Before yesterday’s 118-100 thrashing of the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked about the physicality that players are getting away with on both sides of the floor. He could have taken the easy route and put the blame on the referees — risking a fine but endearing himself further as a man of the people — but two words came out of his mouth faster than a Dalano Banton one-man fastbreak: Man up.
Being more physical wouldn’t appear to match with the team’s persona of “length and quickness,” but those words were spoken with conviction and purpose, and boy did the team respond!
Let’s start with OG Anunoby, whose up-and-down start to the season hit a new peak last night. While we’ve come to expect the physical nature of his drives, he set the tone for the team early on. His first two baskets were a precursor of the beatdown that the Pacers were about to endure. OG bulldozed through Justin Holiday for a lay-in, then on the next possession, he jab-stepped Myles Turner into leaning the wrong way then drove by him for another easy deuce.
On the defensive end, Anunoby operated with the precision of a surgeon. There was a two-minute stretch in the second quarter where OG’s defensive prowess was on full display. First, he caught Domantas Sabonis picking up his dribble in the lane and swiped for the steal. Then he forced Chris Duarte into a turnover (but wasn’t credited with the steal). He capped off the stretch by getting another steal that should have led to a clear-path foul (it didn’t). All told, Anunoby ended the first half with 16 points and 5 steals, compiled in the most schoolyard way possible — with bullying offense and steal-your-lunch-money defense.
Not to be outdone, Gary Trent Jr. earned brownie points with the way he manned up. Nick Nurse made it a point to shout out two players to kick off his post-game presser and GTJ was one of them. Trent Jr.’s defensive aggression has been a pleasant early-season surprise. He entered the game tied for 6th in the NBA with 16 total deflections over the first four games. Last night he had... wait for it... NINE deflections! To say Trent Jr. was “handsy” against the Pacers would be selling him short. GTJ has been a revelation to start the season and is everything the Raptors were hoping for when he was acquired for Norm Powell.
For the third time in franchise history, the Raptors have 2 players with at least 5 steals in the same game. OG Anunoby + Gary Trent Jr. join an illustrious group of Alvin Robertson + Tracy Murray (02/25/96) and Charles Oakley + Muggsy Bogues (11/27/99)— That's A Rap Podcast (@ThatsARapPod) October 28, 2021
The other Raptor Nurse shouted out was Dalano Banton. I’ll admit that I thought it was a Canadian-themed gimmick having Chris Boucher, Khem Birch, and Banton as the first set of substitutes to match Indiana’s lineup that included Oshae Brissett (and one play later, Chris Duarte). However, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Banton has leapfrogged Malachi Flynn (and maybe Goran Dragic) as the team’s backup point guard! “Manning up” has been referenced throughout this post in terms of physicality but Banton manned up with the maturity he displayed.
On the first possession after subbing in, Banton patiently dribbled along the arc, surveying the defense and biding his time for the play to develop. His patience was rewarded with a defensive three-second violation. Later in the quarter, Banton lost track of McConnell and TJ scored an easy bucket on the baseline. Nurse said post-game that he’s been impressed with Banton’s openness to feedback and never making the same mistake twice. A couple minutes later, after the coaching staff warned Banton that that was McConnell’s favourite spot, Dalano showed how quickly he learned (and how long he is) by blocking TJ from a similar distance.
Manning up couldn’t have been exemplified any better than by Fred VanVleet. We’re five games into the season and Freddie has already had games with career-highs in assists (17 vs. Chicago) and offensive rebounds and rebounds (4 and 10, respectively, vs. Indiana). Before the season began, he was christened the new leader of the team once Kyle Lowry departed. He’s taken that honour to heart and is making more “Lowry-like” winning plays. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see a future All-Star with no hesitation to battle with the big boys. Check out each of his four offensive rebounds (one, two, three, four). None of those were long rebounds. All of them show Fred’s willingness to out-jump, out-position, or out-hustle a bevy of Pacers in the paint.
When Indiana whittled a 20-point deficit down to 10, FVV took matters into his own hands. With the shot clock winding down, VanVleet raced towards the rim with Sabonis breathing down his neck before making a difficult layup in traffic. On the next possession, he took advantage of one of the few NBA players NOT taller than him, draining a stepback jumper. One play later, it was salami and cheese time (sorry, I really wanted to use that after the Chicago game. Love you Swirsky!)
Oh right. Scottie Barnes! Many many words will be written for many years about how amazing Barnes is on both ends of the floor. As it pertains to Nurse’s message of manning up, I’d like to present to the court these pieces of evidence.
Great sequence for Barnes, block on one end in to an iso on Sabonis on the other end. pic.twitter.com/PZFqOzenKO— Will Smith (@ddiop) October 28, 2021
Suffice it to say, Nurse’s pre-game message was heard loud and clear. The Raptors entered the game ranked first in offensive rebounds (16.3) and fourth in steals (10.0). Last night they corralled 16 boards on the offensive glass and gobbled up 18 steals. Indiana has a pair of All-Star calibre twin towers in Sabonis and Turner, yet it was Toronto that owned the paint (58-40 points in the paint) as well as second-chance points (33-21).
It’s still early in the season but it’s safe to say that Toronto has a top-5 defense that will force turnovers and keep opponents under 100 on many nights. When shots are falling, transition is humming, and boards are being crashed, there’s enough offense to be competitive in every game.
I didn’t get a chance to ask Nick which direction he thinks the team is headed, but I can guess what his answer would have been.