The Raptors may have themselves another out-of-nowhere candidate for a major NBA award.
The story that captivated much of the NBA last season was Pascal Siakam’s meteoric rise to the league’s Most Improved Player — a rapid ascent for a young teen who only learned to play the game in 2011. While Spicy P’s narrative has been a joy to follow, 2011 was also the beginning of something special for Nick Nurse, when he led the Iowa Energy to the D-League championship.
Two years later, David Pendergraft (former Raptors Scout) informed Dwane Casey (former Raptors Head Coach) about the coaching prowess of Nurse (former no-name Coach). Casey cold-called Nurse while Nick was game-planning for another D-League Finals game, this time as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers head coach. Shortly after, Nurse would coach his second D-League championship before taking a seat on Casey’s bench.
With Toronto ranking in the top-5 in defensive rating in both of Nurse’s first two seasons at the helm, it’s easy to forget that Nick was hired to handle the Raptors’ offense. Before Nurse’s hiring, the Raptors had the 13th ranked offense in 2012-13. After his hiring, Toronto’s offensive ranks before this season — 10th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 2nd, 5th — would indicate he was definitely what the doctor ordered (sorry)!
With the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and without any major signings to replace them, no one would fault the Raptors for falling swiftly from the upper echelon. Throw in a slew of injuries to major players at various times throughout the first 50 games, and it’s mind-boggling how Nurse has kept this team performing at elite levels. Shifting the team’s focus to defense seemed the appropriate route in defending the championship. The Raptors are currently second and continuing to find different ways of shutting down other teams’ first option.
Where full credit continues to be warranted is on the offensive end. Replacing Kawhi’s all-world offense and Danny’s outside shooting should have been a death knell for this team. At a glance, most would agree, seeing the Raptors at 14th in offensive rating. However, a closer look at tells a different story.
After 739 games with only 491 left to play:— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) February 3, 2020
Bucks still have the #1 defense by a wide margin. Maybe they'll come down to the 104 D-Rating mark. Then again, maybe not.
Raptors through 50 games last year: 36-14, +5.0 net
Raptors through 50 games this year: 36-14, +6.7 net pic.twitter.com/vEwRXsMIPQ
In the bottom-right corner, you’ll notice the Raptors are 4th in offensive rating over their last 15 games. That’s around the time when the team got Norm Powell, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol back from injuries.
Yes, the team has been feasting on the soft schedule, but that’s what good teams are supposed to do. Toronto’s championship experience has led them to a 29-2 record against teams with sub-.500 records.
Masai Ujiri has shown the ability to make the right moves to improve the team. With the trade deadline approaching on Thursday, I still think he stands pat. Toronto has played a grand total of THREE games where their core eight have all played in the same game.
The best move Ujiri can make is to let his coach continue working his magic with whoever’s healthy. Nick Nurse has come a long way since those two D-League titles. With his success rate, a second NBA title may not seem so far-fetched.
February 5 vs. Indiana Pacers
February 7 @ Indiana Pacers
The Raptors will look to break a franchise record on Wednesday and win their 12th straight game. Standing in their way is an Indiana team that, so far, has made the biggest acquisition of the trade season — the return of Victor Oladipo.
In the first matchup, Indiana came out on top, despite missing Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon. To be fair, the Raptors were missing Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norm Powell. Toronto was on the back-end of a back-to-back after staging the largest comeback in franchise history against Dallas.
This time around, the Pacers have a fully healthy squad (assuming T.J. Warren doesn’t miss any extended time with the concussion he suffered on Saturday), while the Raptors will likely be without Gasol and Powell....again!
Getting back Oladipo is obviously a welcome sight to Pacers fans. However, as Raptors fans have seen firsthand with Siakam and Lowry, returning from injury takes time to get back into “court shape”. Over his first two games since returning from injury, Oladipo has shot 4-of-22, and 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. Indiana needed overtime to get by Chicago and lost at home to the Knicks, only scoring 85 points.
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
With Domantis Sabonis earning his first All-Star selection, many are reminded of the trade with Oklahoma City that brought him and Oladipo to Indiana, in exchange for Paul George. What some forget is that wasn’t the first time the pair were traded together. Sabonis (as the 11th pick of the 2016 draft) and Oladipo (along with Ersan Ilyasova) were traded together on the same night Domas was drafted, to OKC... for Serge Ibaka.
Remember that early season scheduling quirk where the Raptors played the Magic three times in a month? The NBA has out-done itself this time by scheduling Toronto and Indiana to match up three times over the Raptors’ next seven games! Over the last four seasons, the Raptors have had four home-and-home mini-series. In all four instances, the Raptors came away with a road victory (and only two home victories). The most recent example being the Christmas Day loss to the Celtics, followed by the impressive road win in Boston.
However, Toronto also has an 11-game home win streak against Indiana. Many will probably predict a split — and they’re probably right — but not here. Raptors break the franchise’s win streak record, beating the Pacers, 111-107. Toronto then extends the streak to lucky number 13, upending the Pacers, 115-112.
February 8 vs. Brooklyn Nets
Kyrie Irving missed the first two matchups with the Raptors due to a shoulder injury. Now it appears he’ll miss the final two matchups (these teams play again on February 12) with a knee sprain. This doesn’t bode well for a Brooklyn team that has struggled on the road. They’ve lost seven of their last eight, including losses in Washington and New York.
When the teams matched up on December 14, Norm Powell stepped in for an injured Fred VanVleet, scoring 25 points and draining 5 threes, en route to a Raps home win. A couple weeks later, it was Serge Ibaka stepping in for an injured Marc Gasol, scoring 21 points and grabbing 12 boards, as Toronto came away with a blowout win in Brooklyn.
Despite not having Kevin Durant for the season and Irving missing 60% of games, the Nets still play in the East. They have a below average offense (18th in points per game), below average defense (19th in points allowed per game), and projected to finish (by Basketball Reference and FiveThirtyEight) with a 35-47 record... and the eighth-seed. Insert shrug emoji.
Fun Fact That May Only Interest Me
James Harden is known to have the odd game where his shot doesn’t fall from three. He owns four of the five instances this season where a player hit two or fewer threes, while attempting 14 or more threes. Why is that relevant in a Nets space? The other instance where that occurred was when the Raps last faced the Nets. Garrett Temple shot 2-of-14 from beyond the arc. With Irving out again, Brooklyn would probably need
two a handful s of those to fall.
Throughout the Raptors reign of dominance, I’ve particularly found joy in watching the team excel at home whenever an Atlantic Division foe visits. The Brooklyn Nets are no different. Long gone are the days of Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, and Paul Pierce. Still here, apparently, are the F*ck Brooklyn days. Toronto winning 17 of the last 18 meetings is the closest thing to one team calling another team its daddy. The Raptors roll into the final week before All-Star break by defeating the Nets, 115-102.