Another week has passed, and it seems as if the Toronto Raptors have committed to absurdity this season. This week has been the best so far for the team by quite a large margin, but an even greater margin still lies between the current Raptors and what we expected of them. Since last Friday, they have gone 2-2, and their losses have been two gut-wrenching, heart-breaking affairs, with Pascal Siakam missing game-winning buzzer-beaters in consecutive nights, shots that were great in all aspects except for, you know, the whole “going in the net” thing.
Both shots were only inches off. They would have made great narrative busters for Siakam, but alas, we must deal with the reality of the misses and the accompanying losses. There is much more than missed buzzer-beaters, however, to learn from this past week in Raptors basketball. Learning, of course, is our goal here on Fridays, so let’s dig into these lessons, starting with the bizzarro fourth quarters.
1) The Raptors are still figuring out crunch time
Prior to the season, I had assumed we’d see a lot of the Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-Norman Powell-OG Anunoby-Pascal Siakam lineup, particularly to close games. The thinking was simple: these guys are versatile, and they are the Toronto Raptors’ five best players, so put them out together in key spots. Chris Boucher, however, has something to say about the player hierarchy.
At this point in the season, Chris Boucher has far outshone Norman Powell on both ends, and he is now getting rewarded with crunch time minutes, taking Norm’s spot in the closing lineup. He was on the floor to close the past three games, except when he fouled out against the Golden State Warriors.
This group was largely responsible for an impressive fourth quarter comeback against the Warriors that fell just short, but it was also present in a collapse and almost-collapse against the Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets, respectively. The most recent two fourth quarters are responsible for this group’s negative rating, as they are getting outscored by about a point per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Give this group a little time. They only logged 23 possessions together last year, which is virtually nothing over the course of a season. Their chemistry is developing, and though the Raptors have been ghastly in the clutch, shooting 34.7% from the field in that time, there are some positives.
The first is that it would be hard to be this bad going forward. Some regression to the mean is inevitable. Athough they came sparingly, this group also had some good chemistry moments against Charlotte, with two baseline cuts from Boucher doing their part to save the game.
Siakam’s resurgence will soon translate to the fourth quarter, with his attacking and passing being two assets in late-game offense.
It will take time, but the Raptors will get better in the clutch.
2) The Stan Clan is slowly forming
Earlier in the season, Stanley Johnson was getting dangerously close to the Patrick McCaw Zone with the fans. The Toronto fanbase is not impossible to get through to, but the players do need to give us something to earn our adulation. If you give us quality minutes but nothing in the personality department, you’ll get some shine. If your on-court play does little to inspire but you find ways to make us smile outside the lines, I have no doubt that your cause will have some sympathizers. The Patrick McCaw Zone is reserved for players who do neither. Stanley Johnson, once flirting with the Zone, has definitively separated himself from it.
Although Nick Nurse has tinkered with his rotations early in the season, it has become evident that Stanley Johnson is going to be a part of it, barring major changes. Raptors fans, terrified of what his lack of offensive ability would do to an already struggling attack, were skeptical. As the season has progressed, however, he’s had a couple moments to suggest that it won’t be so bad.
There was the putback dunk:
I realize that one awesome play does not prove a player’s worth. But it was truly awesome, and that’s not nothing.
He really put himself on the map with the now-storied Zoom interview. Stanley Johnson made the most of his rare media time, coming in like a middle relief pitcher with a rocket arm throwing 100 mph heat for an inning before getting the hell out of there. When asked about playing up a position, Johnson assured us it wouldn’t be a big deal by claiming, “I’m not a small guy,” then, if we didn’t believe him, he followed that up with “I’m not light in the butt.” He also used the word “omniscient,” which is simply a great word, and amused us by noting his resemblance to OG.
Josh Kern noted that Stanley’s shift in position has unlocked his play in his great Five Thoughts column earlier today. His passing has also been quietly effective — he’s averaging five assists per 100 possessions this season — and it’s helping him provide the occasional positive offensive impact.
All told, he hasn’t made himself a fan favourite yet, but he has done enough to earn some defenders amongst fans who debate his role on the team, thus commencing the formation of the Stan Clan.
3) Seeding in the East will be a little different this year
Last season, the Toronto Raptors had a clear goal in the regular season: get the second seed in the Eastern Conference and avoid the class of the conference in the first round. The two-seed hypothetically would have given them home court advantage against the Boston Celtics, although that was nullified by the fact the Bubble home court just meant that the big monitors said “Raptors” and fake crowd noises loosely mimicked a typical We The North crowd.
This year, less importance will be placed on seeding, as higher seeds will not carry nearly as much weight as they would in a typical season. There are a few reasons for that. The first is that the East is stacked. The Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks all make for a daunting first round. If you include the Raptors in that group, which I still do, presumably only the top seed will avoid a first-round bloodbath.
Additionally, home court has lost its power, as fan-less arenas have diminished the advantage that comes with playing at home. If there are still limitations on fans by the playoffs, the games will more resemble the Bubble, where two teams on virtually neutral courts did battle.
COVID-19’s impact is felt in the lack of fans, but also for the teams forced to sit players as a result of league protocol. It has already impacted Philadelphia’s torrid start, as two of their four losses have been impacted by players being held out for COVID-19 related reasons. Miami has also felt the effects, as players missing games has dug their early season hole in the standings even deeper.
By the end of the season, I am confident that the teams that deserve a playoff spot will be in those positions, but the standings will be less rigid, allowing mobility for teams like the Raptors to climb their way back into the mix.
Overall, it would still be nice to earn a higher seed, but the importance of doing so is significantly reduced.
That does it for this week’s lessons. Hopefully, the Raptors continue their (slight) upward trend!