Watching the first eight minutes of last night’s Toronto Raptors game against the Sacramento Kings, you could be forgiven for falling into despair. They had already given up 40 points and were playing about the worst defensive basketball any Raptors team had played since Andrea Bargnani was barely lifting his arms to get a rebound.
Thankfully, their opponent on the night was the Kings, who started celebrating when they were up 19 in the first quarter, and then proceeded to get outscored by 40 the rest of the way.
But most of the credit goes to the Raptors, who began running their offense through Pascal Siakam, let Malachi Flynn play through mistakes, and went centre-less for the entire second half.
Fred VanVleet is an All-Star
VanVleet had a beauty game as the lead guard last night, scoring from all over the floor (34 points on 22 shots) and notching seven assists. Sure, he still missed at least two clear reads on the pick-and-roll, but nobody’s perfect.
You can argue he’s been the team’s best player all season; I’d still give the edge to Kyle Lowry, but VanVleet’s averaging 22.3 points per game on the year on 44/39/79 shooting splits, with six assists and four rebounds; he might not an All-Star lock just yet, but if the Raptors start winning games and he keeps those numbers up, he should be an easy coaches selection.
VanVleet scored 25+ points 8 times in 54 games last season. He scored 25+ points twice in 177 games over the previous 3 seasons.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 9, 2021
So far, he's scored 25+ points 5 times in 8 games this season.
We’ll get to the drop-off form the centre spot in a minute, but one of the other huge differences between this season and last has been the play of Norman Powell. There were fears, all last season, that what he was doing was a mirage; he’d been inconsistent for so long we were all simply waiting for him to revert to form.
And that’s mostly seemed what happened this season — the Norm of old was back, making poor decisions with the ball, taking bad angles to the rim and not finishing, and playing overly aggressive on D too far from the rim.
Except when he starts, which he’s done in both Raptors wins. He scored 22 last night, on just eight shots, and only turnover the ball over once.
He and Freddy also hooked up on this beautiful fast break:
No More Centres
Nick Nurse swapped out Aron Baynes for Alex Len in the starting lineup, and it did not go well. The Kings had a parade to the hoop in the first quarter, with Len regularly in the wrong position (though to be fair, the perimeter defenders were not helping). Len soon went to the bench, and Chris Boucher and Yuta Watanabe came in, and… everything changed?
Well, not entirely: the Raptors still gave up 74 points in the first half. But with a front court rotation of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Boucher and Watanabe — it didn’t really matter who was the four and who was the five — playing the rest of the way, and the Raptors looked much better on both sides of the ball.
Watanabe is ridiculously active out there, and even though the Kings tried to pick on him a couple of times, he held his own. I think he might supplant Stanley Johnson in the rotation; Johnson is probably the more sound defender at this point, but Yuta is a bit longer, can shot the ball better, and just looks hungrier out there.
As for the starters, I don’t know if Nick Nurse is ready to go full small ball yet. Starting Boucher or Powell seems to make sense, but that might leave a big gap in bench scoring. Starting Baynes or Len, and giving them the Kendrick Perkins role (start, play four minutes, go to the bench) might still make the most sense... but not if it’s gonna see the team down double digits like last night.
In a way, this season is starting to remind me of last year, rotation-wise if not results-wise. The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and brought in two new guys in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson — inferior guys, but good enough to play, right? But they couldn’t get off the bench early on (Johnson never did). This year, Baynes and Len were brought in to replace Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, but now they can’t stay on the floor either. And DeAndre’ Bembry can barely sniff the court! Maybe Nurse’s system really does have a steep learning curve.
Speaking of learning curves...
Malachi Flynn, Catching Up
Malachi Flynn looked a little more like his preseason self in the first half, scoring on a couple of floaters and notching a couple of assists out of the pick-and-roll, including a nice dish to Watanabe for three. He also drained two threes in the second half.
But while it was great to see him looking more comfortable on that end, De’Aaron Fox had a little something for him the other way! Fox — surely one of the fastest guys in the league — blew by Flynn on one possession when Flynn offered the slightest bit of backcourt pressure, getting all the way to the rim for two. Two possessions later, Flynn fouled Fox 50 feet from the hoop with three seconds left in the half. Fox schooled him again for an and-1 in the third.
That’s just gonna happen with a rookie, and hopefully Nurse is OK with it, so that Flynn can start to catch up to NBA game speed. Overall, he looked much more comfortable on the court last night than he did just a couple of games ago.
His teammates seem to thinks so too. In the fourth quarter, with the Raps well in control, Flynn found himself guarded by Marvin Bagley III on a switch; although he initially looked to get the ball to Pascal Siakam, Siakam urged Flynn to take the big man off the bounce. Unfortunately Flynn slipped and bobbled the ball, but Siakam showing that confidence in the rookie was awesome. That’s a big step in Pascal’s leadership, showing his belief that the youngster could do it. You love to see it.
Speaking of youngsters, Kings rookie Tyrese Haliburton sure looks like the real deal. Since the Raptors haven’t had a high pick in a few years, I haven’t paid much attention to the top of the NBA draft in a while, so I didn’t know much about Haliburton coming in to the season; early on he seemed to be generating positive buzz and then he drained a game winner the other day against the Bulls.
Last night he came in and made an immediate impact, draining a corner three and then knocking down a second one (that was eventually taken away when replays showed him stepping out of bounds). And then he did this in the third:
Haliburton finished with 15 points, all of them coming on threes (he was 5-of-7!), and seven assists. On top of all of that, he also had some really thoughtful things to say about what happened in Washington on Wednesday; that kind of introspection an insight is rare in a 20-year old. Kings got a real one with Haliburton.
Speaking of real ones, the Raptors now head to Golden State, where Stephen Curry is lighting the league on fire. Despite the positive outcome last night, the Raptors will need to tighten things up on the perimeter to slow down Curry.