It’s easy to soak in the deepest pools of despair this Raptors team can conjure. They do it a lot, and when it’s bad, it’s about as miserable as watching pro basketball can get. See: the first half of their 98-91 loss to Memphis on Tuesday night.
Those first 24 minutes stand as the least cohesive offensive stretch this decidedly non-cohesive offensive team has played since opening night against the Wizards, when they managed just 37 points in the opening two frames; they posted just 39 against the Grizzlies.
Stretches where profound failure at one end of the floor or the other have done in the Raptors in most of their games; a quarter of defensive confusion here, a six minute 0-for-11 drought there — stretches that undercut all the good this team is capable of at its best.
And that’s where they keep you coming back. Even on a night like Tuesday, where just three of the starters actually showed up, exactly one bench piece offered sustained positive play, and the team trailed wire-to-wire, the Raptors put together enough spells of thrilling two-way play to make it seem like better days lie ahead.
Those days likely won’t be coming until they get some of their dudes back, though. Try as he might, there just aren’t many viable lineup combos Nick Nurse can dream up without OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch available. Together, that trio includes two the best three shooters on the team, the best screener on the roster, and three of Toronto’s six best players overall.
“The really packed it in on us,” said Nurse after the game regarding the notable lack of attention Memphis’ defenders paid to the shooters dotted around Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam on their many drives — a problem exacerbated by the absences of Anunoby and Trent.
Siakam, VanVleet and Scottie Barnes can only do so much. Once again, those three were Toronto’s best players against the Grizzlies. Siakam’s night included foul trouble, and a pair of missed threes in the late going that could have swung the end result. That part was bad. Of all nights, this was one where they needed Siakam on the floor for more than 30 minutes, especially considering how effective he was when he did play.
His help defense was one of the biggest reasons why the Raptors continued their recent run of defensive progress. He finished the game with a steal and three blocks, despite being out-sized by not one, but both of Memphis’ front court starters in Stephen Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr., the latter of whom has gotten really freaking good. On the other end, Siakam was easily Toronto’s most dynamic offensive player. He finished with 20 points, six boards and five assists on 9-of-19 shooting, while often checked by Jackson Jr., who again, rules. Those missed threes in the waning minutes sting, but don’t erase the fact that 15 of the 24 fourth quarter points Toronto managed were on account of Siakam either scoring them, or setting them up. Maybe no member of the Raptors stands to benefit from the return of the injured brigade more than Siakam, who remains overextended as a true number one, but has more than enough to sustain Toronto’s offense as a soft top option with outlets to leverage.
“Sometimes I just feel like it’s not enough spacing,” said Siakam after the game of the difficulty of playing without Anunoby and Trent. “Move off the ball, cuts, we just can’t be stagnant,” he added, looking for solutions.
“Those shots gotta go in, and when they don’t got in we gotta figure out a way to crack the paint and get buckets another way.:”
Someone who is finding buckets right now is Barnes. After a super rocky first half, the Raptors’ wunderkind rookie did that thing where he takes over a game for six minutes every night in the third quarter, and finished with 19 points, seven boards, three assists, two steals and four blocks on 8-of-16 from the field. With three more made triples on six attempts, he’s up to 35.3 percent on 32 total attempts from downtown. He is the thing that matters about this season, and his progress is frankly ridiculous, even if there are some growing pains being worked in every night.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of peaks and valleys all within the same game almost every game now,” said Nurse of Barnes, who made a couple notable gaffes in transition that cost Toronto buckets (although trying and failing a no-look dunk while staring down your defender is cooler than not trying at all).
Thing is, there aren’t many other Raptors who are making good on their looks right now. Among the Raptors’ cast of role players being gifted minutes with guys out of the lineup, only Yuta Watanabe really seems interested in claiming a job once the team is at full health. He was a true difference maker for Toronto on Tuesday, with 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting, 3-of-8 from outside. His defensive energy is off the charts, and the six rebounds he grabbed came against a Grizzlies front court that pounded the Raptors’ to the tune of 18 offensive boards. His stretches were among the most air-tight on the glass for the team. Watanabe’s not just been useful in short bench spurts. He’s actively making a case for crunch time minutes, both now and after the team regains some bodies. With his size, he’s a very clear avenue by which the Raptors can truly showcase their dream vision of 6’9 everywhere. He should be no lower than eighth in the rotation pecking order once Anunoby, Trent and Birch return.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess who will assume the rest of spots in Nick Nurse’s trust circle. Chris Boucher had a couple loud moments during his seven minutes of reserve duty, but Nurse didn’t seem all that enthused when asked about his performance after the game outside of acknowledging his couple of makes. Svi Mykhailiuk continues to be wildly pedestrian, managing just seven points in 18 minutes. Malachi Flynn’s path to regular NBA run is going to be his shot making as a punchy reserve; he went 2-of-8, and is simply not making shots.
Add in that Precious Achiuwa played his most damaging game of the season, failing to offset is offensive inutility with the defensive prowess he’s displayed recently, and you get a whole lot of not enough from the supporting cast. Achiuwa finished with five points on 1-of-8 shooting, and fouled out with 5:23 to play; Watanabe entering the game to replace him was a relief.
The reality for this Raptors team is that while Siakam, VanVleet and Barnes are good, they are not good enough to sustain a depleted roster with few secondary guys raising their hand to help carry the load. They are not Nikola Jokic, and that’s fine. With better support, they should be able to power this Raptors team to a respectable winning percentage.
Better days should lie ahead, though it’s still anyone’s guess as to when Anunoby, Trent and Birch will be back in the mix. If their absences persist, things could get even uglier before they improve.