We don’t have to sugarcoat it: the Raptors of the past week have been straight up limping. Given that this is supposed to be a weekly summary, we’ll drop off the Bucks game, which was a tough loss but not unexpected — Milwaukee is the best team in the league after all and the Raptors are still banged up. But the rest of the games were tough to watch too. Even last night’s win in Phoenix required Toronto to rally from 17 down to beat the 24-38 Suns. They handled business, yes, but only just barely.
This week’s Temperature check then is not exactly a joyous experience. The Raptors went 1-2 on the week and are still down three massively important rotation pieces. Their hold on the second seed, which felt very solid after their 15-game win streak, is now tenuous. And that’s not because the Raps suddenly forgotten how to play well or together, but purely because they’re running out of healthy bodies to play.
Still, we carry on. Let’s check in with who’s hot and not for the past week of Raptors basketball.
This Very Much Is The New Norm
Since coming back from an injured finger, Norman Powell has put up lines of 22, 24, and 26 points. Now, if we were to step back and look at the Raptors roster as it is right now, those totals would make some sense — someone has to score for this injured squad. What’s telling here, however, is not that Norm is gunning for points, it’s that he’s doing it under control; in fact, he’s been downright smart about how and when he scores for Toronto.
This is no small thing. For almost the entirety of his career the knock on Norm has been that he plays with reckless abandon. From time to time that’s meant a huge offensive explosion; but it’s also led to some disastrous games from Powell. What’s happening now is considerably different. Powell is shooting well from the field (49 percent over the last three games) and also picking his spots carefully. That doesn’t mean he’s not ferociously attacking the basket anymore, it just means he’s doing it now with a Plan A, B, and C in mind — and it’s working quite well for Toronto.
Chris Boucher, From Outta Nowhere
I don’t necessarily want to toot Boucher’s horn too much this week. He was mostly missing in action against Charlotte and Denver despite getting a chance to prove he can fill the shoes of the absent Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. But after a call-out from Nick Nurse — who was, it should be said, directing his ire at the entire underperforming bench — Boucher responded with what may have been his best game of the season in Phoenix.
In almost 29 minutes, Boucher put up 19 points, grabbed 15 boards, and chipped in two steals and a block. He also shot 5-of-12 from the field, including 2-of-5 from deep — with one of those threes coming late to essentially seal the game for Toronto. Look, the book on Boucher is out there. Teams can goad him into threes and gamble that he’ll miss them (often a safe bet); they can push him around on the block and gamble that he won’t be able to jump over other rebounders (a 50-50 proposition sometimes); and of course, players can try their best to intimidate him with veteran know-how and learned toughness (absolutely impossible). Credit to Boucher, though, for staying immune to all that and just going out there and doing what he can. The Raps definitely need that spirit right now.
That Soldiering Mood
Speaking of spirit, let’s save a little space here for the continued fight of the Raptors. Whether it by Kyle Lowry keeping his emotional fire way up, or OG Anunoby calmly grabbing steal after to steal (even after victory has trickled away), or Pascal Siakam navigating the ups and downs of NBA stardom (more on that in a second), or even the entire bench corps hooting and hollering along, the Raptors are still playing with heart.
It’s perhaps a small comfort. It would be better to have a healthy 15-man squad for the entire regular season so as to really and truly defend the 2019 NBA title. But it’s sometimes extremely energizing to watch this rag-tag bunch come together. It doesn’t always work (that almost comeback in Denver, for example, was a bit demoralizing) but when it does: pure magic.
Siakam’s Superstar Path
It’s been said before and elsewhere that progress is not linear. We can find a million different examples of this — the zig-zagging line of history, the rising and falling of systems all over the world, and, yes, in the career’s of professional basketball players too. That’s what we have to keep in mind with Pascal Siakam.
We grade Siakam on a tougher curve these days because, well, he’s attempting to reach the highest level in the NBA — the everyday superstar, the guy who can will his team to vistory every night, the player who can be counted on to do whatever’s needed to get it done. It’s cliche, but it also applies here. Siakam has been good enough for Toronto over the past week — he’s scoring, he’s grabbing boards, he’s defending, he’s trying to make plays, etc. If he was playing behind someone else more obviously physically talented (say, Kawhi), this would all be fine and dandy. But he’s not, so here we are.
As a result of the situation, Siakam’s faults over the past week — his slowness with passing reads, his over-reliance on 3s, his sometimes questionable attacks at the rim — have come to the fore. This is not the worst thing, it just highlights what Siakam has to work on next. And look at that, against Phoenix, in 43 minutes, Pascal bounced back. He did what was needed to win. It’s already happening.
Keep Cool Kyle!
Meanwhile, at the other end of the curve is Kyle Lowry. There’s not much progress, so to speak, to make with Lowry — he is what he is, and that’s why we love him in Toronto. It’s also what makes the team’s struggles tough to watch, because we know Lowry is not going to quit. Even when bodies are dropping on a seemingly nightly basis, Lowry is out there with a vengeance. Unfortunately for Lowry, and the Raptors, there’s still a balance that needs to be maintained here — and his go-go energy is starting to burn him out.
Ever since Lowry’s poor performance against Milwaukee (the nadir of which being the attempted dive under George Hill), Lowry has been looking more ragged than usual. His shooting from deep has taken a bit of a dive, he’s getting more distracted by beefs with the officials, and he’s playing with a frenzy that can sometimes undo the team. Down the stretch against Charlotte he almost got the Raps the win (after a weirdly out-of-sync game from the squad) but then was bodied in Denver by the Nuggets’ younger, bouncier squad. Like Siakam, Lowry’s play against Phoenix symbolized something of a return to form — controlling tempo, organizing his teammates, and striking at the right time. (His step-back three late was a thing of beauty.) And like Siakam, we grade Lowry on a different curve. I’m not worried about him per se. I’m just waiting for him to be back at a consistent high level.
Not Having Any Guys
Of course, Siakam and Lowry would both be at said consistent high level if they were playing with their full complement of teammates. Both players can only do so much when they’re swinging the ball to, say, Patrick McCaw, open in the corner, only for him to pass it back, or watching Rondae Hollis-Jefferson attack Bismack Biyombo in the post. For as much love as we give to rookies Terence Davis and Matt Thomas, they’re also still going through the growing pains of any inherent new job — and the NBA offers only the steepest of learning curves. Credit to coach Nick Nurse for being able to search for a solution on any given night as the injuries keep coming, but it has to be exhausting for all involved.
I’ve said this before, but that’s been the funny part of this Raptors season. On the one hand, it has been downright thrilling to watch this Toronto squad overcome adversity — more talented teams, injuries, entire league-wide narratives — to win games. We can rhyme off the signature wins, remember the streak, and say without a doubt that this year has been fun and exciting to watch. On the other hand, hoo boy, it’s just been one thing after another. Maybe VanVleet and Ibaka come back tomorrow, maybe Gasol is just around the corner, maybe — god forbid — someone else will get hurt. Last night in Phoenix, Lowry had to be helped to the back after taking a shot to the face. The collective reaction: another one? It’s been that kind of season.