The Toronto Raptors are committed to keeping us on our toes, as this past week brought more confusion. That said, had the Raptors capitalized against the hobbled Indiana Pacers and won on Monday, everything would feel different right now. Toronto would then be on a 3-1 week, having won six of their last eight. They also would have earned another win against a contender in the East. The loss to Milwaukee would have more weight as a moral victory, and Raptors Twitter would not be in as toxic a pit of despair, which is always threatening to consume us permanently. Evidently, there is a beast inside all online Torontonians and it stirs when our sports teams are mildly disappointing.
But here at 3 Lessons, we deal in reality, not revisionist history. Here are some lessons we learned from that reality after a 2-2 week for the Raptors. We start with, yes, the bounce back of Aron Baynes.
1) Aron Baynes is finding his role
Even with all the hand-wringing about the centre position for the Raptors, the easiest and most obvious solution was the one a mother prescribes when their rabid toddler looks to move straight to chocolate cake before battling through their green vegetables: patience. Aron Baynes, like this entire Raptors team, is historically competent enough to suggest that his extreme struggles were as likely to persist as my 2021 daily exercise regimen, which is to say, well, not likely.
After being put in a time-out by coach Nick Nurse in which he was glued to the bench for three games and the bulk of two more, Baynes has been on a steady climb in both presence and production. The first significant glimpse of his utility came when he banged bodies with Heat star Bam Adebayo, holding the Miami star to just eight points on 36.4 percent shooting when he was the primary defender. It was almost as if he needed to have a Pacific Rim-style battle with another behemoth to fully awaken, because the rest of his game has followed suit.
I’m not saying he’s been spectacular, but Bayns has at least been solid, and had a few moments. Perhaps most encouragingly, he has found a spark with Fred VanVleet in the pick-and-roll. Typically, it’s Kyle Lowry who perfects that dance with his bigs, but Fred and the big Aussie have found something. Watch some of their sets:
Baynes was rolling hard against the Bucks and it paid off in full. He even hit a three off a nice pick-and-pop, although his shooting in that game otherwise was not great.
Are Baynes and VanVleet about to turn into Malone and Stockton? No, but a base set for the Raptors that can get them some easy buckets in the low leverage moments of a game can alleviate a lot of pressure for the remainder of the team’s time on the court.
2) Nick Nurse is still figuring out his rotations
Remember when Nurse said he wanted to have defined roles for the team’s seventh and eighth men? Do you also remember when the Los Angeles Clippers told Blake Griffin he would be a “Clipper for life”? People, especially those in the NBA, often have, uh, changes of heart.
I would love to hear Nick Nurse’s rationale for his bench units that change more frequently and significantly than Axl Rose’s outfits at a ‘93 Guns ‘N’ Roses concert. Is it matchup dependent? Based on prior performance? Or does Nick Nurse just get out there and let it fly? To be honest, it does feels like number three sometimes!
Just as we thought Stanley Johnson had established himself as the eight man, he gets glued to the bench for the entire first half against the Bucks, a game where his value was apparent. He was really good in the second half, particularly in defending Giannis late! Paul Watson Jr., a great story to be sure, has been given minutes in some key spots this past week and has acted as an aluminum foil link on an otherwise steel chain on defense, compromising the entire operation. Yuta Watanabe is as likely to sit one out as he is to play 22 minutes. And that is to say nothing of the Matt Thomas conundrum — the Raptors fan equivalent of trying to make “fetch” happen.
I genuinely agree with Nurse’s preseason statement claiming it is better for guys to have some consistency in their roles, so why haven’t his actions reflected that yet? As always, any criticism I have of Nurse comes with the disclaimer that there is no one that I trust more to make on-court decisions. Nonetheless, based on his play — and the assumption that Thomas is out of the question because he embarrassed Nurse by shredding a guitar solo while the coach struggled through “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — it seems to me like the bench should go Norman Powell-Chris-Boucher-Stanley Johnson-Yuta Watanabe in that order, with some flexibility for the tenth man.
3) Kyle Lowry is riding it out
After the Raptors lost to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, Kyle Lowry gave us a profound quote.
"My joy is watching Norm, Freddy, Pascal, OG grow." - Kyle Lowry.— Steven Loung (@loung_s) January 28, 2021
Beyond the fact that it is heartwarming to hear that from Lowry, it also alleviates the anxieties that were creeping into the minds of Raptors fans. Though Lowry’s relationship with the team has evolved and blossomed over the past few years, memories of Kyle being at odds with the organization are not too distant.
Although the absurdity of speculating about a locker room we are on the outside of is not lost on me, there was a quiet concern amongst fans that a disappointing season would cause Lowry to shut down, or perhaps, develop a wandering eye for contenders in need of a veteran guard.
Now, Toronto’s season is far from lost, and one quote does not mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows in Tampa (it will never not be weird writing Tampa for this team), but this was meaningful for the Raptors fans who want (at least) one last great ride with Lowry without a bitter aftertaste. As the unquestioned alpha of this team, a positive attitude and commitment to helping the young guys is exactly what you would want to hear from Lowry at this point in a season.
That’s it for lessons. The Raptors have a few soft games coming up, time for a streak. Until next Friday!