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3 Lessons: On Pascal’s grit, staying in Tampa, and VanVleet’s stats

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The Raptors are starting to feel more like the RAPTORS. Here’s what we learned from a solid week of Toronto basketball.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Although a win last night would have been an ideal punctuation mark on an excellent stretch for the Raptors, it would not be 2021 if everything just went how we wanted it to. When Payton Pritchard, Kemba Walker, and Semi Ojeleye combine to go 17-of-24 from three, it just may not be your night, especially considering the team was moving at times as if they were trudging through a swamp. Five games in seven nights on a road trip will do that to you.

Still, it feels as if the Toronto Raptors have turned a corner, though the road to .500 has taken yet another detour. Nonetheless, we trudge on. The positivity in this week’s 3 Lessons reflects the positivity that I am feeling about the team, starting with the gritty Pascal Siakam.

1) Pascal Siakam is battling back

Early in last night’s game against the Boston Celtics, Pascal Siakam caught the ball in the post with Semi Ojeleye guarding him. Undoubtedly, Raptors fans started having flashbacks to the Bubble playoffs, when Siakam’s silky coordination inexplicably abandoned his body in the post. But not this time.

Siakam made a quick, decisive move on Ojeleye and laid the ball in for an easy two points.

Two possessions later, it was the same starting point, with the same end result.

Pascal Siakam has been downright nasty lately. He’s looked springier, happier, and more confident. He’s storming the paint like a battering ram and finding his teammates in the cracks that his immense pressure has created. His three-point shot, which looked nearly broken, is showing signs of life. But his recent uptick has coincided with soft opposing defenses.

Since last season, going to work on a subpar defense has been typically easy for Siakam. Performing against a sound, organized defense, however, has presented problems for him — never more glaring than in the playoffs against the Celtics. The entire series was a war of attrition with Siakam on the losing end, and he looked more worn down and dejected with each passing moment.

This, plus his slow start to the season, led some Raptors fans to question Siakam’s mental toughness (which, if you have the nerve to do so, I can only assume that you’ve fought in multiple wars, ran a few Ironman marathons, and sat through all of The Irishman without taking a break. If not, please don’t embarrass yourself with this take.)

Siakam was a force throughout the entire Celtics game, finishing with 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, looking more than willing to go into the teeth of Boston’s defense. No, Marcus Smart was not playing, and no, Brad Stevens would not show his entire defensive hand in a regular season game. But this was a great sign.

The first concern of the season for Siakam was getting back to where he was last year. Consistent production against quality defenses would put him past that point and into a new, improved territory.

Now, if we could only do something about that Pritchard fellow…

2) The Raptors have stability

The news recently broke that the Toronto Raptors would be staying in Tampa for the remainder of the season. Obviously, this sucks. Kyle Lowry may have played his last game in Toronto as a Raptor. The heart of the We The North crowd will not factor into the team’s success this season either. Instead, the storied fanbase will be reduced to third-party observers, watching their favourite team compete without their true fanbase. That said, there is a silver lining.

The Toronto Raptors finally have stability. The players and coaches no longer no longer have to wonder how long they will stay in Florida, or if they will be moving mid-season. No, they now know that, at least for the remainder of this season, Tampa is their home.

When you’re awaiting a decision for an extended time, the outcome, good or bad, brings about a sense of relief. That sense of unknown and uncertainty that occupied a portion of your brain has now left that space vacant. It can be used for other, more productive pursuits, like, oh, say, winning basketball games.

I have believed all season that the Raptors are facing an extremely adverse situation, one that is severely underrated by fans and media alike. Players often take time to adjust to a new team and city if they are traded or leave in free agency. In the case of the Raptors, the entire team is trying to go through this process, but they’re not coming into an established, stable situation, like a sole player would be. Everyone on the team is in the same spot, a spot that also happens to be a hotbed of the pandemic that is the reason for all these changes in the first place.

Now, there is at least certainty. The Toronto Raptors can plant their flags in Tampa for the time being, knowing that it is where they will stay, and try and make the best of a shaky situation. And hey, if it means we get some of that Tom Brady Titletown sorcery, then so be it.

3) Death, taxes, and Raptors point guards as advanced stats darlings

As noted above, Lowry’s tenure with the team is uncertain going forward. Whether it is this year, or perhaps one further into the future that sees Lowry’s time with the team come to an end, we will miss his unique presence dearly. That said, Fred VanVleet appears primed to carry his mantle.

You’re likely thinking the mantle I’m referring to is simply that of the Toronto Raptors point guard. Wrong. Rather, VanVleet will also carry on Lowry’s advanced stats legacy.

Raptors fans have long trumpeted Lowry’s box plus/minus, or his VORP (or SCHNORP, as Zach Lowe would say) as reasons that he is far more impactful that the average NBA fan may realize. Pointing out a stat that no one has previously ever heard of, but Kyle Lowry happens to excel in, is something of a Raptors Twitter cottage industry.

Fred VanVleet is similarly subtle in his play and thus he is also left off the highlight reels that the casual fan uses to determine who is a star and who is not. Fear not Raptors fans, it appears we will have plenty of ammo to rain down on the internet when a fan of an opposing team even considers questioning VanVleet’s ability.

There’s this:

Fred also is the comfortable leader on the team in net rating, as the team outscores their opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions with VanVleet on the floor.

Responsible for VanVleet’s outsized impact is largely his evolution as the adult in the room on offense. He looks far more confident as the lead creator of the Raptors. His pocket-passes to the roll-man have been well-timed and accurate. His possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler now generate 0.96 points per possession, up from 0.84 last year, per NBA.com. He looks more than ready to take the reigns of the offense from Lowry, and with them a set of bizarre stats that I can’t even begin to understand, but that will prove that VanVleet is more valuable than flashier, higher-volume guards that get the attention from the media.

His defense also remains smart and tough, another contributing factor.

It brings a tear to my eye knowing that this tradition of yelling about impact stats for Raptors players will continue. I can only assume that, in six years, Malachi Flynn will be third in the league in a bizarro new stat that is yet to be invented, and you can bet we Torontonians will run our damn mouths telling you about it.

Please, just don’t ask us to explain the stat.

That is it for our lessons for now. Be sure to check back next week, when we are assessing a (hopefully) .500 team.