with any sort of volume or efficiency yet, but simply taking those shots is encouraging for his game going forward. He won’t have as many opportunities to run freely in the playoffs, so having a a mid-range jumper is useful if the offense bogs down. Any player incorporating a new shot mid-season is impressive.
The Importance of Serge Ibaka
The Raptors must be excited to get Serge Ibaka back in the fold. The interior defense he provides, tracking guards all the way out on the perimeter, can’t be replicated by any other big man on the roster. On the season, Ibaka is holding opponents to 54.4 percent shooting from shots six feet and in. That’s pretty good, and similar to some of the other behemoth centres in the league, like Joel Embiid (52.9 DFG%) and Myles Turner (54.5% DFG%).
Ibaka will shore up the big man rotation, which was temporarily held by Eric Moreland and Chris Boucher. Don’t believe me? Consider his block totals in games before the suspension: three blocks versus Miami, three blocks versus New Orleans, and five blocks versus Houston. Ibaka has been missed.
The Raptors and Knicks Monday night battle deserves its own spot. It was an offensive clinic. The Raptors were able to generate any shot they wanted, finishing the night with 36 assists. If a sequence of passes didn’t generate the look they wanted the reaction was, okay, well, let’s keep passing it around some more. Substituting “good shots for great shots,” as Marc Gasol said postgame.
Eight players finished the night in double-digits, with not one player scoring more than 20 points — talk about a balanced attacked. Meanwhile, OG Anunoby played impressive post defense and had two blocks — something he hasn’t done before. Jeremy Lin had a stellar fourth quarter with shades of Linsanity, and Fred VanVleet looked spry as well, dishing 12 assists. It was against the Knicks, but still.
Upcoming Schedule Malaise
The Raptors’ season is almost over with 11 games to go, and the playoffs, shockingly, starting in 24 days. But the malaise of schedule that is about to hit the Raptors, oh boy. After a home-and-home with the Thunder, the Raptors will the play the Hornets, the Knicks, the Magic, and the Bulls twice (in no particular order). I’m all for 36 point victories against the Knicks, but this feels like a tedious stretch of games. The Magic game is the only one that truly has playoff implications (the Magic are two losses out of the eighth seed, and their tiebreaker with Miami is yet to be determined ). I can see myself getting antsy for these upcoming games. Maybe it’s just residual Raptors playoff anxiety.
The Raptors, in terms of games lost to injury, are middle-of-the-pack. The quality of players they have lost, however, is perhaps greater than most other teams. So far this season the Raptors have been without Kawhi Leonard for 20 games, Kyle Lowry for 14 games, Fred VanVleet for 18 games, and Jonas Valanciunas for 25 games. That’s hard to overcome. It is a credit to Nick Nurse that the Raptors have managed 50 wins with 11 games still left to go in the regular season.
So when Lowry went down again on Monday night, the collective fan base had to let loose a massive sigh. Luckily, the prognosis on Lowry was positive, but when a star player goes down in the fashion like he did, it never feels good. It is, as always, a true reminder of the fragility of a season.
Norman Powell, Finding Form
Norman Powell has been effective coming off the bench the past week or so. In the last five games, he’s shot 27-of-53 (51%) and played solid off-ball defense, especially against Dwayne Wade in Miami. But the best version of Powell this season still came in early January, right after he returned from a shoulder injury. He was less deliberate setting up his moves, and let the game come to him naturally. That period for Powell was captured wonderfully by his game-high 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting versus Indiana. He was calmly busting out Euro-steps and finishing through contact. It was a sight to see.
Now, with 11 games left in the season, Powell is playing at a level just below that. For Powell to earn legitimate playoff minutes (in which I still think he can be an important contributor), he will need to rediscover his free flowing, reactive yet sound approach to basketball. He’s had a stellar week, it’s just a matter of doing it consistently.