Sigh of relief, everyone! After losing six games in a row (and nine of their last 11), the Toronto Raptors finally overcame their struggles and beat the New York Knicks on Wednesday, 113-106. The losing streak included some close, winnable games, but once the losses started piling up, the silver linings became difficult to appreciate.
Throughout the streak, the Raptors were hampered by roster deficiencies, poor execution, and injuries. The win against the Knicks may not have cured those ills, but it might’ve fixed something equally important: the vibes. While it’s difficult to quantify the exact effect of team vibes, any observant fan can tell when their team is clicking, and when they’re not. The Raptors looked out of sorts during their losing streak, but against New York they seemed more energetic and more crisp executing plays like fast breaks. Pair the win with a 52-point performance by Pascal Siakam in MSG, and you have the recipe for a massive vibe-reversal.
50 in The Garden, is ICONIC.— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 22, 2022
So a BIG CELLY is in order pic.twitter.com/x7DA3JCW1O
Tonight, the Raptors face the 22-11 Cleveland Cavaliers, who are currently one game out of first-place in the East. These teams have faced each other twice this year: the Raptors won 108-105 in the season opener, then 100-88 in November in Siakam’s first game back from injury. (The Cavs were without Jarrett Allen in that most recent matchup, so the Raptors will have to navigate their offense around one of the league’s top rim-protectors.) With their best player returning to the court, the November win against Cleveland felt like a harbinger of the Raptors going up a level. Of course, the opposite occurred and here we are. Will things be different this time around?
Where to Watch:
TSN4, 7:30pm EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, Juancho Hernangomez, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes
Cleveland – Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen
Toronto – Precious Achiuwa (ankle - OUT), Otto Porter Jr. (toe - OUT), Gary Trent Jr. (quadriceps - questionable), Khem Birch (illness - questionable)
Cleveland – Ricky Rubio (knee - OUT), Dean Wade (shoulder - OUT), Dylan Windler (ankle - OUT), Evan Mobley (knee - questionable), Lamar Stevens (knee - questionable)\
Pascal Siakam’s 52 points in the Garden is one of the most iconic regular season performances in the Raptors’ history. Siakam has been playing at an All-NBA level all season, but with the season in peril the last couple games, Siakam turned it up yet another notch, putting up 90 points, 24 rebounds, and 13 assists on 30/52 shooting – and 25/29 free-throw shooting – across the two contests. That is a man who’s done with losing.
Siakam has been killing defenses this year with his quickness, touch around the rim, aggressiveness (eight free throw attempts per game!), dangerous mid-range shot, and his excellent playmaking out of double-teams. He has absolutely carried the Raptors at many points this season, and their 5-5 record during his absence seems miraculous at this point. Siakam has had little help to go with his superstar level play this season, but he’s shown that no matter the result, he’s just going to continue giving it his best.
The Year Two Blues
Long-term, Scottie Barnes is going to be fine. Players often go through rough stretches in their second season, and he clearly has the talent and natural gifts to become a star. In the short-term, though, something is clearly off with his focus level and it’s hurting the team.
In the Raptors’ seven-point win over the Knicks, Barnes was a minus-16 – the worst mark on either team. He scored just two points on 1/10 shooting, yet the most worrying thing was his defense, as Barnes routinely lost track of his off-ball assignments while getting burned at the point of attack, and giving up easy offensive boards. He still made some nice plays with his passing, but Nick Nurse was forced to sub him out for Malachi Flynn in the fourth quarter. The game resulted in a win, but Siakam isn’t going to score 52 points every night. In order for the team to piece wins together, Scottie Barnes needs to pick it up. No, he doesn’t need to be a 20-point scorer, but he can’t be a liability – the team just isn’t deep enough to withstand that.
Raptors v. Mitchell
Joel Embiid recently told the media: “It seems like, most of the time, [the Raptors] don’t care about winning. They just want to shut down the other star players.” I’m not too sure about that first part, but he hit the nail on the head with the latter sentence. Donovan Mitchell, who was held to eight points on 3/11 shooting in the last Cavs-Raptors matchup, knows all too well how the Raptors key in on opposing stars.
O.G. Anunoby gave Mitchell fits in that game by allowing him no space and maintaining the quickness to cut off drives. The Raptors also sent double-teams to get the ball out of Mitchell’s hands and force a play to be made elsewhere. The team’s defense majorly fell off during their losing streak. Can they execute their defensive rotations with an aggressive scheme against Mitchell? If not, the Cavs could punish the Raptors – or Anunoby will just have to handle Mitchell individually. And, unlike almost any other NBA player, Anunoby very well can.