As the Toronto Raptors sputtered to a 1-6 record, including 0-3 in the past week, there has been a shift in the fan base. We’ve gone from Chicken Little to moral victory mode. Raptors Twitter was light and airy after an eight-point loss to the Phoenix Suns, a far cry from the general existential dread that was the norm prior to this game.
That is perhaps a slight overcorrection. This team has earned the moderately high expectations that we had to start the season, and to take those from them is to belittle their standing in the NBA. Save that for the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets, teams needing bright spots. The Raptors are better than that.
That said, Pascal Siakam’s game, the main source of the optimism, was pretty awesome, leading us to our first lesson:
1) Sometimes it is that simple
On Wednesday against the Phoenix Suns, Pascal Siakam had his best game in about 10 months. Not only did it show up statistically, as he had 32 points on 11-of-21 shooting, but the eye test told an even more compelling story. Siakam looked just different. That gazelle-like burst that was his calling card as a young player was back, and he had a renewed tenacity on offense. Frankly, not even the best lawyer could have convinced me that the player I saw on Thursday is the same man I was seeing for the first six games if I was new to the Raptors.
Now, the armchair trainers (aka the dads of Toronto) prescribed a simple solution for Siakam’s woes during the start of the season.
“Just get to the rim!” they’d yell, as they pointed a Cheeto dust-stained finger at the TV, then they would shake their head, muttering “you can’t keep settling for jumpers.”
Takes spewed by angry fans after their third Bud Light are wrong the bulk of the time, but in this case, they were on to something. I, too, had grown weary of watching Siakam chuck up jumpers against physically inferior defenders. It brought me joy to see the odd drive attempt to him, even if it resulted in him spiking it off the backboard in a touching tribute to former teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. My only fear was that a miss would dissuade him from doing it again.
Fear of missing be damned, Siakam came out to play against the Suns. During the third quarter, he had 25 points with only one three-pointer attempted and my soul nearly left my body. Check out the shot chart from NBA.com:
He lived in the restricted are, only taking four shots outside of it. Compare that to his last game against the Pelicans:
The difference is stark. He only took two shots at the rim, content to float outside it in this one.
Don’t get me wrong, the three-pointer is essential to his well-roundedness as a scorer, but his attacking is what separates him from the Plebians of the NBA. So, for now, the barroom take-smith can have his day, content in knowing that he was the one who diagnosed and provided an apt cure for Pascal Siakam’s struggles.
Unfortunately, the Raptors lost this one, so while Pascal may have rediscovered his rhythm, we’ll need the rest of the team to follow suit. Speaking of…
2) The Toronto Raptors have embraced variance to an unhealthy degree
In the first quarter of their game against the Boston Celtics, the Toronto Raptors appeared as if all their ailments had been cured, roaring out to a 32-23 lead. Of course they started strong, they took fourteen threes and made seven of them. Then, it shifted, the offense dried up entirely, and the defense could not contain the star power of Jayson Tatum and the Celtics. The game ended in a Celtics victory which was even less close than the score suggests.
This has been a common theme with this Raptors team — encouraging moments in fits and starts, but their efforts for the entirety of the game are incomplete. The root of this problem is their offensive approach and its penchant for unpredictability. To speak to the other side of the coin from lesson one, the Raptors as a whole have retained their overreliance on the three-pointer, chucking them up from deep like a 10-year-old trying to win the giant teddy bear at the arcade.
For the season, 44.2 percent of their shots have been three-pointers, good for second in the league. Their offense, thus far, is reminiscent of the 2017-18 Brooklyn Nets, a team deficient in talent (not that the Raptors are) and content to fire away from deep for their offense. As a result, they employed a boom or bust offense, one that would vary from night-to-night, like a football offense that takes deep shots every play. Sure, when they’re hitting, it looks great, but it does not move the chains consistently.
By employing such an inherently variant strategy, the Raptors relinquish control over the game and instead rely more on luck, which is far from a proven formula for success. Those Nets finished 28-54. These Raptors are 1-6. They are shooting 43.4 threes a game, about seven more than the 2017-18 Nets, increasing the variability of effectiveness. That number, if it were to continue, would be good for third all-time, behind the Houston Rockets’ last two years, without the pieces that allowed the Rockets to use that strategy.
The teams needs to return to more reliable sources of offense and creation, using the three as a tool, not a crutch. Pascal’s game against Phoenix was a positive sign, but until the entire team makes a philosophical shift in mentality, variance will define the offense.
3) The Raptors can’t put together a complete game
Against the Suns, the Raptors had only led by four points before relinquishing that small lead on the way to an eight-point loss. That broke a five-game streak of blowing double-digit leads. Yes, that accounts for every single game they had lost up to that point. Not ideal!
Obviously, the variance referenced in my second lesson explains some of it, but not all. The defense has been inconsistent as well, and the inability to stem the tide is simply uncharacteristic of these players that we have come to know over the years. That this start is so bad suggests to me that is goes beyond the court.
Louis Zatzman of Raptors Republic wrote an excellent piece on the struggles associated with the team’s move to Tampa. I think that those issues should be combined with the tight turnaround as a result of the bubble.
The Raptors played a knock-down, drag-out series with the Boston Celtics in September, and were back in training camp by December. That’s a short offseason. Within the offseason, there should be time to (a) decompress from a grueling season — something that would be particularly necessary after an experience like the Bubble — and (b) ramp up their training and conditioning. If you don’t allocate appropriate time for both, you can either burnout or come into the season out of game shape.
Other teams that went deep in the Bubble are struggling as well, like the Miami Heat (3-4) and the Denver Nuggets (3-5). The Raptors also have to spend mental energy on what Zatzman outlined — family, housing, a move to a different country — in front of a fan base that clearly isn’t entirely there for them.
It would not be shocking at all if this team wasn’t in game shape physically, and that their minds are somewhat preoccupied. That would account for the spurts of the real Raptors that we are glimpsing without the full-game consistency.
This situation is unprecedented for all teams and it certainly disproportionately affects the Raptors. Now the question becomes if they can adjust on the fly to their new situation and play themselves into game shape both mentally and physically.
It starts tonight in Sacramento.