This is it. This is all she wrote. Welcome to the final edition of the HQ Roundtable for the 2018-19 regular season! I am Sully Akbari and I have served as the host for this weekly column all season long discussing hot topics regarding the Raptors, and the league as a whole, with two other HQ writers. Joining me for the final roundtable discussion are Josh Kern and Jay Rosales.
With the regular season coming to an end tonight, we take a look back — and then look ahead to the playoffs.
Let’s jump right in!
On the Raptors:
1) Think back to September. Did this Raptors regular season meet your expectations; exceed them; or fall short?
Sully Akbari: They definitely exceeded all of them. One of the things that caught me off guard was that I did not expect the starting unit to mesh as quickly as it did with Kawhi Leonard. I thought they’d need half a season to fully come together; instead, it took about 20 to 25 games. It just goes to show how seamlessly Kawhi can fit into any lineup and make the game so much easier.
I also didn’t expect the frontcourt to be as good as it is. I thought that was going to be the team’s weakest area and I didn’t expect Pascal Siakam to make such a huge leap, nor did I foresee Serge Ibaka completely turning his game around.
Then there is the guard play, which at times was rocky due to injuries, but seeing how comfortable Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Fred VanVleet all look, especially on the offensive end (I thought they’d take a scoring hit after trading away DeMar DeRozan) topped my expectations.
Josh Kern: Well, I had them at 56 wins and finishing second, so they exceeded my expectations, if only slightly. How they got there was certainly different though — I thought they’d start slow, then pick up steam, then pretty much run the table in the last month. Instead they started out ridiculously hot, then cooled off considerably, and then were simply very good down the stretch.
Of course, like most everyone ‘round here, I’m not too concerned about the regular season; we’ve seen regular season success turn into post-season heartbreak, so the real judgment occurs starting next week.
Jay Rosales: Back in September, here are the things we didn’t know:
- How will Kawhi recover from his Spurs-career-ending injury?
- Will Kawhi ever be an elite two-way superstar again?
- How is Kawhi going to fit in with his teammates?
- How can a Raptors team that finished with the 1-seed and a franchise-record 59 wins possibly improve?
- How can the entire organization convince Kawhi to re-sign?
Yeah, I think “exceed” is an understatement!
2) What has been your favourite moment from this season?
Sully: There have been many great moments but the one that sticks out to me is Siakam’s career night against the Wizards when he scored 44 points. It was such a joy to watch him fly-in for dunks, spin past defenders for layups, hit hook shots and drain three-pointers. He was in the zone all night and just couldn’t be stopped. Spicy P gave us all a night to remember.
Josh: There was a three-game stretch in November when Pascal Siakam scored a combined 66 points on 22-of-30 shooting, plus 5-of-10 from downtown and 18-of-19 from the free throw line — just amazing numbers from a guy who couldn’t shoot straight at all last year.
And that’s about the moment where I realized... “OK, wow, this isn’t just some early season blip. Pascal Siakam is really freaking good now!” Realizing that Siakam had made a leap, in a year where the Raptors also had Kawhi Leonard and were making a title push... that was a pretty great feeling.
Jay: Favourite moment (duration = 5 seconds or less): Kyle steals it from his best friend, DeMar, leading to game-winning dunk from fun guy, Kawhi.
Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard double team DeMar DeRozan and Leonard comes up with the steal and the slam!! pic.twitter.com/mhsVIUeGbF— TSN (@TSN_Sports) February 23, 2019
Favourite moment (duration = 6 seconds to 48 minutes): Tie between the wins in Golden State (Dec. 12) and Milwaukee (Jan. 5). The Raptors win — without Kawhi, mind you — was a statement to the league of the Raptors’ legitimacy. The Bucks win — without Kyle — showed the Raptors’ resiliency, having lost both previous meetings with Milwaukee, plus coming off the embarrassing loss in San Antonio.
Favourite moment (duration = over 48 minutes): Siakam’s entire season.
3) What are your expectations regarding a playoff series against either the Pistons, Nets, or Magic?
Sully: Regardless of who the Raptors play in the first round, I think it will be one where they put their post-season demons behind them and finally win a series comfortably. While each of the three teams has something that poses a threat to the Raptors (the Nets’ shooting, and the Pistons’ and Magic’s talented frontcourt), I strongly believe that the Raptors will turn it up a notch when the “real” games begin. With the entire team finally, finally healthy going into the post-season, I expect the first round series to be no more than five games.
Josh: That the Raptors should beat any one of those teams in four or five games, but they won’t; that it’ll be full of the usual angst as the Raptors struggle with mismatches and adjustments; that I’ll end up with either an ulcer, a heart condition, or pulling out all of my own hair.
No, I don’t think I’m traumatized by past Raptors playoff performances, why do you ask?
Jay: Nets — Fans of Brooklyn will point out that they’ve defeated Toronto once and almost a second time, after draining 20 triples. The reality is that Kawhi missed the buzzer-beater in the only loss, and the Nets needed 20 triples and still lost. Toronto was in control in the other two matchups, including last week, when the Raptors had nothing to play for and the Nets were desperate for a playoff spot. Raptors sweep!
Magic — Similar to the Nets, the Magic simply could not meet the extra gear the Raptors hit last week – also a scenario where Toronto didn’t need to and their opponent had to. I’ll credit Orlando for handing Toronto two of their worst losses of the season and predict a gentleman’s sweep – Toronto in five.
Pistons — The series everyone wants to see (Casey storyline) and doesn’t want to see (Pistons swept season series). Toronto having the best player in the series + Casey’s playoff history of underperforming + 3-point shooting (Raps #1 in 3-pt FG% since the All-Star break; Pistons #25 in opponents 3-pt FG%) = Raps in 6. (Bonus: A Detroit matchup, while not everyone’s favourite, would also be the best prep for Toronto for future opponents, in my opinion.)
4) Who’s going to be the main X-factor in the first round of playoffs?
Sully: It’s got to be Serge Ibaka. Ever since the trade for Marc Gasol, Ibaka had been performing inconsistently, and at times, looked lost on offense. However, since the conclusion of the home-and-home series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he has turned it back up, looking more like the player he was at the start of the year — in an even smaller role. In his last nine games, he’s averaging 15.6 points on an impressive 63.5 true shooting percentage, to go along with eight rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.
With Gasol starting and finally getting into a groove with the team, it’s on Ibaka to not drag the frontcourt down, as that has been the case the past couple of years. It will be crucial for him to keep his recent production rate going into the post-season otherwise the frontcourt will be exploited by teams like the Pistons or Magic.
Josh: Kyle Lowry. Is Lowry too important to be an X-factor? Maybe. But he’s had an up and down season, both in performance and health, and his play, more than anything, is what makes the Raptors great. When he’s on — I think they’re pretty much unbeatable. When he’s off, the whole team seems off. They need him playing at a high level, on both ends of the floor, to be successful — and successful in the first round should mean easily beating an inferior opponent and advancing, without me seriously considering checking myself into a hospital.
Jay: OG Anunoby is the x-factor for the Raptors and the entire Eastern Conference. The Raptors starters (Lowry/Green/Leonard/Siakam/Gasol) are outscoring opponents by 12.2 points; opponents close the gap once Nurse turns to his bench. Ibaka and VanVleet have established chemistry off the bench, but Anunoby will be integral because he may be the only other Raptor getting heavy playoff minutes (depending on how you feel about Powell). Anunoby’s defense will be critical and should carry over well; meanwhile, defenders will sag off him on the other end, so he needs to make them pay — whether it’s hitting the kick-out three or timing his cuts perfectly.
Around the NBA:
1) Who are your MVP, ROY, DPOY, MIP, 6MOY, COY, EOY picks?
Sully: MVP — James Harden. He’s had a historic season where he brought the Houston Rockets back from their 11-14 start to being a top-4 seed — while averaging 36 points and seven assists per game — which no one in the history of the league has ever done.
ROY — Luka Doncic. While Trae Young has been playing out of his mind the past several weeks, Doncic has played at a consistent high level since his first game.
DPOY — Paul George. The Thunder are a top-five team in defensive rating, largely because of PG anchoring their defense, and this is a team that doesn’t feature many defensive-minded players.
MIP — Pascal Siakam. From being a high energy bench player to being the team’s third star in a span of a year is the definition of a most improved player.
6MOY — Lou Williams/Montrezl Harrell. The Clippers have been a great story mainly because of Lou and Harrell’s efficient production off the bench, and I really think this award will go either way.
COY — Mike Budenholzer. No one expected the Bucks to be the best team in the league and no expected Giannis Antetokounmpo to thrive under Budenholzer’s system.
EOY — Masai Ujiri. Masai and the Raptors came out of nowhere when they acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, then made a significant in-season trade for Marc Gasol. For all the pieces to ultimately come together as the second-best team in the league is a remarkable feat.
Josh: MVP — Giannis Antetokounmpo. Best player, best team, plays both ends, extremely consistent from the start of the year to today.
ROY — Luke Doncic.Consistently great from day one; Trae Young made it close at the end but I’m sticking with Doncic.
DPOY — Giannis Antetokounmpo. He covers so much ground and affects so many areas of the floor; you can’t let your guard down, anywhere, when he’s out there.
MIP — Pascal Siakam. Come on, what are we even doing here? Just go read Dylan’s article!
6MOY — Lou Williams. I can’t believe the Clippers are this good, and he’s a big part of the reason why.
COY — Doc Rivers. I’ve long thought Doc is overrated as a coach, but getting 47 or 48 wins out of that team? That’s a heck of a job.
EOY: Masai Ujiri. I’m biased, obviously, but getting a superstar in Kawhi Leonard and a stud in Danny Green, and then cashing in some home-grown talent for another great player to really go all-in... he deserves it.
Jay: MVP — Giannis Antetokounmpo. Best player on best team. Let’s not get cute with this.
ROY — Luka Doncic. He’s ahead of Trae in every traditional stat (except Assists) and advanced stat (except Assist %).
DPOY — Rudy Gobert. Look at this graph and tell me he’s not the most important player on the NBA’s best defense (Jazz and Pacer are only two teams that are top 5 in points allowed and defensive rating).
Rudy Gobert ranks 1st in our Interior Defense metric and better than 87% of centers in our 6-year database in our Perimeter Defense metric.— BBall Index (@The_BBall_Index) April 8, 2019
The past four seasons, opposing centers have sure felt that impact when matched up with him: pic.twitter.com/JQg0pISy86
MIP — Pascal Siakam. He moved from the bench (20 minutes) to starting (32 minutes), yet took on a monster increase in usage percentage (15.7 to 20.8)... and that’s with the addition of Kawhi Leonard!
6MOY — Domantas Sabonis. I know this will likely end up with a Clipper, but hear me out. Domantas trumps Lou Williams in PER, Net Rating, Win Shares per 48, and VORP. The stats are much closer when compared to Montrezl Harrell, but Lou appears to be the favourite Clipper for voters. After losing Oladipo, the Pacers were supposed to collapse. Instead, Sabonis played a key role in keeping the defense strong enough for a possible Celtics upset.
COY — Mike Budenholzer. This is typically the hardest to choose every year, but Budenholzer’s case is simply too strong. When comparing the top 5 East contenders, the Bucks rank 1st in offensive and defensive rating.
Games played between the top 5 teams in the East... pic.twitter.com/vqLf7tMykI— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 7, 2019
EOY — Masai Ujiri. He would have won this on the Kawhi trade alone. Bringing in Gasol is the cherry on top. Toronto’s the best 3-point shooting team since the Gasol addition.
2) Other than the Raptors, which team will you be looking closely in the first round of the playoffs?
Sully: I’ll be watching the Denver Nuggets closely this post-season. They’ve had a great run but they lack playoff experience for the most part. Had they made the playoffs last season, even if it were to be a quick exit, they still would have gotten that initial exposure out of the way. With only Paul Millsap, Isaiah Thomas — who is no longer in the rotation — and Mason Plumlee having playoff experience, it’s just not there from an overall team standpoint.
They’re still a young, talented, and deep team, but we don’t know how well they’ll perform when the stakes are highest. I wouldn’t be surprised if they go the distance in the first round no matter who they play, and if they draw the Utah Jazz, they’ll be in big trouble. That’s a terrible match-up for them defensively, and one where Nikola Jokic could see a diminished role offensively due to Rudy Gobert’s stifling defense.
Josh: The Houston Rockets. How much longer can James Harden keep this up? Will he tire out? Can Chris Paul stay healthy? Can roster spots 4-7 contribute enough? If the answers are affirmative, then this team can challenge the Warriors, but if not, they might struggle to make it out of the first round.
Jay: It’s a tie between the Bucks and Celtics. With absolutely no respect for the Sixers, I’m looking forward to the Eastern Conference Finals. I’ll be scouting both teams, in hopes of finding weaknesses the Raptors can expose.