At 2-7, the Toronto Raptors are, undoubtedly, in a bad spot to start the season. But even though you don’t get anything in the NBA for moral victories, the team’s play of late has been an encouraging sign.
Coming into a tough four-game Western Conference road trip, there was a lot of pressure put on the Raptors to find any kind of spark that might turn their season around. Heading into Monday’s road-trip capper with the Portland Trail Blazers at 10 p.m. ET on Sportsnet, the club may have found just what they were looking for.
Sure, they’ve only managed one win on the trip thus far and will be in tough on the second night of a back-to-back against a good Blazers squad that had a day of rest, but Toronto’s play on the trip has suggested that it’s right there, on the verge of breaking out, so why can’t it just do so against Portland?
As you get ready to watch the game, here are three things you may want to keep an eye out for.
Playing small is paying off big
With 7:45 left to play in Toronto’s roadie opener with the Phoenix Suns last week, Pascal Siakam checked into the game with the Raptors down 13 points. On the court joining him was Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby.
A smaller look that featured Anunoby playing centre, but one that managed to cut Phoenix’s lead to as little as six until the team inevitably ran out of gas and lost by eight.
It was yet another defeat for a team that could ill afford many more, but in doing so the Raptors appeared to find something that could help turn their season around.
In their next game, the Raptors played small again more consistently and ended up having a historic offensive outing as they crushed the Sacramento Kings. And even though they didn’t come away with the victory Sunday versus the Golden State Warriors, they put themselves in position to win at the buzzer thanks to the fact they prioritized playing small by actually inserting Powell into the starting lineup and playing that same fivesome that closed out the Phoenix game.
So, small sample size notwithstanding, the Raptors have truly appeared to play better much better by opting to go with a smaller, generally centre-less, lineup. In their last two games, the Raptors boast an offensive rating of 124.5 and a net rating of plus-10.6, marks demonstrably better than the 105 offensive rating and minus-4.5 net rating the team put up in its first seven games.
Given how much better the Raptors have looked playing small, expect head coach Nick Nurse to stick with those guns against Portland Monday night.
Another welcome surprise on this road trip has been the strong play of Siakam.
After getting off to a sluggish start within Toronto’s first five games that saw him get benched for one game and average just 16.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and two free-throw attempts per game while shooting a dreadful 39.4 per cent from the field and 28 per cent from deep, Siakam has come alive over his last four contests with averages of 24 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and eight free-throw attempts, and shooting percentages of 51.5 from the floor and 40 from three-point range.
It’s nearly a complete night-and-day transformation that we’ve seen from Siakam here and Toronto’s better play has mirrored it.
The wins haven’t come yet, but the Siakam we’ve seen of late looks a lot like the guy who earned an All-NBA spot last season, and it was his play that helped Toronto have as successful a year as it did before, meaning he could very well do it once again.
Encore lockdown act for FVV?
A big reason why Toronto’s Sunday-evening affair with the Warriors literally came down to the final shot was because of the night Stephen Curry had.
The Golden State superstar only managed 11 points on 2-for-16 shooting as he was smothered by VanVleet who, according to NBA.com matchup data, limited Curry to only five points in approximately 29 possessions that they were matched up on.
This was excellent work from VanVleet who will likely have to repeat his defensive performance against another dynamic, MVP-calibre guard with nearly unlimited range in Damian Lillard.
It’s a tall task to ask VanVleet to play superstar stopper two nights in a row, but he has the chops and compete level to do it. And if the Raptors are going to come away from this road trip with a respectable split and a more manageable 3-7 record then he’ll have no choice but to meet the challenge.