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Toronto Temperature: The Raptors are winners in the Bubble

A strong 3-1 week with one tiny shellacking from the Celtics. Could be worse! Let’s take the Temperature.

Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

What does change look like? This week we had sports journalists making a collective effort to boost Kyle Lowry’s reasoning for wearing Education Reform on the back of his jersey. We also had a shocking (see: not shocking) study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission find that Black people are more likely to be arrested, charged shot and killed by police officers in Toronto.

These stories need to continue to be the centre of the conversation whether we’re talking about sports or not and if we’re going to have meaningful change for Black people. Have these conversations with your friends and family members, especially if you think they might not like to hear it.

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It’s official, we’re back to meaningless NBA basketball! The playoff seeding is set and Toronto will be squaring off against a Brooklyn Nets team that is scrappy, yes, but also resembles a G League roster. Where does that leave the Raptors? Firmly entrenched in the dog days of Bubble basketball in Orlando! Rest for starters. Garbage time minutes for Stanley Johnson midrange chucks. All the fun stuff!

While Toronto went 3-1 over the course of the four game week, that one teeny, tiny loss was a jarring, blast to the past type of loss that Raptors fans have not seen in quite a long time. It’s a loss that I think is best left in the annals of whatever think-piece or oral history article that will be penned a decade from now about this very weird NBA season/year.

Let’s check the temperature.

Who’s Hot

Fred VanVleet, 2021 Defensive Player of the Year

Here’s a video from Webster’s dictionary when you search for the word “focus”.

Fred VanVleet is not playing around with the rest of the NBA right now. Every night, Fred steps foot on the court with the sole mission of winning a basketball game by any means necessary and those means take form in deep transition threes, crafty layups that have vastly improved and lock-down defense. And it’s that lock-down defense that has Fred at the top of this section, because not only is he locking down the player he’s guarding, VanVleet is locking down the entire air space in front of and around that player.

Do you know who this looks like? A 6’1” version of Giannis Antetokounmpo who will likely win Defensive Player of the Year. VanVleet guards his man perfectly, drops back into coverage, switches and makes up for his teammates mistake all to finish the play with the steal. What are you supposed to do if you’re the Grizzlies here? The answer of course is play on the other side of the court away from Fred Van — oh wait, Siakam and OG are patrolling the other side of the court? Never mind.

Serge Ibaka, Doing Art

All right, Serge has been having a bit of a time trying to find his way in this Bubble restart, but Ma Fuzzy Chef fully hit his stride when he sat out against the Bucks and rocked this:

Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks
Serge Ibaka in full flex mode
Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Now that Serge has got a true fit off in the Bubble, I’m willing to bet that we’re going to see a return of contract-year Serge.

Might Be Hot

Norman Powell, Heating Up

Remember when Norm Powell flipped the switch to consistent, reliable Norm this season? Well, Powell was giving fans reasons to forget that that Norm existed at the start of the NBA Bubble restart, but you know what? The man hadn’t played competitive basketball in four months! It’s reasonable to give players time to rediscover their groove and it looks as if Powell might just be starting to find it.

Over the the four game stretch this week, Norm averaged 15.5 points on 42 percent shooting from 3 while, importantly for him, keeping his turnovers down to a moderate, one turnover per game. That turnover number means Powell has been getting back to working in the flow of the offense, while hitting the open shots that are coming his way. Slowly but surely, Norm is returning to form.

The Bench, Glimpses of Heat

Could this be it? Could the game against the Bucks’ fully healthy lineup except for one small linchpin of a player be the game that sees the revitalization of the sometimes dominant bench squad that Raptors fans have grown accustomed to?

Mixed into Boucher’s soul-snatching dunk was a complete 25/11/2/2/2 on 60 percent shooting career high performance that, again, was not against Bucks’ scrubs. Throw in a dash of another career night from Matt Thomas who went on to drop 22 points and a team-high +13 and we might be on the brink of big turnaround from the bench. As long as Thomas isn’t giving up semi-open threes for wide open Ronade Hollis-Jefferson threes, of course.

Who’s Not

The Haters, Raptors Perfection

In the vein of tweets that didn’t age too well, this one has got to be up there. The NBA media at large were gleefully reporting that the Phoenix Suns were the only unbeaten team in the Bubble when the Toronto Raptors were, you know, also undefeated. The Toronto social media team dropped this absolute banger of a tweet and then the team proceeded to get absolutely waxed by the Boston Celtics. They were beaten so badly that both teams head coaches were writing the game off as an outlier that therefore featured junk-data and oh man, Nick Nurse is a genius. He threw the game, didn’t he?