Raptors facing toughest test yet with five-game Western trip

Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Five games, nine days, 20 combined wins.

This is the task in front of the Toronto Raptors as they prepare to embark on one of two season-long five-game Western Conference road swings this season beginning Friday against the New Orleans Pelicans and highlighted by an L.A. back-to-back with LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers and a reunion with the Raptors’ 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and his Los Angeles Clippers.

"It’s a good test. It’s a good test. This is some of the tougher stretches of the NBA year, going on a long road trip like this," said Fred VanVleet of the upcoming gauntlet. "Each night presents something different. It’s good early in the year to go through these stretches, go on the road, be tired back-to-back, see what you’ve got and just try to keep improving."

Sporting a 5-2 record with the league’s sixth best net rating, Toronto has shown little championship hangover as the team’s core pieces for the most part have all exceeded or met their expected levels.

With that said, the Raptors haven’t a seen a test quite like this yet in the young season.

Here’s a basic rundown of the schedule and a few storylines to watch as the Raptors head west.

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As mentioned off the top, this is a five-game swing beginning Friday. Here’s what the Raptors have in front of them.

Nov. 8 – New Orleans Pelicans

With only one win on the season, the Pelicans don’t look like their much threat at all and seem to be the perfect warmup for the Raptors before the true test comes.

However, Toronto can’t afford to take New Orleans lightly. The Pelicans played the Raptors tough in the season opener and they’re a team that can really score, as their fifth-best offensive rating indicates. This is potentially dangerous for Toronto as its defence isn’t where head coach Nick Nurse would like it to be yet, with the team outside of the top 10 in defensive rating at the moment.

Nov. 10 – Los Angeles Lakers

Currently with a 6-1 record and playing the best defence in the league, it looks like this grand Lakers experiment is going to work out as most expected it to after all.

The duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis has been just as advertised: Dominant, efficient and remarkably entertaining. The Raptors as a team might have more quality overall, but they’ll be hard-pressed to find proper answers for James and Davis.

Nov. 11 – Los Angeles Clippers

Two words: Kawhi Leonard.

This is sure to be an emotional night as the Raptors go toe-to-toe with the man most responsible for winning the franchise its first-ever championship (more on this below).

Outside of that, there’s a basketball game to be played and even though Leonard’s been brilliant and the Clippers’ offence has looked spectacular, its defence has been shaky this season, a fact the Raptors will want to take advantage of.

Nov. 13 – Portland Trail Blazers

After the glitz and glam of the L.A. back-to-back, the Raptors will fly north to face off against the Blazers, a team that still features its luminary backcourt combo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but appears to be without some of the spark that helped carry the team to the Western Conference Finals last season.

Nov. 16 – Dallas Mavericks

Lastly, there’s the Mavericks and their young transcendent-looking star Luka Doncic.

At only 20 years of age, Doncic already has 11 career triple-doubles — three alone this season — and is just a shade away in rebounds and assists from averaging a triple-double on the season.

Given his size (six-foot-seven) and other-worldly skill and talent, the Slovenian prodigy looks something like a young, European James, particularly because what Doncic does on the floor has directly affected the Mavericks’ strong start this season with a sixth-best box plus/minus of plus-9.3.

The Raptors will have their hands full with Doncic.

Programming Alert
Watch Toronto Raptors vs. Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, Nov. 11, on Sportsnet and Sportsnet ONE. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. PT.

Kawhi time

Never before had a player who had won Finals MVP changed teams in the off-season, until Leonard did so.

No matter the special moments and memories he created in his one whirlwind season in Toronto, it seems like his heart was always set on heading home.

No hard feelings, right?

Probably. Then again, this is a Raptors team led by one Kyle Lowry who, like many of the greats before him, have used sleights, both perceived and real, to fuel his career.

As hinted at after the Raptors won the championship, there may have been a rift within the locker room between Leonard and some of the Raptors until Leonard’s god-like performance in the playoffs basically erased that ill will.

Though not all that long ago, a fair bit of time has passed since the Raptors won it all, and though they might say they’ve moved on and there wasn’t any bad blood when Leonard made his decision to leave for the Clippers, that doesn’t mean Lowry and the Raptors won’t want some level of revenge.

Like a spurned lover, the Raptors need to show they’ve moved on and are doing just fine and the best way to do that would be to turn an evening that’s sure to be billed as one all about their ex into one that’s all about them.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

Pascal and OG in the bright lights

One of the most interesting things to watch during this road trip will be how Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby handle the increased attention they’re going to receive from clubs, particularly in the last four games of the trip.

Looking at Anunoby first, the Raptors’ newest breakout third-year player will likely be tasked with defending James, Leonard, Lillard, McCollum and Doncic during this trip. So far Anunoby has been a veritable bank safe on defence this season, smothering and locking up just about all of his assignments. But can he really do that against the game’s super elite on the road? We’re about to find out.

And in regards to Siakam, for him it’ll be kind of the exact opposite of Anunoby. Can he get himself uncorked when he’ll have tough defenders such as James – or even Anthony – from the Lakers and Leonard on the Clippers? Can he keep his composure in Staples Center when calls will inevitably not go his way because of the titans he’s matching up against offensively?

Again, we’re going to find answers – or at least the start of some answers – during this trip.

Siakam and Anunoby have both been excellent this season and there’s no reason to believe on this trip their play will fall off the face of the earth. But as – particularly in Siakam’s case – primetime guys, just keeping the status quo in big games like they’re about to see might not be enough. Seeing if they can rise to the occasion looks like the true test.

Writers Bloc
OG Anunoby credits confidence, regular role for solid start
November 07 2019

Minutes management

Lastly, the way Nurse handles minutes and his rotation, in general, on this trip.

It’s no secret that players like Lowry and VanVleet’s minutes are probably way too high at the moment and, with the injury to Patrick McCaw, Nurse doesn’t have an eighth man in his rotation he actually seems to trust.

Still, given the length and intensity of the trip, Nurse knows he’s going to have to find ways to cut down guys’ minutes so they don’t burn themselves out.

"Looking back on what we did, and then looking forward, you’re right, there’s going to be lots of games coming at us, and it’s going to be hard to play anything over 35 and bounce back and play the same the next night and then get on a plane and play two nights later, etc.," Nurse said. "I think we have to be a little bit more vigilant of those main guys’ minutes on this road trip."

How, exactly, Nurse plans to do this is entirely up in the air as he’s yet to show any real consistency with his rotation outside of his core seven and the praise he’s given to McCaw.

Wednesday night against the Sacramento Kings offered a glimpse into how Nurse might replace McCaw’s spot when he tried out Terence Davis, Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas. Of that trio, only Thomas appeared somewhat competent.

This is a real dilemma for Nurse, and one he’ll have to figure out on this road trip.

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