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Toronto Temperature: Fred VanVleet is quietly playing his best basketball

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Fred VanVleet is on a tear since returning from a thumb injury and Serge Ibaka is blocking shots everywhere. Let’s take a temperature.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing is terribly wrong with the Raptors right now. Sure, they have lost the occasional game (like to the Hornets and Thunder last week) but the team’s style of play heading into the playoffs is set. The starters are ready to go, and Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka are right behind them.

It’s not perfect, of course. Norman Powell has drilled threes at an high rate (38.5% for the season) but is still prone to inconsistent play, and OG Anunoby, now dealing with concussion-like symptoms, is still looking to get back in the mix. Still, it’s nothing too out of place for the Raptors right now.

As a result, the team’s temperature right now is just about the same. The Raptors are playing well enough not to complain, so instead we’re looking at April Fools’ Day etiquette and a whole slew of thumb injuries. Let’s take the Toronto Temperature.

Who’s Hot

Serge Ibaka’s Defense

It hasn’t been a perfect fit with Serge Ibaka on the bench unit, but he is still the same effective player, and maybe even playing better interior defense. As I mentioned in a previous TT, Ibaka’s block totals have been up in a reduced role. In his last 11 games, Ibaka is averaging 2.2 blocks in 23 minutes per game. That’s higher than his season average of 1.4 blocks per game.

His athleticism on the court looks different too. Facing the Bulls on Saturday, Ibaka was quicker trying to contest at the rim, and even got knocked down a couple of time by Bulls’ players. It’s no secret that Ibaka’s offensive production has dropped off with the bench, but if he can keep up his defensive intensity, the bench should respectable winding down the regular season. Maybe he is drinking some of that cricket tea he served for Jeremy Lin on ‘How Hungry are You’.

Magic Revenge

The Raptors win over the Magic on Monday was a big win for nothing else but removing the idea that Orlando had their number. Up until that win, the Magic were winning the season series 2-1, and had blown out the Raptors out twice, outscoring them by 44 points in those games. Nikola Vucevic was especially awesome as a pick-and-pop threat, resembling Al Horford — a Raptors killer. But alas, the Raptors won Monday by 12 points, and Nikola Vucevic scored 13 points. All is right with the world.

And guess what? That was the last time the Raptors need to defend their honour this season. Against their next four opponents, the Raptors have won the regular season series 7-to-3. The only team they need to face now is Dwane Casey’s Detriot Pistons (who won the season series 3-0 and felt pretty good about it). Interestingly, a first round series is looking more probable than it did two weeks ago. We will see.

Fred VanVleet, Offensive Threat

Fred VanVleet might be playing the best basketball of his career. That didn’t look like it was going to be the case in the first half of the season, when he lacked burst finishing at the rim and was a step slow on defense. During that time he mentioned back pain as a frustration. So it made sense that his athleticism was capped.

And Boy, did it ever turn out that he needed to rest his back, because after missing 12 games with a thumb injury, VanVleet has come back and stood out as the most reliable player off the bench. Since returning from the injury he is averaging 13.9 points on 46.3/44.7/94.1 shooting splits, to go along with 6.2 assists and 0.8 steals in 31.7 minutes per game. The Raptors will need VanVleet’s shooting in the playoffs, but the other stuff — his finishing, defense, and passing — will set him apart as a impact player.

Who’s Not

April Fools’ Jokes

There is a fine line in writing April Fools’ Day jokes. A few sports’ blogs get in on the action every year. There is always the lighthearted article, which is permissible. “Report: The Raptors sign 33-year old Andrea Bargnani to bolster their front court depth heading into the playoffs.” But there is also the destructive, make-your-day-worse type of article than has spread into the culture.

I hopelessly stumbled upon the second option this week, reading a blog post about Blake Griffin’s season ending knee injury with the Pistons (which was incorrect and has since been taken down). At the time, I had to believe it. It seemed to be a reputable Pistons blog, and a knee injury, that’s all to common in the NBA. After I quickly realized that it was all made-up, I was reassured that Raptors’ blogs let April Fools come and go without a second thought (or maybe dip into some lighthearted fun).

The Patrick McCaw Injury

The quest for a healthy rotation is over. Patrick McCaw is the latest Raptor to go down with injury, suffering a sprained right thumb that will keep him in a splint for three weeks. Luckily, McCaw didn’t figure much into the playoff rotation so it is not a huge loss, but as we’ve seen, McCaw is an effective break-in-case-of-emergency defender and athlete.

When the Raptors signed McCaw earlier in the season, it was hard to know what to expect. He won two rings with the Warriors, but his efficiency as a three point shooter had fallen since his rookie season. In his brief time with the Raptors though, he has proven he belongs, wreaking havoc on defense. And, of course, there is nothing more fun than seeing McCaw sprint past opponents on his one-man fast breaks.

McCaw is just one of many Raptors to suffer from thumb related issues. Jonas Valanciunas and Fred VanVleet both missed extended time with thumb injuries. Inexplicably, in Monday’s game versus the Magic, it happened again as Danny Green jammed his thumb. He is probable for tonight’s game (whew), but the Raptors are playing with fire with these thumb injuries. Please just take mine instead.

Malcolm Miller’s Minutes

Malcolm Miller has played eight minutes or more in two games for the Raptors this season. That number would seem low. With OG Anunoby out of the lineup with concussion-like symptoms against the Magic on Monday, you would hope to see Miller fill some of those minutes. In the first half, Pascal Siakam filled in for OG Anunoby’s usual role, and in the second half, Jodie Meeks got the nod, filling in for the same role. It’s understandable why they got minutes. Nick Nurse has moved away from five-man bench units and he might be curious about Jodie Meeks.

But still, you would think Miller has played well enough to earn an extended 20-minute look, even in just one or two games. Because as it stands now, he has played so few minutes that it is difficult to know his viability with any of the Raptors’ heavy-usage lineups — which isn’t even the case for Jodie Meeks.