Raptors’ depth gets job done vs. Kings but real litmus tests await

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) drives to the basket between Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield, left, and Kings forward Richaun Holmes (22) during first half NBA action in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors’ 2019-20 regular season, like all regular seasons, is about finding out just how good this team is. The best player from the 2018-19 championship version is gone, but the ones that remained have all evolved and bettered themselves in interesting ways, whether by virtue of being young and firmly within their most fertile developmental NBA years, or older and using the proving ground of a long playoff run to learn how to play smarter and more efficiently.

How good will these Raptors be in the long haul? We’ll be a lot closer to answering that question 10 days from now when they return from a five-game west-coast road trip that will include confrontations with some of the NBA’s best teams. How good are these Raptors today? Well, they’re certainly better than the Sacramento Kings.

And they have to be. Victories like Wednesday’s 124-120, closer-than-it-ought-too-have-been triumph over the Kings — who may currently be the third-best team in California, but very likely will not end up as one of the top eight in the Western Conference — are the necessary ones that good teams put in their back pockets early in seasons. The Raptors completed a rather soft stretch of their schedule Wednesday night, and to do so with anything but a home win over an inferior team would have been tremendously disappointing.

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Consider it job done. Six Raptors finished with double-digits, led by Kyle Lowry’s 24, Pascal Siakam’s 23, and Serge Ibaka’s 21 off the bench. Siakam added 12 boards for his first double-double since opening night, which was nice. And four Raptors dished out five assists or more, which was even nicer.

“The offence was great. They kept playing next action, they kept taking what was there,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I thought that was one of our better offensive nights. There was no real lulls where the ball was sticking very much tonight.”

The Raptors will win and lose most nights based on how well they defend, which was the underappreciated special sauce of last season’s title run. But early Wednesday, they showed what they can accomplish offensively when everything’s humming. After starting 0-of-4 from the field, the Raptors hit 14 consecutive shots, each one seemingly more unselfish and in-rhythm than the last.

Lowry and OG Anunoby kicked it off with a swift two-man action that freed the 22-year-old forward up for a dunk. Anunoby later found Fred VanVleet unguarded beyond the arc for a bucket, hit one from long-range himself, and set up Marc Gasol at the end of a scrambling play in transition for another three.

Gasol’s 10 first-quarter minutes were his best run of play so far this season, as he found the right mix of facilitation and aggressiveness, finishing the quarter 3-of-3 from the field with a pair of assists. And, in a not necessarily unrelated event, Toronto’s ball distribution was a good as its been as well. All five of Toronto’s starters finished the first quarter with an assist — Anunoby and VanVleet had three each — while 10 of Toronto’s 14 consecutive buckets were assisted.

“Marc made a big improvement,” Nurse said. “Those guys are getting a little bit more in sync when they hit him to quickly back cut or slip a screen or head to the rim, because they know there’s a good chance he’s going to try to feed them.

“But I thought everybody was in to what we call ‘next-action basketball’ tonight. When it didn’t look good, boom, it was to Marc and to the other side and to the next screen and roll. And if that didn’t look good then, boom, it was to the other side. That’s a little bit more like it for us offensively.”

With a 13-point lead heading into the second period, Nurse took the opportunity to extend his rotation to 10, awarding some rare run to depth pieces Terrence Davis, Chris Boucher, and Matt Thomas. Nurse said before the game that he’d ideally like to have at least two of his starters on the court throughout the game, but strayed from that goal as the second quarter began, utilizing an all-bench unit with Lowry running the floor.

It was worth a shot. The way Nurse has been running Lowry and VanVleet through Toronto’s first six contests — they entered Wednesday’s action first and second in the NBA in minutes per game — is obviously unsustainable long-term and the Raptors will need more varied lineups to get through tougher segments of their schedule without bumping up against the realities of fatigue and injury.

But Wednesday’s returns likely only confirmed Nurse’s beliefs, as Lowry struggled to carry the load for a disjointed unit. Toronto’s defence lapsed as the Kings got to the line repeatedly and vacuumed rebounds. Davis committed his third foul in as many minutes early in the quarter. And Boucher’s limitations were exposed as he was outmuscled battling for rebounds beneath Toronto’s basket and goaded into a foul by a Trevor Ariza pump-fake on a non-paint two.

Plainly, the Raptors need someone — anyone — from outside the team’s top seven to raise their level of play and make more of opportunities. It’ll be non-negotiable as the season wears on. But Wednesday’s second quarter wasn’t the time.

“I thought that group was okay. They weren’t great,” Nurse said of his reserves. “But at least that group kind of held it even tonight. I’ve got to find some guys and we’ve got to keep trying them. So, this was a night to do it.”

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There was certainly no shortage of positives from the starters, none more pertinent than Anunoby’s continued ascendance — he was outstanding at both ends of the floor, finishing with a season-high 18 points and a career-high five assists— following a disappointing sophomore season and the fact Siakam played over 18 minutes without committing a foul a day after Nurse challenged him to defend more intelligently.

And yet, there was Siakam, only a dozen seconds into the third quarter, looking up at the video board at a replay of his foul of Harrison Barnes in the paint. Small steps, right? And the Raptors will take it as long as Siakam’s playing like he did immediately after the foul, blowing past Barnes for an and-one at the rim, hitting a nifty hook shot on a drive off a nice feed by VanVleet, and setting up Anunoby for his third three of the night.

Siakam had 11 of his 23 points and seven of his 12 rebounds in the frame, putting on one of the dominant-at-both-ends third-quarter takeovers that are becoming common for him. Nurse dipped back into his bench later in the quarter, but this time kept Lowry and Siakam on the floor throughout, a clear nod to the Lowry-and-bench unit’s play earlier in the game.

But the bench minutes remained a struggle. Davis picked up two more fouls in only three minutes, while Norman Powell struggled to find his way into the game. The lone consolation was Thomas, who added to the strong defence he played throughout his earlier minutes with a pair of three’s early in the fourth quarter. He was consistently active and effective at both ends, and showed some natural chemistry with Lowry that could earn him more playing time going forward.

Speaking of Lowry, Nurse couldn’t take him off the floor. The 33-year-old flirted with 40 minutes again, and was Toronto’s most impactful player, again. Yes, his workload’s too high. But the Raptors don’t win without all the trademark little things he does, and certainly don’t withstand Sacramento’s second-half push. Nurse won’t be ecstatic with his team’s overall defence in that half, nor the 14 turnovers committed on the night. But all in all, it was a tidy night of early season of business.

“It was good for us. They’re a tough team, they’ve been playing well. And they gave us their all,” VanVleet said. “We knew that we were going to have our hands full. Obviously, we probably could’ve given ourselves a little bit more space and comfort in terms of the score. But they made plays. And we just had to keep fighting and close them out.”

Of course, it’s only the Kings. Currently riding a 13-season streak of playoff-less basketball, Sacramento opened the season losing five straight and entered Wednesday’s game with the NBA’s fourth-worst net rating (-8.6) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.17). We still don’t know just how good this post-championship Raptors team is — we do know they’re much better than these Kings.

But it’s about to get more difficult. The Raptors head out on a five-game, nine-day west coast road trip from here, which will feature dates with two decidedly more dangerous California-based clubs in the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers.

Playing LeBron James and Anthony Davis on Sunday night with the basketball world watching will be a telling test of Toronto’s early-season mettle and quality. Playing Kawhi Leonard the night following will be similar, with obvious emotional stakes baked in. The road trip as a whole will tell us a lot about this team. Time to go.

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