Things looked fairly grim Monday night, as old friend Jonas Valanciunas — who finished with 27 points and 20 rebounds — reminded the Toronto Raptors what a starting centre can do for a team. Going up by as much as ten in the second half, the Memphis Grizzlies were simply more physical, and the Raptors’ sloppy defense led to bad fouls, which led to some complaining, which led to coach Nick Nurse’s second technical foul and ejection. And Nurse’s ejection, of course, led to... a 27-5 run for the Raptors. Yes, even down OG Anunoby and with Kyle Lowry leaving the game due to back spasms in the first quarter, Nurse’s ejection seemed to light a fire under the team, who wound up winning the game 128-113.
Monday’s game sparked a number of positive takeaways — DeAndre’ Bembry solidifying himself as a rotation player who can handle the ball, Fred VanVleet looking comfortable running the offense in Lowry’s absence, Siakam playing at an All-Star level, and perhaps most encouragingly: the Raptors looking as happy as they have all season, what with the bench on their feet and running around like a March Madness mid-major Cinderella.
But the first two and a bit quarters of that game can’t be erased from memory, much as we may try, so naturally there are some negative takeaways too. The poor effort on defense and on the boards, some unnecessary reach-in fouls, and the unreliable centre play were just some of the things plaguing the Raptors pre-Nurse ejection, and really for much of this season. The Raptors have shown flashes of brilliance, but have also been held back by long scoring droughts and poor defensive stretches.
Against the lowly Washington Wizards, whose 6-15 record is third-worst in the league, the Raptors have a chance to build on last game’s effort in their quest to become a more consistent team. Bradley Beal, the league’s leading scorer, will soak up the Raptors’ attention on defense. Let’s see if they can take care of business.
Here are tonight’s details.
Where to Watch:
TSN4, 7 PM ET
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
Washington – Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans, Alex Len
Toronto – Patrick McCaw (knee – out), OG Anunoby (calf – questionable)
Washington – Thomas Bryant (ACL – out for season)
The Big Issue
One can’t help but wonder how much better this team would be with one of Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol in the starting lineup. One has probably spent a lot of time wondering this. Without a doubt, the Raptors’ issues at centre have been the biggest debacle of their season (I don’t think I’m mentally prepared to watch former Raptor Alex Len drop 20 and 20 on Baynes). While Baynes gives the Raptors some quality screen assists and makes the occasional nice play on defense, he’s been mostly a major disappointment this season. His three-point shots are missing, his layups are missing, and it feels like he’s costing Lowry an extra two assists per game.
Siakam has been playing at an elite level lately, but Baynes’ inability and reluctance to shoot threes clogs up the lane, making it far more difficult for Siakam to attack. This puts a bit of a ceiling on what he can do at times, as the Raptors have a net rating +20.5 better during Siakam minutes without Baynes versus with Baynes.
Last 10 games for the Raptors— a. :( PS5 OWNER (@Swarlayzers) February 9, 2021
ORTG 117.7 DRTG 117.4
ORTG 121.3 DRTG 100.4
So what’s the solution here? Nurse wants to keep Chris Boucher as someone who can infuse energy off the bench, albeit for longer and longer amounts of time, and Len is now on the opposing team. It seems likely that, for now, we’ll continue to see Baynes starting while he’s still the Raptors’ only real centre.
But in order for this team to play their best, Nurse has to have the Australian big man on a short leash. If he looks engaged and is rebounding the ball, great. If not, the Raptors will be dug into yet another hole. If Anunoby returns for this game, the Raptors might be best off using him as a small-ball five while Boucher is on the bench. Nurse doesn’t seem to want to give up on Baynes, and considering the team’s lack of centres, he doesn’t exactly have a choice. But it’s no coincidence that every time the Raptors go on an exciting run with gritty defense and fast-paced offense, a quicker, non-traditional five is on the court.
A staple of the Raptors’ defense have been their incredibly aggressive closeouts on three-point attempts. The defender runs at full speed, hand up, and ends up somewhere closer to the first row than to the actual shooter. Sometimes, this leads to a glorious perimeter block (also known as “Bouchers”), but more and more often, teams are just pump-faking the Raptors out of their shoes and getting wide open looks. If and when a second defender closes out after the shot fake, players have just made a pass and completely broken down the defense, leading to an open look or a foul.
The hustle and aggression are commendable, but it seems like teams are baiting the Raptors into these closeouts on purpose, and it’s working. The occasional flying contest makes sense, especially during an expiring clock, and the strategy was more effective when Gasol was anchoring the D. But the Raptors could benefit from more conservative closeouts which don’t force the rest of the defense to perfectly and instantly recover. Yuta Watanabe has done a great job of quickly getting a hand in the face of the shooter without leaving his feet and keeping his balance to cut them off if they pump-fake and drive. Making this adjustment could sadly lead to a decline in Bouchers, but might help minimize their opponents’ wide open threes.
Call it a coincidence, but Norman Powell’s numbers as a starter are outstanding. Granted, Powell had a rough start to the season by his standards, but wow has he been fun to watch. He’s a major threat from long-range, he’s been driving and finishing with more authority, he’s cut down on the mistakes was making early on, and his defense has been disruptive. In 11 games as a reserve this season, Powell’s averaging 10.5 points per game, on a .515 true shooting percentage. In the same amount of games as a starter, and with a nearly identical usage rate, Powell is averaging double the amount of points with 21 per game, on a .657 TS%.
Norm’s been hot out of the gate the last few games, scoring seemingly eight of the Raptors’ first ten or twelve points on a regular basis. In fact, his field goal percentage is at 63 percent in first quarters, compared to 38 percent in the other three. I don’t understand what exactly makes this so, but Powell being better as a starter looks like a legitimate thing. If Anunoby remains out tonight, we can expect to see the same Lowry-VanVleet-Powell-Siakam-Baynes lineup. But if OG returns from injury, it’ll be interesting to see what Nurse goes with. Does he relegate Powell back to the bench despite the boost he provides to start games? Or does Nurse start with his five best players on the court, and let Norm cook with Anunoby as Toronto’s small-ball centre?