Things looked a little drastic early, didn’t they? The Raptors opened yesterday’s matchup with the
Vancouver Memphis Grizzlies by shooting 1-for-9, including 0-for-6 from three-point range, in the first six minutes, finding themselves in an 11-4 hole. Thankfully, they broke out of that funk by the second quarter and although the Grizzlies fought to the end, the Raptors looked more like themselves for the bulk of the afternoon.
Before we get to the thoughts, let’s reflect for a moment on why Kyle Lowry chose to put “education reform” on the back of his jersey. When this was announced as one of the NBA’s chosen few jersey messages, I feel like there were some eye-rolls, and maybe it doesn’t feel as immediate right now as Black Lives Matter, but it’s an important message nonetheless. Public education systems in North America teach a very Euro-centric, white-washed version of history, for one thing, and for another, many public schools — including those in Ontario — are awash in forms of discrimination and segregation that unfairly target BIPOC students. If we are to eliminate systemic racism in our society, education is one of the very first things that needs reformation.
Let’s get to the thoughts:
1. Clutch Siakam
Pascal Siakam’s had a bit of a rough go to start the Bubble, but it seems that there’s one at least one area where you can still count on him: He’ll come through in the clutch. He was huge down the stretch against the Lakers last weekend, and he was huge again last night, draining back-to-back threes when the Raptors were in desperate need of buckets late in the fourth.
Now these aren’t necessarily the buckets you want Siakam attempting; the first was a slightly awkward-looking stepback out of a pick-and-roll with Kyle Lowry that fizzled, and the second was a late-clock attempt after a Fred VanVleet drive went nowhere. Still: I respect that Siakam has the confidence to take those shots, a confidence he didn’t have even last season (and on the second, at least, his feet were set and his shoulders fully square). And he’s improved his three point shooting to the point where you can’t call them bad shots at all. I’d still like to see him scoring more going to the hoop, but his repertoire has expanded so much that he really can score from just about anywhere at this point.
Overall yesterday was probably Siakam’s best game of the Bubble (26 points on 16 shots). He’s still not quite right, as his one rebound and four turnovers will attest, but hopefully the shooting performance gives him some confidence going forward.
2. Fred VanVleet, Everywhere
I’ve come to think of Fred VanVleet as a guy who picks up a lot of little nagging injuries. He’s always nursing something, it seems, an ankle, a thumb, a hip, even if it doesn’t take him out of games.
So, it’s possible that here in the Bubble, we’re getting a rare glimpse of a fully healthy Fred VanVleet. That’s the only way I can explain how this dude is in six freaking places at all once on the defensive end.
I mean, what devilry is this:
Watch Fred VanVleet's activity on defense on this possession. Guards Morant, ball pressure and doesn't get screened. Switches onto Clarke. Goes to switch on to Allen but miscommunication and Powell came too. Hustles back to recover to Clarke and gets the steal. pic.twitter.com/g4vgN57d1B— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) August 9, 2020
If that’s not enough, how about another game-sealing steal, VanVleet’s second in five games:
VanVleet is averaging 4.6 deflections per game in the Bubble, up from 4.2 before the hiatus. He’s playing like he’s got a 10-foot wingspan out there!
The Raptors had 26 turnovers yesterday. 26! They’re now dead last in the Bubble in turnovers per game, at an insane 19.6.
Pre-Bubble, the Raptors were 13th in the league, at 14.4. Five more turnovers per game? That’s gotta change.
My wife brought up a point that I thought was interesting. She suggested that, playing in Florida in the summer, the heat and humidity may be affecting the players’ grip on the ball; if they’re sweating more, their hands, and the ball, may be slicker. Could be! Alternatively, the high humidity might actually make the ball and even the floor stickier, which would affect grip as well as the way the ball bounces. But that would be affecting everyone, right, not just the Raptors?
Pre-Bubble the teams that turned the ball over the least were the Spurs, Magic and Mavericks, all under 13 turnovers per game. The Spurs and Magic are both over 14 TOs per game now, but the Mavericks are down to 10. In fact the Nets, Blazers, Suns, Clippers and Pacers are also averaging far fewer turnovers now than before the hiatus.
So this isn’t a league problem, it’s a Raptors problem, and one they’d best clean up if they want to have a deep playoff run.
4. The Perfect Matt Thomas Shot
With the Raptors struggling from three-point range in the first quarter yesterday, Nick Nurse put the call out for Matt Thomas to start the second quarter. The Raptors immediately ran a play for him to get him an open look and he canned it.
It’s a fairly simple play; Thomas runs off Norman Powell on the right side, and as Powell takes a dribble-handoff from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka each screen for Thomas as he runs through the lane and out to the left wing. De’Anthony Melton has to navigate through three Raptors (plus his own teammates) and eventually gets hung up enough for Thomas to get a good look, and Powell delivers the ball perfectly.
Thomas played 10 minutes yesterday and got up three three-point attempts, hitting two. I think that’s exactly the right role for him: 10-12 minutes, with a couple of specific plays designed to get him open looks. (Even if Thomas doesn’t get the shots, the defense has to tilt in his direction, which should open things up for others.)
I know Nick doesn’t trust Thomas totally on defense, and that’s fair enough, but with Patrick McCaw out, and Terence Davis struggling, getting some solid minutes from Thomas is critical.
5. Pour One Out for JV
Man, do I feel bad for Jonas Valanciunas following that game. Poor JV didn’t get a championship ring, didn’t get any sort of Toronto homecoming, and now, in his first and only game against his former team... he didn’t even score a single point? Poor dude only got up two shots, and he missed both his free throw attempts too. And he somehow turned the ball over four times?
Obviously, much of the credit here has to go to Marc Gasol, who once again impacted the game without having a huge impact on the box score (although his 10 points and six boards in 22.5 minutes were solid). Gasol shadowed JV brilliantly, never letting him get comfortable, and Serge Ibaka bodied him up nicely in his minutes too. That said, I don’t think Memphis ran as many pick-and-rolls with Valanciunas as I thought they would, and I don’t think they looked to him in the post even once.
One the one hand, I’m glad Valanciunas didn’t impact the game, because I wanted a Raptors win. On the other, I’m still a big fan of Jonas, and it was a bummer to see him put up the goose egg. I hope we get to cheer him on in Toronto in the not-too-distant future.
The Raptors came in to the Bubble staring down an incredibly difficult schedule. Thanks to their impressive 4-1 start, the rest of that schedule, though as it is, doesn’t matter one bit. They’re fully locked in to the two-seed, and thanks to Brooklyn’s win yesterday, we know we’ve got a Raptors-Nets first round matchup coming our way. (Finally a chance to avenge those previous two playoff losses!) These final three games will be all about getting the bench players back into rhythm, staying healthy, and cleaning up a few things — like turnovers.