Hands up, those of you who cued up the GTA San Andreas meme with about two minutes left in the third quarter yesterday afternoon?
I can’t blame you. We’ve been through it, too many times, with the Toronto Raptors in their opening round playoff Game 1s.
But this Raptors team has shown all season long that they’re a very different Raptors team, and here we sit, with a very different Game 1 result.
Before we hit the thoughts, a reminder that Canada has a pretty awful track record when it comes to our relationship with our indigenous communities. That history has led to systemic oppression and inequality that unfairly targets native people to this very day. It’s a sad and shameful stain on our nation. But we can still work towards a better future. Check out the Downie-Wenjack Fund to learn more and see what you can do to help.
On to the thoughts:
1. Ah Yes, the Defense
The Raptors defense was everywhere all game today, as you’d expect. I’ll admit a little bit of surprise in the matchups; I fully expected OG Anunoby to get the assignment on Caris LeVert, but instead it was Fred VanVleet who got the LeVert task. Anunoby did pick up LeVert more in the second quarter, and of course, it’s never just a one-on-one effort when it comes to these Raptors; on most Nets possessions where LeVert handled the ball, the Raptors funnelled him into help. (LeVert did an excellent job passing out of it, too, notching 15 assists.)
Ultimately, regardless of who’s guarding who, when the Raptors are on, they’re beautiful to watch. Like this play:
Yeah, the Nets scored, and they moved the ball exceptionally well. But just look at how the Raptors are moving. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby both guard multiple players in those 12 seconds! And if you want an example of the same when the Nets didn’t score, well, you need only look two plays later:
We often hear that the Raptors want to make opposing players, especially shooters, feel uncomfortable. How many times does a Nets player get the ball without even thinking about shooting here? And this is one of the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the NBA. The Raptors make their opponents think differently about their shot selection. And it’s awesome.
2. Oh No, the Third Quarter
It’s easy to say the Raptors took their foot (feet?) off the gas in the third. They did, to an extent; they weren’t as aggressive in trapping and hedging on Caris LeVert as he came around screens, and I think they were a bit slower in some of their rotations. They only forced one turnover in the third (while committing five).
I think you can also point to their offense leaving them with a bit of a disadvantage on the other end, too.
The Raps didn’t work as well to generate good looks, with very little going to the hoop (just six paint attempts), and several somewhat lazy three-point attempts. This led to Brooklyn transition opportunities... and more makes... which limited Toronto’s own running chances... and slowed them down...
And that’s pretty much the playbook against the Raptors. Take care of the ball. Force the Raptors to slow it down. Generate as many easy looks in transition as possible. Get back on D.
I don’t think the Nets have the personnel to threaten the Raptors with that game plan, especially on the every-other-day schedule. They’re not deep enough. But it remains a concern in the later rounds.
3. Welcome Back, Serge
Serge Ibaka had his best game since the Raptors were playing Bubble scrimmages, and it was certainly welcome to see. He looked engaged on offense, his timing with Kyle Lowry in the pick-and-roll seems to have been restored, and his three-point shooting looks back on track. He finished with 22 points on 14 shots (2-for-4 from downtown) and seven rebounds in 25 minutes.
Unfortunately, he’s still not fully locked in on defense. He gave up multiple blow-bys from the perimeter, and not just when switched on to smaller, quicker players; Jarret Allen got him twice, including this vicious dunk in the fourth quarter.
He also got beat down the floor in transition by Donta Hall in the second, and back-pedalled himself under the hoop on a Garrett Temple floater in the third.
So, still plenty of room for improvement there; let’s hope Serge uses this series to round fully back into form before facing the tougher tests still to come.
4. More OG, Please
I know the Raptors starting five is loaded but I do wish there was a little more room for OG Anunoby to make things happen. Yes, he’s out there mainly for his defense, and he rarely disappoints on that front, but his offensive game is improving, especailly his handle, and his three-point shooting remains an asset.
Here, he knocks down an easy one after an impressive Serge Ibaka pass:
Then, his highlight of the night, this offensive rebound, into a spin and an and-one dunk:
Perhaps the Nets aren’t the best barometer. But against future opponents, who will likely lock in on Siakam, Lowry and VanVleet more effectively, OG should have more opportunities to contribute on the offensive end.
5. The Raptors Continue to Do It The Right Way
Early yesterday, the Raptors showed a video of their Bubble personnel, including Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster, redecorating the team hotel with new playoff posters and banners:
Pre-game, they had Jessie Reyez deliver the Canadian National anthem from atop the CN Tower, on one knee:
Also pre-game, the Raptors had the players’ families introduce the starting line-up (shoutout to the Phoenix Suns):
Post-game, Sportsnet’s Danielle Michaud revealed the “Expect to Win” bracelets the coaching staff is wearing:
Here are the ‘Expect To Win’ bracelets I mentioned on the broadcast. Nick Nurse gave them to his coaching staff day one. The ‘ASO’ stands for August, September, October. Big Championship energy #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/1kVmlPt3J2— Danielle Michaud (@SNMichaud) August 17, 2020
This is not to suggest the Raptors are a perfect organization. They are not. But they’ve approached this Bubble season with the right mindset. I don’t know that there’s any concrete evidence to suggest it translates to how the team plays on the floor, but the little things, they add up, right? It has to make the players feel good, and feel confident, to be a part of this team.
Five thoughts later and we didn’t even mention the scorching-hot Fred VanVleet (8-for-10 from downtown) or the masterful Kyle Lowry, who controlled the game with his usual smarts and hustle plays (three charges drawn). I’d say that’s a pretty good start to the 2020 Playoffs!