For the Toronto Raptors, the only thing that’s been consistent about the 2020-21 season is that the highs are high and the lows are low — and predicting when either will come is folly.
You can zoom out and look at this from the macro. A 2-8 start was followed by a terrific climb, almost all the way back to .500 before a loss to the Celtics. You can also look at it in the micro — this week, specifically — as the Raptors came off a loss to one of the league’s worst teams in the Timberwolves only to rally around a new starting lineup to upset the Bucks on Tuesday.
As someone who’s lost some cash betting on all this inconsistency, my tendency would be to advise you to lower your collective expectations — even coming into a game two days later against the same opponent in the same arena.
Then again, has Toronto finally figured something out? Ditching Aron Baynes from the starting lineup and going with a “best five” look that thrived in the 2020 playoffs worked wonders for the Raptors on Tuesday. Some of that is just OG Anunoby returning to the lineup after ten games out with a calf injury. The Raptors’ best individual defender (by a fair margin), Anunoby was also impactful on offense against Milwaukee, scoring 13 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Some of it is also just having players experienced in Nick Nurse’s system out on the floor for eight minutes to start. While Baynes tries his best, the Raptors just look so much better switching everything and frantically running around to contest shots. It’s what we’re used to from this team, and might be a salve for all the defensive woes we’ve experienced since the season started.
So yes, the experiment worked... but it might be short-lived. Kyle Lowry left Tuesday’s game with a sore left ankle and comes into Thursday morning questionable for tonight’s contest.
Kyle Lowry (sore left ankle) and Yuta Watanabe (sprained left ankle) are both questionable for tomorrow’s game versus Milwaukee.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) February 17, 2021
Without Lowry, the Raptors will be left relying on Baynes again in the starting lineup. He was good in his minutes off the bench, for what it’s worth — but his plodding style just hasn’t fit well in a scrambling scheme that needs to be on its A-game against the high octane Bucks.
Once again, we’re watching personnel as the day goes on. Here are the game details, as well as three more storylines to watch for.
Where to Watch
TSN, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto — Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
Milwaukee — Bryn Forbes, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Toronto — Kyle Lowry (questionable - ankle), Yuta Watanabe (questionable - ankle), Patrick McCaw (out - knee)
Milwaukee — Jrue Holiday (out - health and safety protocols), Jordan Nwora (out)
Small Unit Success
Diving deeper into that starting lineup of Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, it really is remarkable how strong their numbers are on both ends — especially considering lack of size.
In the 38 minutes these five have played together this season, the lineup has posted an 88.1 defensive rating — nearly 19 points better than the usual starters (with Anunoby) and 29 points better than the starters with Powell. Regardless of size, this is obviously a unit that can cause enough havoc on the defensive end to fluster other teams.
The offensive numbers aren’t quite as positive, but there’s a lot of noise in such a small sample size. A 98.8 rating isn’t sensational, but consider the net rating of 10.7 — this is clearly a team that more represents what the Raptors have been in the Nick Nurse era. It starts by taking care of your own end of the floor.
Of course, these positive numbers once again rely on Lowry making a healthy start to the game. If not, though, I’d be interested to see if Nurse starts Chris Boucher over Baynes. Boucher has an imperfect defender on the whole, but he had a few plays on Tuesday where he closed under control, made good reads in help, and tied up the loose mistakes he’s been prone to. If we’re into experimenting, Boucher over Baynes in the starting unit may be the next logical step.
Finding a Bench Hero
Starting your best five players means the bench loses a weapon, but the Raptors are starting to see some diamonds peeking through the rough. We mentioned Baynes’ success in the second unit, but the guy to watch in that eighth spot is DeAndre Bembry.
Bembry has had some quality games lately and is getting longer looks as a result. He’s played at least 20 minutes in four of the last five, scoring at least six points in the same number of games. Contradicted against the unpredictability of Terence Davis, where the ball often stops on any given possession, Bembry does a good job of doing his thing quietly. He cuts hard, runs in transition, and plays as an opportunist in bench lineups where Fred VanVleet is carrying the offensive load.
In Tuesday’s game, Bembry went 3-for-3 for six points, including a sky hook that we aren’t talking about enough. His comfort level is improving and the Raptors really just need two guys to pop when you get beyond Boucher on the bench. I like Bembry as the candidate to do just that.
Keep Pouring It In
Look, we know that the Raptors need to keep scoring in order to keep up with the Bucks. Even in a game where they defended better, Toronto couldn’t contain Giannis Antetokounmpo’s downhill ability, as the two-time MVP scored a game-high 34 points.
Luckily, their red hot stretch on offense hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. The Raptors are now owners of the fourth-best offense in the league over the last 10 games at 120.2, and have the highest net rating among those four teams. The Powell starting lineup just ripped the twine with Anunoby out, and by staying small and playing their “best five” the Raptors can keep their hot offense rolling while lifting their defensive upside.
Scoring can make up for defensive lapses against poor teams, but the Raptors aren’t in a position to enjoy that margin for error. They’ll need to be just as good as they were on Tuesday on both ends if they’re going to hand Milwaukee their fourth straight loss.