There isn’t much left for Raptors to accomplish in the regular season. They are 52-23 and all but locked into the second seed. If the minute distribution last night versus Chicago is any indication — no one played more than 26 minutes — the last seven games of the season are an opportunity for the bench players to earn minutes, and for the starters to keep rhythm. It’s a relief that Nick Nurse is taking this approach because, after all, a 2-2 week doesn’t mean nearly as much as it did in earlier in the season.
With that in mind... let’s take the Toronto Temperature.
Norman Powell, Sparkplug
You can’t say Norman Powell doesn’t have a knack for big moments. In Monday’s loss to Charlotte, Powell checked into the game for the first time in the third quarter. Right away, you could tell he had a sense of urgency. He made a number of athletic plays, finishing the night with two steals and one mean swat on Kemba Walker’s finger roll.
His most impressive play of the night, though, occurred when he received a kick-out pass from Fred VanVleet with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. He attacked left of the dribble, taking two defenders with him to the rim, and turned around to find Serge Ibaka for the easy layup. It’s exactly the kind of play you want to see from Powell. When he is making quick decisions (and, well, playing with a few starters), he is an important contributor. In his best playoff series as a Raptor — versus Milwaukee in 2017 — he shot 10-for-11 from deep and scored 25 points in a standout Game 5. Nick Nurse is actively trying to figure out the 9th man role. I wouldn’t be surprised if Powell is tentatively penciled in as a player Nurse can trust.
Jodie Meeks Back
Jodie Meeks, baby! This topic almost certainly doesn’t need another section but, hey, Meeks is a fun player with a fun-looking shot. It is a perfect cross between Steph Curry and Shawn Marion. It takes the smoothness from Curry’s shot and the launch angle from Marion’s. Those shooting chops were on display in his return last night, when he came into the fourth quarter and promptly hit a pull-up 20-footer.
Meeks is a good insurance policy for the Raptors. He won’t blow you away, but he is solid. He offers shooting and role definition at shooting guard — which is a nice compliment to the current roster. Likely, this is just the first move to come. The Raptors can look to add a 15th man before the playoffs — perhaps a back-up center, and yes, I’m looking at you, potential second-round-opponent-Philadelphia.
Kawhi Leonard, Making Plays
There is a long list of good Kawhi Leonard moments from this past week. He threw down six dunks in four games, including a patented lefty one-hander. It was impressive that he maintained his athleticism throughout the whole week considering the last time he played four straight games was early in February.
It wasn’t just the dunks, either. His defense was nastier than usual. In the first game (of two) versus Oklahoma City, Leonard was tasked with covering Paul George. They were both going at each other a little bit, but Leonard won the battle, proving to be a pest for George all night and holding him to 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
In Sunday’s contest versus Charlotte, Leonard had his most impressive play of the week. With 30 seconds remaining in the game, Leonard, the help defender, reached the peak of his jump to left-hand swat away a Kemba Walker finger roll. It was beautiful. We don’t see Leonard chase many blocks — he is matching a career low 0.4 blocks this season — so when he does, in the final moments of game no less, it’s exciting.
OG Anunoby, Finding a Role
OG Anunoby has played with the bench more often this season, and that has allowed him to be more aggressive finding his offense — he has a 14.7% usage rate this season compared to 12% last season. It’s a necessary part of his development, but as the playoffs creep up, Nick Nurse thinks more role definition could help Anunoby: “As we get down to it, I’m going to try to get him to play more of a role for this team. Get back to defense, shoot the open three, get on the glass, cut to the rim, you know, those are some things we know he can do.” The role Nurse described is exactly the role Anunoby succeeded in during the playoffs last season when he was one of the most efficient players on the court.
The confidence he exuded in the series’ versus the Wizards and Cavaliers is harder to see now. He is a bit more unsure of himself. In one instance versus the Hornets, he pump-faked out of an open three pointer, sidestepped, and got blocked on his second attempt. Even his teammates seemed to notice that it was unusual for Anunoby. In another instance, with 14 seconds remaining on the shot clock, he pulled back out to the three-point line to set up an isolation, drove right, and sort of crumpled into the floor, losing the ball and starting a Hornets breakaway. It wasn’t his best night.
The Raptors nemesis this past week was turnovers. They averaged 16.5 turnovers per game — which would only rank better than the Atlanta Hawks over a whole season. Yikes. I figured there needed to be an investigation. So on Tuesday’s game versus the Bulls, I looked at the Raptors various ways of turning the ball over. All in the first quarter: Marc Gasol passed the ball to a Chicago Bulls player sitting on the bench. Kyle Lowry made a post feed that lacked zip. Fred VanVleet threw a cross-court pass that got intercepted in tight quarters. And finally, VanVleet made a bullet pass right over the top of Jeremy Lin’s head. Your four classic unforced turnovers.
If any one of those turnovers happened during the playoffs — save for maybe the cross-court transition pass — I think the team would roll their eyes. To the Raptors credit, they seem confident that the high number of turnovers will correct itself with an increased focus on the game plan (i.e. the playoffs). We shall see.
The Bulls’ Game
The Raptors game last night versus the Bulls felt super drawn out. I’m not sure either team was jazzed to play. The Raptors, primarlily, were playing not to get hurt and the Bulls were playing to...well, I don’t actually know what the Bulls were playing for. They started two undrafted sophomores, Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaquille Harrison, and their best player, Lauri Markkanen, didn’t play the second half with an illness. The Raptors will play the Bulls again on Saturday. Hopefully Jim Boylen doesn’t call a timeout down 13 with a minute to go this time around.