What a way to start the season! For the first time in seven years, the Raptors have managed to begin their season below the .500 mark by losing to the New Orleans Pelicans on opening night.
As it turns out, that blunder turned out to be ominous, as Toronto would go on to lose their next game against the San Antonio Spurs, as well as Tuesday night’s game to the Philadelphia 76ers. Moreover, the Raptors, remarkably, managed to lose all three games in almost the exact same fashion!
Would you like to hear more about that? Let’s take the Temperature.
First Quarter Raptors, Scorching Hot
If you exclusively watched the first quarter of all three Raptors’ games this week, you might be surprised to learn that they aren’t the best team in the league. Toronto has come soaring out of the gates offensively in each of their three games this week and they found the defensive intensity to match against Philadelphia. Everything is humming along smoothly in the first quarters: three pointers are dropping; defensive rotations looked crisp by the third game; and most importantly, the offense was moving.
Stagnant ISO three pointers or mid-clock, long-twos do not dare rear their heads in the first quarters of Raptors basketball. Because of that, and other important factors, the Raptors have held leads of 3, 6, and 11 points coming out of the first quarter of their first three games. I’m sure there might be a section in this article where we reference this again — hold that thought.
Kyle Lowry, Hopeful Saviour
Wouldn’t it be great if Kyle Lowry could play 48 minutes a night?
1: Raps -14, Lowry -1, -13 in 9min without— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 30, 2020
2: Raps -5, Lowry +3, -8 in 13min without
3: Raps -7, Lowry +12, -19 in 11min without
Total: Raps -26, Lowry +14, -40 in 33min without
Because he is, believe it or not, a mortal man, Lowry cannot play the entire game every night. Instead, he gets to rest for brief amounts of time while the Raptors find new and creative ways to throw the game away (see: Norman Powell video below).
This is not new news. The Raptors know what they have in their leader and Nick Nurse knows that he can put Lowry into whatever lineup he so chooses and Kyle will come through time and time again to hoist the sinking ship. He almost did it against the 76ers and he almost did it against the Spurs, but the stark truth of the matter is that Lowry needs somebody to help him out. Who could it be?
Malachi Flynn, In a Way
Malachi Flynn has not played a meaningful minute of regular season NBA basketball. As a matter of fact, he has played exactly one minute of meaningless regular season NBA basketball at this point in his career. You might be asking yourself “why is he in the Who’s Hot section of this article”. The answer to that question is: lore.
The story around the Raptors losing every game of this season is a simple one — they have not been able to sustain winning basketball, let alone excel and build leads in the minutes that Lowry sits. One of the main tenets of that story is that there is no one to create offense for themselves, or for others. Fred VanVleet, handsomely (and deservingly) paid as he is, is showing himself to be more and more of a shooting guard as opposed to a point guard. Pascal Siakam, handsomely (and deservingly) paid as he is, thrives in a motion offense where he can use his bouncy, ranginess to his extreme advantage. With no true point guard on the floor to facilitate these strengths, the Raptors sink.
And yet, there remains glued to the bench a traditional point guard who could conceivably help to alleviate all of these problems. That known, yet unknown quantity is what propels Flynn to the status of hero without having proving anything at all. Could he be the hero the Raptors so desperately need?
Nick Nurse, Experimenting
Let’s get this out of the way right now — Nick Nurse has well earned the right to tinker with his lineups in order to see what he’s got, who will work where in what situation, so on and so forth. Having said that:
"There's a need for a backup 3/4 and he might take that over." - Nick Nurse on Stanley Johnson— (@AaronBenRose) December 30, 2020
Here’s another thing to get out of the way, Stanley Johnson was bad in his first extended minutes outside of garbage time for the Raptors against the 76ers. In the 11 minutes that he played, Johnson sported an ORtg of 47.8 and a DRtg 90.8. While the 90.8 defensive rating is exceptional, the offensive rating is exceptionally horrid. Yes, Stanley Johnson had an incredible putback dunk and that’s a great situation to use him in, but if that’s his ceiling (and it very likely is), then there is absolutely no way that he should be one of the first players off of the bench, let alone anything outside of a fifth option on the offensive end. Is this Nurse showing players on the bench who traditionally play more minutes than Johnson that their minutes are not safe without the requisite effort and output that is required and expected? With the Knicks coming up next, there is a non-zero chance that Nurse will continue his mad scientist gig — all Raptors fans can do is hope that it’s a little more Malachi and a little less Stanley.
Norman Powell, Lost
Hey, here’s a new and creative way to lose games!
Much like the news about Kyle Lowry being great, Norman Powell being lost and inconsistently good or consistently bad is not new to Raptors fans. Will Powell get it together and string together a handful of games where he looks like he’s turned the corner and everything’s going to be fine? Probably! Will there be a handful of games that makes you wish he didn’t play for the Toronto Raptors anymore? Definitely!
Second through Fourth Quarter Raptors, Progressively Worse
And here is where the journey of this article ends. Perhaps a quick summary is in order: the Raptors start games hot; Kyle Lowry has to rest and things start to slip away; Nurse experiments with non-Lowry lineups that include the likes of Stanley Johnson and DeAndre’ Bembry, but not Malachi Flynn; Norman Powell labours through his minutes regardless of of the situation or who he is paired with; Lowry returns and it’s already too late because the double digit lead the Raptors have built has evaporated in a puff of quarters that include numbers like 0-for-10 from 3 or 28 percent from the field or five fouls in the span of six minutes to end the game (shoutout to Pascal for that incredible feat).
For all of those reasons, the Raptors have blown three games that they absolutely should have won. Whether it’s a lack of communication on defense, the offense stalling out without Lowry, glaring free throw shooting disparities or Nurse’s wacky lineups, the Raptors could have and probably should be 3-0 as opposed to 0-3. The only silver lining? The Raptors have been the worst version of themselves in nine of the 12 quarters of basketball they have played and they were right on the doorstep of victory. That’s got to count for something, if not a win. Right?