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Three Lessons from the past week of Raptors Basketball

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Two players, OG and Matt Thomas, taught us lessons that will be valuable in the playoffs, and we have learned a great deal about the Eastern Conference hierarchy.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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 the three lessons from this week.

1. OG Anunoby Does Not Get Scared

OG Anunoby has had an up and down season. He can look like the Platonic Ideal of an NBA role player, playing solid defense, hitting threes, and taking open lanes to the rim. On the other hand, he can look lost and virtually disappear offensively. Whatever the reason is for his sporadic offensive struggles, it is certainly not an issue of being overwhelmed by the moment.

Even through his slumps I have remained confident in OG Anunoby’s future because of the mental toughness that he showed in his first trip to the playoffs. Anunoby stared down the King and did not blink. In the franchise altering series where the Cavaliers swept the Raptors for the second consecutive year, Anunoby was by far the best Raptor, relative to expectations. Even as LeBron hit fadeaway after fadeaway with OG in his grill, he stayed tough and battled every possession.

After missing last year’s playoffs due to an emergency appendectomy, he continued this trend. In one of the biggest games of the regular season thus far, the Raptors’ matchup in Toronto against the Milwaukee Bucks, OG was a lone bright spot among the starters. Everything about this game felt like the playoffs. Both teams clearly had jitters and got out to a slow offensive start. The crowd was into the game from the jump. Drake was in attendance, and did this:

My own heart rate even spiked a bit as this one got going. When everything and everyone else seemed elevated, however, Anunoby remained steady. He shot 4-of-8 for 11 points and had four assists, a solid offensive output, particularly in terms of playmaking. Defensively, he was a main reason that Giannis had a rare inefficient scoring game. Had the rest of the team shot closer to par, the Raptors may very well have won that game.

Perhaps, we can attribute this to his absurdly low rating on the “giving a shit” meter.

Anunoby almost never looks phased. His general demeanor is stoic, and he occasionally appears disinterested. This has baited many into a Kawhi comparison, but it has become clear that there is something much more mischievous under his blank expression. He was in control of his emotions the entire time he needled Ibaka about fashion. His shenanigans occasionally leak into the games:

Anunoby is never on the receiving end of agitation, and that shows that he does not get too worked up or overwhelmed. Instead, he takes enjoyment out of upsetting the balance of things for others, be that Serge Ibaka or opposing teams. That is an effective mindset to have for showing up in big games. Things that can make others anxious simply don’t have that effect on Anunoby.

That is not to say that he does not care. You cannot do this if you are not completely locked in and dedicated:

As an aside, it’s probably good for my health that Fred didn’t hit that shot. My heart may have exploded from sheer excitement.

Anyways, Anunoby just maintains a higher level of poise than many when things get increasingly tense. This game was a positive sign for OG as he prepares for his second crack at the playoffs.

2. Don’t Sleep on Garbage Time

Garbage time rarely supplies relevant information for the playoffs. Against the Indiana Pacers, however, the Toronto Raptors built a healthy enough lead so that Kyle Lowry was the only starter to even see the floor in the fourth quarter. This created an extended garbage time. Let’s call it landfill time.

In landfill time, Matt Thomas took over. The only way to earn real minutes with Nick Nurse is to perform in games, unless you’re Patrick McCaw, of course. In that case, the only criterion is existence. Evidently, Thomas’ five threes and 17 total points in landfill time against the Pacers were enough to get him on the floor in tight game against the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks.

His performance in that game was enough to warrant some run in the playoffs. He hit three 3-pointers in the second quarter and was instrumental in building the early lead that the Raptors had all but squandered by halftime. Thomas’ contributions extended beyond shot making though.

He changed the geometry of the floor in ways that few Raptors have this season, and ever, really. Against a swarming Bucks defense, the court can look cramped, with few windows to exploit. Well, call Matt Thomas the Plunger, because he unclogged the floor for the Toronto Raptors. When he got hot, the Bucks were scrambling to track his every movement, and an active, high IQ team like the Raptors is built to take advantage of that. Look at how easily Boucher slips through the defense to the rim.

The defense is so concerned with a red-hot Thomas, that they leave the entire middle of the floor unoccupied for Boucher to waltz on through.

Shooting this elite belongs in the playoffs and stretches like Thomas had against the Bucks could swing a playoff series. I had written off Thomas as part of the playoff rotation, but this week has made me recalibrate my expectations. This type of impact on offense is invaluable for a Raptors team that can get bogged down against elite defenses.

Obviously, the biggest question is his defense. In the small sample of the Bucks game, Thomas was +12, the highest on the Raptors from that game, so obviously he didn’t torpedo the team defense. His on/off stats show a positive correlation between Thomas’ presence and the team’s defense, as the team is 2.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him according to Cleaning the Glass. No statistic is overwhelmingly incriminating for Thomas. As far as the eye test goes, he has yet to make me demand his removal from the floor to Nick Nurse through my TV because of defense. That’s something.

If Thomas continues to get time in the season’s stretch run and performs, he will be given a chance in the playoffs. He could be a postseason X-factor for the Toronto Raptors, and his performance in garbage time could be the start of that story.

3. The East is Spreading Out

As far as likely playoff teams in the East went, it appeared for a while that there were three tiers. Milwaukee clearly has been in a class of their own. Following the Bucks, fans of Toronto, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, and even Indiana could have talked themselves into their team as the second best in the conference. Rounding out the eight is the “I guess we’ll go check out the playoffs if no one else wants to” tier, occupied by Brooklyn and Orlando.

We are beginning to learn, however, that the mess of five teams in the second tier can be separated into two, or even three tiers. None of the teams have leapt to the level of Milwaukee, and they have not sunk to the point where one can group them with Brooklyn and Orlando, but it is now clearly a misdiagnosis to deem them a lump of equivalent teams.

Aided by that 15-game win streak, the Raptors, as we all know, are in control of the two-seed of the Eastern Conference. Boston is still very much in that race, however, and Jayson Tatum’s star turn has raised their ceiling and made the Celtics a scary playoff opponent.

Where Boston and Toronto have surged, Philly, Miami, and Indiana have floundered. Since they acquired Iguodala, the Heat have plummeted, losing seven of their last nine. Five of those losses have come against sub-.500 competition, a troubling sign for a team with title aspirations. Iguodala is likely still shaking off some rust that is inevitable after a 6-month sabbatical, and Jimmy Butler has been in and out of the lineup, but they have been healthy enough for this performance to be alarming.

Philadelphia is an enigma. They are extremely talented, and the team I picked at the start of the year to come out of the East, but they have only shown their ceiling in glimpses, and are far from consistent. They are in the midst of injuries to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but even without the injuries, Philadelphia has done little to earn the contender billing that they were granted at the start of the year. Instead, their year has been characterized by underachieving, infighting, and a general weirdness hanging over the team.

Teams that have had such a strange season do not just turn it around come playoff time, especially if they do not have a track record that gives them the benefit of the doubt.

Finally, Indiana has struggled to acclimate Victor Oladipo back onto their team after an extended absence from injury. A six-game losing streak showed the problems that came with the dismantling of their established pecking order, and though they have bounced back, the 46-point drubbing this week at the hands of the Raptors looms large.

After being locked in the standing, the Celtics, sitting in third, are five games ahead of the Heat, the next closest team. The Raptors and Celtics have clearly separated themselves and should be talked about as being in a higher tier than the other three, and that has solidified this week.