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What Didn’t Suck: Raptors clarify their playoff identity in loss to Thunder

Toronto lost the back half of the home-and-home with OKC, but their outlook after Friday’s loss still looks pretty rosy.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

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’ 116-109 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

*****

Toronto’s schedule to close the season is baby bottom soft. If you’re looking for the Raptors to emerge from their final eight games seasoned and battle-ready for Game 1 of the playoffs, you’re probably shit outta luck. With slight, hand-wavy apologies to the Magic and Nets, who I’m sure are very nice, this past week’s home-and-home with the Thunder stood as the last real chance for the Raptors to try and clarify their post-season plans against a team that matters.

Wednesday was awesome. Pascal Siakam scored a marauding 33, the ball popped around like we were back it the early days of last year’s Culture Reset™, and the team rebounded from a shaky fourth quarter to flirt with an overtime shutout en route to the road win.

Friday’s Thunder rematch was less awesome from a results perspective, but it was not difficult to pull together plenty of good bits to throw into this here column entirely dedicated to pumping up the good bits. A loss featuring this Pascal Siakam-orchestrated sequence couldn’t possibly be considered a bad one:

As a stand alone work of hoops art, that play slaps. But Siakam’s block on Westbrook was more than just a one-off bit of roof-lifting fun. It gave a glimpse of something much grander, more important to the Raptors’ big picture. Siakam guarding Westbrook brought back flashes of last year’s post season, when Nurse stuck a then-bench mobbin’ Siakam on Westbrook Lite for long stretches of the Wizards series. Siakam on John Wall was cool and weird and born out of the necessity to adapt against an opponent you’re seeing more than once. Same goes for putting the future MIP on the former MVP. It was the kind of chess move you see in the post-season; it’s encouraging to know the Raptors’ used their last legit pre-playoff tune-up to help clarify what it is they’ll be doing when their games have stakes again.

If a run to the Finals does end up happening for Toronto, its defensive versatility will be a big reason for it. These Raptors have a surplus of bitchin’ defenders. Nick Nurse can swap them in and out of different match-ups, willy-nilly, and expect to always be in a position of invulnerability on the defensive end. Nurse fiddled around with all those options in the rematch with the Thunder.

“I think we’ve got a number of guys who can play,” said Nurse after the loss. “I’m pretty happy with the defense of Pascal, Kawhi, OG, Danny, those guys are all interchangeable parts that can guard, they can handle themselves on the post as well so we don’t have to bring double-teams. There’s some good flexibility there. I thought Pascal did another really good job on Westbrook.”

Toronto’s loss to OKC certainly wasn’t the fault of the game plan on D. Up against the league’s worst True Shooting team, the Raptors did all they could to goad the Thunder’s bad shooters into jacking up shots. And they did it! Save for the 10 threes Paul George got up, the Raps kept the threes confined to guys you want taking threes; they just got burned by unseasonable warmth.

“It was part of the game plan,” Nurse explained. “We probably don’t want Paul George getting 10 off, but Jeremi Grant getting eight off and Westbrook taking nine and Schroder taking seven, if we had to do it all over again, we’d probably do it all over again.”

Jerami Grant’s a fine, league average-ish shooter. He canned five of his eight triples. Dennis Schroder’s well below average from outside. If he’s gonna hit 4-of-7 from there, you tip your cap and utter “it’s a make or miss league, Doug,” under your breath. I mean, Nurse basically did that after the game.

“They made ‘em tonight. I think the game plan was executed pretty much all the way through, they made ‘em,” Nurse said. “Again, I thought we were right there, really close there at the end and, again, didn’t get many breaks or the ball didn’t bounce our way.”

“They just shot the crap out of the ball and that was our game plan,” said Fred VanVleet post game. “Obviously a team like Brooklyn our game plan is going to be a little bit different but give them credit, the guys who we wanted to shoot shot it and they shot it well and we didn’t score enough to kind of combat that.”

Toronto wasn’t the only team to adopt a post-season approach to Friday’s game. OKC, a team very much in desperation mode, made some changes in Game 2 of the home-and-home that certainly helped push back the Raps’ offensive might.

On Wednesday it was almost a joke how open the Raptors were, all the damn time. In the 123-114 win, Toronto tossed up 36 threes, on which they connected 14 times. As it turns out, the Raps are good at threes now; since the Marc Gasol deal on February seventh, they lead the NBA in three-point percentage on a near top-10 volume. You can only control a team’s heat from outside so much, but you can make an effort to trim down the attempts, as the Thunder did on Friday night.

Toronto got up just 25 threes in the loss, as OKC sold out to stick at home on shooters and allow freer passage to the rim that they ceded on Wednesday.

“I think there were stretches of the game where we did a really good job of touching the paint and getting it out and around,” said Nurse. “We were getting it really deep, I think we missed a bunch of even one-on-one kinda inside five feet plays where we’d drive it all the way in there and it looked we were gonna come away with something and it’d roll off and go the other way.

“We were getting pretty deep so, yeah, maybe they were staying home a little bit more. Probably were, there was probably no help which is why were getting so deep.”

As tends to happen in the playoffs, the rhythm and flow the Raps have enjoyed on offense lately was interrupted by an opponent making game-to-game adjustments. Every year folks forget that those are the realities of the post-season. There’s a reason darling regular season teams like the 60-win Hawks or last year’s Raptors go flaccid in May more often than not. Best laid plans get thwarted because the playoffs are about winning in short bursts and not enduring an 82-game slog. Coaches actually have to try; the first victims of that effort are teams that rely on system over talent.

Of course this year’s Raptors aren’t one of those beautiful, critically acclaimed squads. They can be, especially now that they have Marc Gasol and his very good passes in the fold, but they have a little grime to them. This team doesn’t need flawless motion to succeed. On Friday, when the ball got a little stickier, and the open looks from deep weren’t nearly as abundant, the Raps did the thing that often wins games in the playoffs: they got their very good players to just take some dudes off the bounce.

Kawhi Leonard obviously leads the team in one-on-one potency. And while his 20-point fourth quarter didn’t translate into a win for his team, it should give Raps fans all sorts of warm fuzzies to have seen that version of Leonard take over.

“He’s the ultimate bailout, a guy like that,” said VanVleet. “Just give him the ball, he’ll get some buckets. He’s won a number of games for us like that this year. Kept us in the game tonight when things were going a little bit astray.”

Kawhi’s amazing. But he is also not the only guy the Raps can toss the ball too in times of desperation. Before Leonard’s fourth quarter outburst, it was Siakam steadying Toronto’s wobbly offense in the third quarter. Actually, Siakam’s been making a habit of doing such things lately.

Toronto has two guys who are going to be playoff-proof ISO guys now. It’s as stunning as it is inarguable. Siakam’s ranked in the 75th percentile of isolation scorers, Kawhi’s in the 81st — they score 0.98 and 1.02 points per possession respectively when the Raps clear out for them. Both are top-50 in total ISO possessions, too.

Two bailout guys, surrounded by dead-eye shooters, good defenders, and, oh yes, Kyle Lowry when he gets back, too. That formula was a hot shooting night from the least hot shooting team in the NBA away from a sweep against the Thunder.

Friday’s game clarified what the playoff raptors are gonna look like. And the picture was mostly damn pretty.