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3 Lessons: On Matt and Leo, hustle woes, and Lowry’s impact

The Raptors ended 2021 on a high note, but there is still much to improve upon after a 1-3 start to the season. Here’s what we’ve learned from the team so far.

New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors have added themselves to the countless factions that will be thrilled to see 2020 come to an end. No, the losses aren’t erased as soon as the calendar flips from December to January, but the symbolic nature of a new beginning can bring about an important perspective shift for a Raptors team that has some mental hurdles to clear. It is an opportunity for Nick Nurse to incessantly spew coaching clichés about leaving the past behind them and instead looking forward, and the fact that the planet has — in what feels somewhat miraculous given the state of the world — completed yet another rotation gives the players reason to actually buy in and move on from this disastrous start.

Although Toronto finally got a win against the New York Knicks last night, one win over an overmatched, albeit plucky team did little to ease our concerns. The Raptors are still looking to move on to 2021 and hope it brings better fortune.

We cannot leave the year behind, however, without taking with us the lessons learned from this past week. We will begin with a little bit of fun from the voices of the Raptors:

1) The Raptors broadcast team simply does not respect the Sixers

On Tuesday night, the Raptors broadcast team of Matt Devlin and Leo Rautins were just like us for a night, in that they showed little respect for the Philadelphia 76ers as a basketball team, taking immense pleasure in reliving all of Philly’s misfortunes that have come at the hands of the Raptors.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Raptors-Sixers game if The Shot wasn’t countlessly brought up. Though the pain of it has dulled by now, hearing about it over and over remains annoying for Philadelphians, like a mosquito buzzing in your ear, moving just enough to dodge the attempts to swat it. It goes beyond that though, Matt and Leo enjoyed discussing the low moments of the 76ers more than they enjoy subtly referencing their nights out drinking.

Leo started the Philly hate-fest by chuckling as he claimed that Marc Gasol was the monster that Joel Embiid checks for under his bed. Devlin soon joined the party by reliving the Sixers’ embarrassing series defeat against the Celtics in the Bubble, during which the character of the team was certainly questioned by Devlin. Constant quips about Philly’s fit, mental toughness, and overall winning capabilities continued throughout the evening.

It is particularly of note because the broadcast team is typically quite complimentary of quality opponents. Personally, I appreciate a dash of homerism in the broadcast, and if that comes in the form of trashing Philly, all the better. The Sixers did have the most recent laugh, but until something major happens, we will have the more resounding, lasting laugh.

2) The Raptors are rediscovering their hustle

While a lot of the problems that are plaguing the Raptors this season have carried over from last season — defensive rebounding, half-court scoring, and crunch-time scoring — there is one problem that is rather new. Their transition defense was been simply abysmal through their first three games, only improving against the hapless Knicks. Last season, the Raptors made up for a lack of top end talent by working their asses consistently.

In fact, this has been a calling card for the Raptors for a while. Over the past five years, they have been in the top 10 in transition defense in each season, averaging sixth in that category in that stretch and never giving up more than 2.2 transition points added over 100 possessions. This season, their best performance in transition defense prior to last night’s game against the New York Knicks was worse than that, as they gave up 2.3 points added over 100 possessions in transition defense, per Cleaning the Glass.

Transition defense is almost solely hustle and communication. The team doesn’t crash the offensive glass so that they are prepared to snuff out easy buckets for their opponent, so there is no excuse. Their hard work was the main trait that endeared them to fans last season, and they simply have not been doing that thus far.

I am not quick to criticize Pascal Siakam as he works through his offense, or Aron Baynes as he figures out his chemistry with Kyle Lowry, but a lack of effort is genuinely disappointing. All of the core Raptors players have a precedent of grit, so I still trust that this issue will not persist, but, as of now, it is worth noting.

To end with a shred of positivity, their transition defense has gotten progressively better every game since their scrimmage-level effort against the New Orleans Pelicans, and the team was back to their dominant defensive ways against the Knicks last night.

3) Kyle Lowry remains a one-man basketball machine

At some point, we will just have to accept that the perception of Lowry outside of Toronto will never quite jive with what we know to be true. That is OK. We’ll continue to present absurd impact stats as the rest of the world calls him annoying and refuses to accept that the six-foot basketball Einstein with more angst than should reasonably fit within his diminutive frame remains one of the most valuable players in the league.

It was encapsulated in the last minute of the first half on Tuesday against the Philadelphia 76ers. Lowry had hit the bench with a seven-point lead late in the second, only to watch it slip away over the next few minutes. He returned to a one-point game with a minute left, Lowry’d his way to two drawn fouls and a set of free throws, banged a pull-up three, jumped on a loose ball from Ben Simmons — the larger man he once challenged to a fight in the hallway — and then delivered a Patrick Mahomes-quality outlet pass to Fred VanVleet to end the half up 8.

In one minute, he stuffed the stat sheet like a Pizza Hut crust on his way to a cool +7 in that short time. Absurd.

As of Thursday, before the Knicks game, the Raptors had been outscoring teams by 67.5 (!!) points per 100 possessions with Lowry on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. It is both a testament to Lowry’s brilliance and a scathing indictment of the rest of the roster. It’s just three games, but let’s appreciate that number for a moment. The Raptors beat the Knicks comfortably and that number went down significantly, to a paltry 47.9.

That he is nearly 35 makes it all the more amazing. Small guards have a track record of aging poorly. Lowry is still dominant (yes, dominant) considering all the factors working against him. Perhaps it is because he never really relied on athleticism, but rather guile and savvy. Whatever the case, the amount of time we have left with Lowry as a Raptor is unclear, so let us appreciate his ability to manufacture winning basketball in the meantime.