The Toronto Raptors will kick off what just might be the toughest stretch of their 2021-22 campaign Monday night when they take on the Portland Trail Blazers.
That game will be the start of a six-game, 11-day road trip that will see Toronto out west for five straight games before capping off their roadie in Indianapolis.
During this trip the Raptors will be forced to play a back-to-back and the quality of the competition they’ll see during this trip -- although the records may say otherwise -- won’t exactly be a walk in the park.
For reference, here’s a quick look at the schedule Toronto has ahead of itself:
• Nov. 15 – Portland Trail Blazers (6-8) at 10 p.m. ET
• Nov. 18 – Utah Jazz (8-5) at 9 p.m. ET on Sportsnet ONE
• Nov. 19 – Sacramento Kings (5-8) at 10 p.m. ET on Sportsnet ONE
• Nov. 21 – Golden State Warriors (11-2) at 8:30 p.m. ET on Sportsnet ONE
• Nov. 24 – Memphis Grizzlies (6-7) at 8 p.m. ET
• Nov. 26 – Indiana Pacers (6-8) at 8:00 p.m. ET
Four of the six teams the Raptors will see have sub-.500 records, but don’t let that fool you, as a sub-.500 record doesn’t seem to mean much this season with the league seemingly featuring far more parity than in recent memory.
And the same can be said of the Utah Jazz and even the Golden State Warriors as far as the Raptors’ chances against them. Both of those clubs have looked strong -- very much so in the Dubs’ case -- but they aren’t infallible, and the new physicality allowed on defence will certainly give Toronto a shot to not just stay in games, but win them.
Ahead of the big road trip, here are five storylines to keep an eye on.
Siakam limited no longer
Though the ultimate outcome was disappointing, Saturday’s loss to the Detroit Pistons proved to be an important one for the Raptors because of the explosion seen from Pascal Siakam.
The former all-star and All-NBA forward went off for 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists on 9-of-14 shooting from the floor and a 2-for-3 mark from deep.
In just his third game back from off-season shoulder surgery, he looked a lot like the Siakam that terrorized the league for a short while before he was forced into the Disney World bubble back in the 2019-20 season. Even better, he was able to dominate during that Saturday game thanks in part because he didn’t appear to be limited to a minutes restriction like he was during his first two stints.
Siakam played about 35 minutes that evening, and after the game Raptors coach Nick Nurse inferred that the minutes leash was coming off, much to Siakiam’s relief.
“I'm excited,” said Siakam. “Yeah, obviously they've been doing an incredible job, like I always said. And throughout the years, they've been really good at that, and I just want to make sure I say that. I trust Alex (McEchnie, the Raptors' vice president of player health and performance), I trust the medical staff, and the job that they've been able to do. There's a lot of experience, and they know what they're talking about.”
This is great news for the Raptors. Siakam is the team’s best player and is their most important piece offensively -- particularly in the half-court -- and having him fully available can only help the Raptors during this trip and beyond.
In particular, him getting back to playing regular minutes could also help the Raptors figure out their rotation and better allow his teammates to adjust and re-adjust to playing with him.
“We know that he’s that guy on our team where we know if we need a bucket we can give it to him and he can go score,” Scottie Barnes said Sunday of Siakam before the Raptors departed on their road trip.
Barnes, of course, has been one of the brightest aspects of the Raptors’ season so far, and the combination of him with an untethered Siakam is an exciting proposition.
Will we get to see the Raptors at full strength?
Unfortunately, though Siakam won’t be limited anymore, the Raptors as a team may still be -- at least during the early phases of this trip.
On Friday, during shootaround in Portland, the Raptors confirmed that Boucher would miss Monday’s contest while VanVleet and Achiuwa were questionable to play.
Obviously, a team at full strength is better than one dealing with injuries but for the Raptors, especially, missing players could prove problematic because, as mentioned before, the team needs to re-adjust to playing with Siakam and Nurse still needs to figure out his rotation, something he won’t be able to do effectively should all three of VanVleet, Achiuwa and Boucher be forced to miss time.
The fact that two key frontcourt members could miss time during this trip is probably even worse for the Raptors as it leaves them rather thin up near the basket, especially at centre.
Toronto won’t see Rudy Gobert and Utah until Thursday, but if Achiuwa and Boucher can’t go during that game then OG Anunonby or Siakam will probably have to take that responsibility, which will inevitably take away from their respective offensive games -- something the Raptors can ill afford.
Here’s hoping these ailments the Raptors are facing aren’t long-term.
Raptors put forth a consistent effort on the road
The 7-7 record the Raptors currently sport is perfectly indicative of how consistently uneven the team’s performance has been so far this season.
There are times when the Raptors look like world-beaters, forcing turnovers, getting out in transition and running teams out of the gym, and there are other times when the team’s high-risk, high-reward defence leads them to over-help, leaving the corner three wide open -- as what happened on Saturday.
Those miscues seen from the Raptors Saturday took place at home at Scotiabank Arena, however, where the team has, surprisingly, been one of the worst in the league, allowing a horrendous 112.9 points per 100 possessions.
On the road, though, it’s a whole other story as Toronto allows only 100.7 points per 100 possessions, sports the second-best road net rating at plus-7.5 and has a 5-1 record on the road as opposed to the 2-6 one at home.
“It seems like we haven't played nearly as good defence at home as we've played on the road, the record probably points directly to that,” said Nurse.
Yes, for some reason or another, the Raptors just seem a lot more focused while on the road, especially on the defensive end.
This issue at home is something they’re going to have to get sorted out, but for their next six games, being as comfortable as they have been while out on the road should help serve them well.
Gary vs. Norm
On Monday, the Raptors will see the Blazers and familiar old face Norman Powell, whom they traded at the deadline last season for Gary Trent Jr., in part because there was a thought that they wouldn’t be able to afford Powell in free agency.
Well, when free agency hit, a funny thing happened: Powell and Trent ended up getting paid the same $18 million per season, with the difference being the length of contract that Powell signed being a little more than the one that Trent did.
At the time of this signing the Raptors’ front office was criticized because it looked like they actually could’ve retained Powell’s services for the same price as they paid Trent, despite the fact Powell was looking like the better player.
This season, however, thanks to a flip he appeared to switch on the defensive end, Trent has looked comparable to Powell. Sure, he hasn’t been as efficient a scorer -- his shot selection sometimes leaves a lot to be desired -- but he’s been a far stronger defender, leading the league in total steals and deflections, and at only 22 years of age to the 28 Powell is, he looks like he could turn into a better long-term piece for the Raptors than Powell.
It's not guaranteed, but on Monday here’s hoping that the two end up checking each other to add more fuel to this debate.
Barnes squaring off against Green
The flagship game during this trip for the Raptors will take place this coming Sunday when they square off against the mighty Warriors.
There are a lot of storylines you can talk about in the lead-up to that game, but one that may not be talked about as much is the possible matchup between Raptors rookie Barnes and six-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection, and former Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green.
During the pre-draft process, Green was a name that popped up often when looking for an NBA comparable for Barnes, and thus far the comp seems pretty legitimate as Barnes has all the potential in the world to become an All-Defensive kind of player, and his natural playmaking and vision is quite reminiscent of Green, too.
Despite the similarities between the two, Barnes said he didn’t really try to model his game after Green while he was growing up.
“He just tries to play the right way, he tries to do anything for the win,” said Barnes. “So he tries to make that impact offensively and defensively, he’s making good reads, trying to get his shooters open and his main guys open. And on defence he’s just trying to be vocal, show his length and be able to get in passing lanes and get steals because he’s making those defensive reads.
“But he wasn’t really a person I modelled my game after.”
This is perhaps because one key area where the two differ is Barnes is much more athletic than Green, and has a much better touch and feel around the basket and from mid-range scoring the basketball.
Heading into the start of this road trip Barnes is leading rookies in scoring (16.2 per game) and rebounding (8.3), is third in field-goal percentage of rookies who have played at least 100 minutes this season (51.9) and is averaging the sixth-most assists among first-year players to boot (2.8).
The ease that Barnes plays the game also appears to be a major differentiator between him and Green.
“I just try to play the game by its flow,” said Barnes. “I really just try to win possession by possession because every possession counts at this level. So I don’t really worry about it or overthink. I’m just out there playing, being the best that I can be.”
Green is notorious for getting players out of their flow -- be it with his constant trash talk or with his on-court play -- but it sounds like Barnes has the demeanour to handle whatever might get thrown at him.