Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 114-103 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
One — Whole: The Raptors finally had their entire rotation available for the first time since February, which was such a huge relief. Toronto had been playing with nine or ten players for a stretch, with several starters sitting out or missing time for injuries, and their approach in every game was just to tread water and maybe steal it at the end. To have everybody back is a blessing, and it’s an important evaluation tool for where this group is moving forward. There’s still a chance to sneak into the playoffs, and this team can either sink or swim. They swam tonight, but there’s a long way to go.
Two — Decisions: The only downside to having everybody available is figuring out the rotation. Nick Nurse decided to stay big with Khem Birch at center, along with his four other regular starters. That sent both Chris Boucher and Gary Trent Jr. to the bench, even though both players had shown flashes in the starting role, but it was absolutely the right call. If there’s one takeaway from this season, it’s that size matters, and the Raptors finally have a defensively sound center in Birch who brings stability to his position. Birch was in foul trouble early, but finished strong in the second half, picking out a pair of passes to three-point shooters, securing a key defensive rebound, working the baseline for a cutting dunk, and nailed a corner three to secure the win.
Three — Confidence: The upside to playing games shorthanded is that it gave the bench some time to form an identity. Nurse rode the all-bench lineup for extended stretches, and while they mostly held even, that’s a huge improvement from where the bench was all season. Trent gives the bench a go-to scorer, Malachi Flynn knows how to run the show now after playing 30 minutes a night for two weeks, and they have hustle players at all the other positions. Granted, the rotation will be trimmed down in more important moments, but the Raptors aren’t out of the woods by any means. They will play five games next week, and the bench will be relied upon during important games.
Four — Fluid: Pascal Siakam played his role perfectly. The Nets are a good matchup for him since they’re lacking in big wing defenders, and Siakam made them pay by living in the paint. After taking a few hook shots to the chin, the Nets started doubling, and Siakam had the answer by kicking out to shooters. He even knocked down a pair of threes, which isn’t all that noteworthy except for how inconsistent his shot has been. As long as Siakam gets the ball in his spots, which are at the elbow and in the post, he is a fantastic player who can create efficient shots on offense. Siakam closed the game strong with two midrange jumpers, a driving layup, and a driving dish to Birch who dunked to put the Raptors up 10 with a minute left.
Five — Unique: You won’t find many players who can block Kyrie Irving’s jumper, then get from the three-point line to the rim for a dunk without a dribble on the other end. OG Anunoby is one of those rare players who wows you with stretches like that, and he was incredible for the Raptors in the third quarter when they pulled away from Brooklyn. Anunoby worked the baseline all night, canning corner threes, cutting to the rim, attacking the closeout, and just generally being smart in his movements to stay in the Nets’ blind spots defensively. Anunoby had some trouble when he was trying to drive on Irving, who was impressively stout on defense, but otherwise it was an excellent performance from Anunoby.
Six — Tactics: Nurse made a key adjustment in the third quarter by putting Anunoby on Irving. To be clear, it wasn’t as if Anunoby shut Irving down, because Irving is slipperier than a bar of soap at the bottom of a bubble bath, but Anunoby did block his jumper and generally contained Irving without needing much help. Putting Anunoby on Irving allowed the Raptors to shift their guards onto the Nets’ shooters, and when the screens came, the Raptors could switch their actions without giving up a mismatch. It takes a team effort, but it also requires special talent from Anunoby to handle such a difficult assignment. Toronto’s next game will be against New York, as Anunoby will likely move to the opposite end of the spectrum to guard a post-up player in Julius Randle, and odds are he’ll continue to excel.
Seven — Response: The Raptors’ struggles in the first half came down to their guards missing shots, as Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet had just 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting combined. They were much better in the second half, as Lowry and VanVleet hit five threes in the third quarter to blow the game open. Much of the adjustment was recognizing that the Nets were switching, which got the Raptors to second-guess their offense early on. After halftime the adjustment was made, the guards were more actively hunting the mismatch, and it got the Raptors the lead. That’s just good coaching and good adjustments made by two veteran guards.
Eight — Role: There was some debate in Trent Jr.’s merits as a starter, perhaps at the expense of VanVleet or Lowry, but that’s much too premature. First off, Lowry and VanVleet are better players who are more well-rounded in what they contribute. Second, Trent Jr.’s best function at the moment is to be a primary scorer, which is more easier served with the bench rather than in the starting five where the Raptors’ four other best scorers dominate. The downside is that Trent Jr. may have some inefficient nights, such as his 2-for-9 performance today, but Nurse liked all but one of his attempts. Maximizing the starting lineup isn’t always the best way to maximize the team as a whole.
Nine — Solid: Freddie Gillespie continues to impress in his stints off the bench. Gillespie was arguably the Raptors’ most productive player for stretches in the first half, as it was his diving efforts, his tap-out rebounds, and his shot-blocking that got the Raptors out of their early deficit. Gillespie finished with five blocks in 24 minutes, and even though he’s only in his seventh game, Gillespie already has half as many blocks as Aron Baynes in 50 games this season. It’s no wonder why the undrafted rookie is taking his minutes and running with it. The Raptors need size and activity in the paint, and Gillespie is providing.
Ten — Positioning: Chasing for the 10th seed isn’t sexy by any means, and it’s entirely fair to want the Raptors to collect as many lottery balls as possible. But one incoming teenager isn’t magically solving their problems, and the Raptors will need to tackle them eventually. This is basically an experiment by the front office, to put two passable centers in the middle, and to see how the core group around them respond. If they hit their stride, then maybe their problems just came down to an imbalance in the roster. Or if they don’t, then maybe they do need that teenager after all. In any case, it will be interesting to watch where the Raptors go from here. Much like after the Rudy Gay trade in 2013, it’s on the players to decide where the team’s path is moving forward.
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