November 18, 2019, 4:46 pm
Coming into the season, there were plenty of questions about how the Raptors would look without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The team, despite returning all but Leonard and Green among its real rotation pieces, felt entirely different.
While most of the roster’s core was back, these Raptors somehow felt unfamiliar – not just in terms of the names that had left, but in the style that they’d be forced to play. The Raptors had been built on continuity and excellent depth in recent years but entered the season with just seven players that had earned Nick Nurse’s trust and a bench that was full of unknowns.
How would the Raptors redistribute offensive and defensive workloads? What would they look like without the safety net that was Kawhi?
Those questions were only amplified by injuries to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka just before a road trip that included stops in Los Angeles (two nights), New Orleans, Portland and Dallas. The trusted seven quickly became five, and players who were blasted in preseason for lack of effort were going to be thrown into the mix out of necessity.
The Raptors would obviously prefer to have their top players healthy, but those injuries provided an important learning opportunity for the team, and a chance for players who had already been written off as bench fodder to prove their worth. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Raptors ended up getting key contributions from those players after all.
Across sports, all teams love to play the underdog card. “Us against the world” is an easy motivator, and it’s a great way to rally a group and come together. While a lot of those slights are more perceived than anything, the Raptors seem to thrive on being overlooked.
This remains a team whose only lottery pick is new acquisition Stanley Johnson — the one guy who’s still out of the rotation. It features two players with their own clothing brands, appropriately named “Bet on Yourself” and “Understand the Grind.” The chip-on-shoulder ethos suits the group.
After Toronto’s swing through the Western Conference, we now know who these Raptors are. Despite an unassuming 3-2 record on the five-game swing, the Raptors showed the rest of the league what they’re all about. This is a team that’s intent on playing hard and defending with maximum effort at all times, whether that’s in terms of actual play or at the drawing board.
Their win over the Lakers was the most impressive of the bunch. The bench ended up playing a huge factor in the contest, with Chris Boucher, Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson emerging to play significant minutes in the first game after the Raptors’ injuries.
That contest in particular is emblematic of the way the Raptors will need to approach matchups with the league’s elite teams – they didn’t have the best player on the floor, or even the second-best, but they absolutely dominated spots three through 12 by way of effort and intensity.
Things were even more dire the following night, when the Raptors lost OG Anunoby just two minutes into the game against the Clippers. Although they lost, they took LA down to the wire and got more sterling play from the bench.
Nick Nurse continues to push all the right buttons, dating back to his preseason call-out of the new guys for not playing hard enough to earn minutes. On this trip, their first real opportunity to show what they can do, the team’s four bench options (Hollis-Jefferson, Boucher, Davis and Matt Thomas) have come out on fire. They may not make the right decisions all the time, but they’re going to be going at maximum speed no matter what.
Hollis-Jefferson in particular has risen to the challenge. After logging just four minutes of garbage time through the season’s first eight games, RHJ has averaged over 23 minutes in the last four contests, with three games of more than 25 minutes. He seems to have taken an elevated sense of pride in his recent play and has been dealt a tough hand, coming from out of the rotation to take on difficult defensive matchups. RHJ spent 5:45 defending Kawhi Leonard in that Clippers game, and the Clippers scored just 18 points on those 21 cumulative possessions.
The other big matchups Hollis-Jefferson has handled (albeit to a lesser extent)? CJ McCollum, Damian Lillard and LeBron James. Notably, the effort has been there, and Hollis-Jefferson’s hustle has probably earned him minutes even when the team gets healthy.
Boucher, similarly, has taken full advantage of his first real shot at rotation minutes. His shooting and rim protection have stood out and outweighed his deficiencies to this point. Chalk him up as another find for the team’s scouting and development staff, to say nothing of the undrafted Davis or sharpshooter Thomas.
More broadly, the Raptors have relied on a number of defensive looks to patch over the current holes on the roster. Against the Lakers, they busted out a zone defense to help cover up for Boucher’s shot-blocking tunnel vision and weaponize their collective length. Against the Clippers, they went with an aggressive trapping scheme on Kawhi that kept him off balance all night. In Portland, Nurse busted out the fabled box-and-one defense, and despite Lillard’s best efforts to break it, none of his teammates could get the job done.
Nurse has made it clear that the team will go deep into the bag to accomplish their defensive goals – this is the way that they’ll need to play in order to hang with opponents that boast elite talent.
On this trip, the Raptors held LeBron James to 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting, Kawhi Leonard to 12 points on 2-of-11 shooting, Damian Lillard to nine points on 2-of-12 shooting and Luka Doncic to 26 points on 5-of-14 shooting, with a whopping 15 points coming at the charity stripe. When the Raptors lock in, they can give themselves a puncher’s chance against anyone.
It’s also been made clear that the team has bought in, and that’s been helped along by Nurse going to bat for his guys. Postgame comments about the officiating followed the two losses, in which the Raptors were on the short end of a wide free throw disparity – 15 to 30 against the Clippers and 15 to 33 against the Mavs; Doncic attempted 19 free throws on his own.
That’s not to say that free throw counts should be equal no matter what, but it is wise of Nurse to play that card given the effort the team has expended on this trip. He demanded that the team play harder, and they delivered in spades. Him bringing up the officiating is a sign that he has their backs so long as they hold up their end of the bargain.
The trip also confirmed two things: Fred VanVleet can probably handle a starting role and do it well, and Pascal Siakam can still function as a featured option even when key pieces are removed around him. Those may be bigger pieces of information, but a five-game sample there isn’t the same perspective-changer that it is for the players further down the roster or for the team’s identity as a whole.
The Raptors can take more out of their first Western swing of the season than a positive record. They were able to learn a lot about who they are and can widen the circle of trust to help ease the burden on the team’s most important players. Toronto won’t reap the benefits of having a superstar player anymore, but they also should not care about who is and isn’t on the court. There is proof that this collection of players can win if they play the right way. The Raptors can defend like hell and will get creative to do so, and it can deliver wins against teams that have more talent. Having that philosophy reinforced against some elite competition is worth more than the three wins in the standings.