Looking at the Toronto Raptors schedule and seeing two games against the Milwaukee Bucks and two games against the Philadelphia 76ers (sandwiched around one against the Minnesota Timberwolves), it would be easy to think, well, that’s a 1-4 or 2-3 stretch, 3-2 if we’re lucky.
Yet here we are: after beating the 76ers last night, the Raptors are sitting a 4-0 through the first four games of said stretch.
There was a true sense of resiliency around last year’s Toronto Raptors, a team that was able to fight through multiple injuries and stay in games and hang around and keep winning. Earlier this year, that didn’t seem to be the case, as they kept finding themselves in long funks and stretches of inconsistency that allowed opponents to pull away.
But as last night’s game showed, and Friday’s as well, that resiliency might be bouncing back. The Raptors endured a 25-1 run from Minnesota on Friday and bounced back to win. Last night, they found themselves down 14 early, bounce back to take the lead before the first quarter was over. Then they gave up an 11-0 run in the third, and found themselves trailing 82-71 with less than there minutes to go in the quarter… only to bust out a 12-0 run of their own.
And of course, they did it all without Kyle Lowry.
2. Small Start…
I was pretty impressed that Nick Nurse stuck with his small lineup last night to start against the 76ers; it takes some guts to go small against Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. On the very first possession, we got a look at the good and bad of it: The Sixers got two offensive rebounds straight off the bat, but then Fred VanVleet swiped the ball from Joel Embiid.
Unfortunately the challenge proved to be too much, as the Sixers out rebounded the Raptors 9-4 in the first six minutes, and muscled their way to the free throw line nine times.
Fortunately, Aron Baynes was up to the challenge. He ended up playing 29.5 minutes, and started the second half (and finished the fourth quarter). Although his stat line is modest (eight points, five boards) he was an effective deterrent around the paint, and finished the game +11.
3. …Big Finish
For all the “small ball” talk, and despite their undersized guards, the Raptors are capable of playing big. Well, bigger, anyway. Last night, Baynes played about 10 minutes alongside both Chris Boucher and Pascal Siakam again, and the team was +18 in those minutes. Those three plus OG Anunoby (2 minutes) or DeAndre Bembry (1.5 minutes) and you’ve got lineups that can match pure size with just about anyone, including Philly. The Raptors even managed to outscore the Sixers in the paint, 44-36 (although that disparity might come down to Toronto hacking the Sixers more down low).
Boucher-Baynes together— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) February 22, 2021
Entering tonight: +24 in 32min
Tonight: +25 in 14min
Total: +49 in 46 min
Davis & Boucher now 1-2 on the team in net rating, Bembry 3. Bench min last ~14 have been helpful.
Boucher was a huge spark for the bench unit, catching fire from downtown (5-for-6, including four straight in a five-minute span bridging the third and fourth quarters). And he continues to block shots at an impressive rate, including swiping this one from Embiid:
PLEASE GET THAT GHABAGE OUTTA HERE pic.twitter.com/QLHuRBgA2A— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 22, 2021
4. Fred Back
After subpar game against the Timberwolves, Fred VanVleet resumed his All-Star campaign, with a 23-point, nine-assist, five-rebound, two-steal performance. He completed that first quarter surge almost on his own, with 13 points in three minutes, including a ridiculous banked-in three with the shot clock winding down.
Just as he was last year, VanVleet has been great running the show in Kyle Lowry’s absence — and in fact, even better than last year. I recall getting incredibly frustrated at how often VanVleet would miss the roll man in pick-and-roll situations last year, and now he’s doing stuff like this regularly:
He’s not a lock, and the Raptors’ slow start to the season might work against him, but I think VanVleet is deserving of an All-Star nod.
5. Defensive Excellence
The Raptors have not looked like themselves — or rather, not like their past two seasons’ selves — on defense for much of this season, but they’re finally trending into right direction.
Over the past four games — and again, that includes three wins against two of the best teams in the East — the Raptors are holding opponents to 98.3 points per game. And while it’s true that number is artificially inflated (er, deflated) by the Timberwolves only scoring 81 points on Friday, the Raptors are holding opponents to 41% shooting in this stretch.
Perhaps most importantly, opponents’ three-point shooting is down to 30% in this stretch. It’s a small sample and of course three-point shooting is high-variance, but even the eye test backs this up: the Raptors are challenging three-point shots much more effectively. If you’ll recall the game against Boston on February 11, the Raptors were slow on challenging the Celtics behind the line. For the past few games they’ve done a much better job at closing out quickly and getting a hand up on shooters.
Finally, the Raptors are back above .500, and have moved up to sole possession of fifth place in the East. They’re only one loss behind Indiana, and just two games behind Milwaukee for third.
If the Raptors keep playing like this, they’ll soon earn the “team no one wants to play in the playoffs” moniker.