Every NBA season is a learning experience. We gather information about players, teams, and the game itself, and take away lasting lessons from this information. As fans of the Toronto Raptors, the lessons that we care about involve the team north of the border. Each week, this column will identify and explain new lessons that we learned about our favourite team from the last week of action.
Here’s our first batch of three lessons for the week:
1. It doesn’t always take Hercules to slay the Nemean Lion
When a win streak hits a certain point, fans will start schedule watching. They’ll start tacking on wins mentally and identifying potential losses. Even though the Raptors were shorthanded, I’ll excuse you if you looked past a game against the Kyrie-less Brooklyn Nets and had already mentally chalked up no. 16 because, well, I had too. In fact, I felt certain that the Raptors would breeze past Phoenix and Indiana on their way to a showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks.
A win streak gives a team an aura of invincibility, one that feels like it can only be penetrated by a worthy opponent playing at the peak of their game. After all, in 300, King Leonidas didn’t fall in an inconsequential battle with a measly foot soldier. He finally went down when he was face to face with Xerxes, and the odds were just too overwhelming. It makes sense that it would take the best to beat the best. Examine precedent in the modern NBA, however, and that is not always the case.
When the Golden State Warriors cruised to 24 straight wins to start the season in 2015, it was the 33-49 Milwaukee Bucks that ended the fun. The 2012-13 Heat lost to a good-not-great Bulls team to end their 27-gamer. This year, the Milwaukee Bucks had an 18-game streak ended by a Dallas Mavericks team that has been far from spectacular since a hot start to the season.
Including the Raptors in that grouping, there are some decent opponents and some below average opponents that brought about the eventual end of the win streak. By no means, however, are any of the opponents close to the caliber of the team they beat. If anything, that should be a testament to the difficulty of such a streak.
No matter what, an 82-game season is a slog. When opponents have the incentive of busting a win streak, the games get increasingly difficult. Typically, a cold-shooting night on the road in February would be excused and thought little about going forward. The stakes of the game and caliber of opponent, however, made this one feel just a little more disappointing.
That being said, this win streak was a considerable amount of fun, and the fact that it continued through yet another wave of injuries was truly an amazing stretch of what had already been an amazing season. So, while it may have felt a tad anti-climactic to watch it dwindle away against a team that the Raptors would comfortably handle in a seven-game series, this run won’t soon be forgotten. As always, fuck Brooklyn.
2. Going small is worth a shot
What was born out of necessity showed potential for long-term results. With Marc Gasol sidelined with a nagging hamstring injury and Serge Ibaka sick (perhaps from only wearing scarves indoors?), the Raptors had no true centre on their active roster for their game this week against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Instead of forcing an overmatched Chris Boucher to battle Karl-Anthony Towns, Nick Nurse put forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the 5 to take on Towns in a battle of the hyphens. As documented wonderfully by Sean Woodley, RHJ was more than up to the task. A prominently featured small ball lineup, however, is like Hailey’s Comet for the Toronto Raptors.
For a coach as creative and experimental as Nurse, playing small is a gambit he resorts to extremely sparingly. You have to get to the Raptors’ 20th most used lineup before neither Ibaka nor Gasol are in it (other than one lineup with Chris Boucher at the 5, which is more a sacrifice of bulk than height). Going small was first popularized by the Golden State Death Lineup which placed Draymond Green at centre and has now been taken to the extreme by the Houston Rockets, who have made a small lineup their default. It would be nice to see the Raptors follow suit and attack teams with a diminutive lineup of their own.
Obviously, Ibaka and Gasol are essential to success and they absolutely should remain on the floor for the bulk of the game. Consider going small, however, the NBA’s version of a trick play in football. An offense entirely of flea flickers would quickly lose its effectiveness but sprinkling one in at just the right time can change the complexion of the game.
For the Toronto Raptors, going small is not just a change of pace, however. They have the personnel that can really do some damage in stretches where the Raptors need a spark. Defensively, the trio of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provide three tough, versatile defenders. They lurk around the floor like wolves, capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes. VanVleet and Lowry play much bigger than their size, allowing them to battle on defense. They turn the ball over on 18 percent of possessions, an elite number that would have them in the 90th percentile in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass. Overall, that lineup has given up 110 points per 100 possessions. An average number, but more than enough to stay afloat with the way in which their offense has eviscerated teams.
Yes, it is absolutely a small sample, but 137.5 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, is a number that makes this lineup worthy of a second look. It mitigates Hollis-Jefferson’s offensive limitations and spreads the floor around him. This group is built for transition as well, with speed, canny passing, and finishing. Rebounding is a concern, but the Raptors are already a poor rebounding team, and each guy is equipped to rebound at a level above their positional designation.
As we close in towards the playoffs, testing out a small ball lineup before April would be, if nothing else, worth trying in search of yet another edge that the Raptors can obtain.
3. Serge Ibaka’s approach will extend his career
Serge Ibaka has developed a reputation of preparation and care for his body off the court. He eats well, and is constantly in the gym, maintaining the strength that would certainly be devastating in a fight if he ever were to land a punch.
It has even rubbed off on his teammates, as Terence Davis credits Serge’s leadership as a reason for his change in approach and abandonment of fast food. Ibaka’s continual skill development, something that is underrated, along with his commitment to fitness will extend the career of a player who many thought was on the decline.
His refusal for complacency is admirable, and small tweaks to his three-point shot have made a significant difference. Since the calendar turned, Ibaka has shot 45 percent from beyond the arc, and has upped his frequency. This was most noticeable in the streak-ender against the Nets, as he took a career-high 10 (!) threes and made half of them. If this uptick in shooting is real, Ibaka will have prepared himself for a productive back end of his career for a player who once relied heavily on his athleticism.