TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors optimism was based on the law of averages – if there is such a thing.
The theory: do something well, do it consistently, and eventually your results will normalize according to your skill and talent.
It doesn’t always happen on schedule, is the problem.
Heading into this season, on paper, the Raptors projected to be a good three-point shooting team, as opposed to last season, when they were mainly an enthusiastic three-point shooting team with smatterings of Kyle Lowry, C.J. Miles and Serge Ibaka mixed in with a crew of players trying to become passable marksmen on the fly.
With the addition of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Lowry, Miles, Ibaka, and the emergence of Fred VanVleet heading into this year, Toronto now boasted six players with at least one season where they’d shot at least 40 per cent — the threshold for elite shooting from distance.
Given head coach Nick Nurse’s penchant for shooting threes at high volume – Toronto was third in attempts last season and holding steady at 33.2 attempts per game before Friday night, eighth most in the league – having a wider array of proven shooters along with hoped for improvement from the likes of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Delon Wright and maybe even Jonas Valanciunas, on paper, the Raptors had the makings of being one of the better shooting teams in the league.
Given the way three-point shooting has become perhaps the single-most important attribute for an elite team, this seemed to bode well.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. On the season, Toronto arrived home to Scotiabank Arena shooting just 33.8 per cent from deep, ranking them 24th league-wide. Over their past six games which has qualified a slump in that they’ve gone 3-3 with wins coming against some lightweights, the Raptors are just 27th.
Can’t last, right?
“I’ll tell you, I came out of the Orlando game [on Tuesday where the Raptors won but shot just 9-of-34 from deep] thinking man … a struggle offensively, it just felt uncomfortable,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And I say this a lot, it’s never as good or bad as it feels until I watch the game film. I watched the game film and we started the third quarter with I think five wide-open [three-point shots] … Danny had three of ’em, Serge had one, just wide open. And none of ’em go. So I was like ‘okay, I need to calm down about the struggling offense thing here a little bit’. Again, we don’t want to live in that very much.
“What we try to live in is creating the shots that we wanna create and have the right guy shoot ’em. We are shooting it not very well and I’m crossing my fingers and rubbing my rabbit’s foot that hopefully some of those shots start going in. I think it’ll go back to the norm, and that’s good news.”
Nurse looked like a sage beginning at about the six-minute mark of the first quarter of the Raptors convincing 125-107 win over the visiting Washington Wizards. The victory improved Toronto to a franchise-record 16-4 through 20 games while dropping the badly struggling Wizards to 6-12.
It was a win built on marksmanship as the Raptors shot 17-for-39 from deep, or 43.6 per cent, the 17 triples a new season-high. The makes were spread across nine different players while Leonard led all scorers with 27 points (and 10 rebounds).
But in the very early going, it did not look promising. Up until the mid-point of the first quarter the Raptors looked same-old same old. They missed their first four triples – what else was new given Toronto’s thoroughly below-average shooting from beyond the arc?
The Wizards started 0-4 as well but never got on track as they shot an egregious 9-of-46 from three.
In contrast, the Raptors finally righted the ship: Green stepped into an open look from Siakam and then Ibaka knocked one down after Lowry made a spectacular save on a ball headed out of bounds, then Green had another to put the Raptors up six. With the defence stretched, Lowry was able to probe the paint and then hit a wide-open OG Anunoby in the corner for another triple.
The floodgates were open.
“I think when guys are hitting them, I think it does spread,” said Nurse later. “I think the same applies, you miss a bunch in a row and the next one, guys are maybe pressing a little bit. It was good to see them going that way, maybe we on the way back to evening things out.”
After missing their first four, Toronto made seven of their next nine 3-pointers — including a pair of end of shot-clock bombs by the struggling VanVleet — to lead 38-26 at the end of the first quarter. VanVleet hit another tough one early in the second, and the spotty (from deep) Siakam hit a corner triple while Anunoby — back after missing three games with a wrist injury and led a vibrant bench with 15 points – hit one before the end of the half as Toronto led 70-62 after 24 minutes having shot 10-of-23 from deep.
It was a welcome turn.
Of the six Raptors with a history of high-end perimeter shooting, only Green (3-of-7 last night) has had a good start through the first quarter of the season, connecting on a team-best 44 per cent prior to Friday. Lowry (15 points and nine assists with two triples on the night) is hovering around 35 per cent, having fallen off badly after a scorching start, while VanVleet (3-of-5), Miles (1-of-7), and Ibaka (1-of-2) have all underachieved by shooting less than 30 per cent from deep.
Miles was back in the lineup for the first time in five games and was expressing optimism that his slow start was a product of sample size, more than anything. Even the best three-point shooters aren’t metronomes – a 40-per cent season has plenty of 1-for-7 nights.
“You just know that you’re going to come out of it,” said Miles who is now shooting 25 per cent from deep on the year. “It’s one of those things, one of those times. Especially in the beginning of the year, different shots, different role, different lot of stuff goes with it too. I’ve been through worse.”
But life is easier when threes are falling. The Raptors lone rough spot came early in the second half when the Wizards showed some rare fight and started the third quarter on a 9-0 run to take the lead 71-70. But then Lowry hit a three and then Leonard hit one. A moment later, Green again, and in a seeming blink the Raptors were up by eight and the Raptors up 101-87 heading into the fourth on the strength of 14 triples on 30 attempts to that point. They never looked back.
The NBA – like all sports – has become more analysis driven. Short-term blips are measured against long-term trends. The process matters more than the results it seems, at times. Do good things and you should generate good shots by good shooters. Eventually, they’ll fall.
“What we do is we have kind of a shot spectrum,” said Nurse. “We’re looking for certain shots and we’ve got goals each game of which shots we’re looking for. We’re meeting those and exceeding those guidelines. That’s it. That’s it. So we’re okay so long as it doesn’t fall [below those guidelines] and if it does, we take a look at it. But we’re right there.”
Over time, the math should work in your favour, is the message, and on Friday night – for the first time in a while – it very much did.