On Friday, the Toronto Raptors capped a gruelling six-game road trip that saw them play five of those games on the west coast before finishing things off back east against the Indiana Pacers.
The team went 2-4 during this stretch and had flashes of both brilliant and downright awful play -- particularly on the defensive end.
As frustrating as the results of the trip might have been, the fact that the Raptors were as hot and cold as they were shouldn’t be too surprising.
This is a very young group that’s just learning how to play together and -- for some players such as Scottie Barnes and Dalano Banton -- everything they’re experiencing is, essentially, for the first time ever, meaning just about the only consistent with this team will be inconsistency.
It can be aggravating at times to watch because it means lapses that likely wouldn’t happen with a veteran group that’s played together for a little while such as the Raptors team that won the championship in 2019, but it’s all part of the learning process.
“Sometimes your mind is racing, especially for young players. You’re trying to understand what to do, let alone tell everybody else what to do or what you’re doing,” said Fred VanVleet after the Raptors practiced Saturday. “Something that we need to get better at, we are communicating through the mistakes, there’s a lot of talk after the play to figure out what happened but we need that to be in advance.”
Such is life for a team without a ton of experience, and a lot of mistakes the Raptors made while out on the road -- and this season, in general -- can be traced back to the inexperience of a lot of the players on the team.
And now, taking a bit of a closer look at the six games they played while out on the road, here are a few specific aspects that stood out about the Raptors on the trip.
First off, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that with their loss to the Pacers Friday night, the Raptors passed the 20-game mark on the season -- the unofficial quarter-way mark of the season.
Much of both the good and bad seen from the Raptors so far through the season can be traced back to how the team performed on this most recent road trip and, specifically, one game in particular.
Toronto’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies saw the Raptors look completely lost on the defensive end in the first half and then clamp down and look like a different team in the second half.
“We weren’t ready to go in Memphis,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “It took us all the way until halftime to get ready to go in Memphis. We saw this team this season in one game.”
Adding to that point, rookie sensation Barnes was also great for the Raptors in that game against Memphis, while the team saw the best offensively of Precious Achiuwa before Gary Trent Jr. and VanVleet finished things off, looking like legitimate closers for the Raptors.
The bipolar nature of the Raptors season was perfectly summed up by that victory in Memphis and, again, was likely a symptom of the fact this is a team that still has plenty of learning to do.
“I think we have an idea of who we’re supposed to be, now, you still gotta actualize that and go out there and put it together every night and that’s been a challenge,” VanVleet said. “We’ve shown flashes, we’ve shown how good we can be, we’ve shown how bad we can be and I think the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle: Having a higher floor, and reaching that ceiling more often.”
So if there needs to be a grade handed out about the Raptors through 20 games into their season, it’s tough to pinpoint but a B-minus seems about right because, even though the losses have been disappointing, there’s a good rationale as to why Toronto has been as tepid as it has been so far.
Roster turnover a problem
As mentioned before, many of the problems the Raptors have faced this season were made very apparent while the team was out on the road, and there likely is no bigger problem than the team's bad encounter with the injury bug.
There was optimism when Pascal Siakam returned to the lineup seemingly earlier than expected in early November, but right after the Raptors played their first game on the trip in Portland, it was discovered that OG Anunoby had banged his hip during a practice, leading to a hip pointer injury that’s kept him out of the lineup ever since.
It was a major blow that then was compounded by the fact that Achiuwa was forced to miss the first two games of the trip (in Portland and Utah) with a shoulder injury and Khem Birch missed the final two games with knee swelling. In addition to all that, all the time that Yuta Watanabe missed with a calf strain -- he made his season debut against the Grizzlies -- forced him to rest Friday vs. Indiana.
Unlike in years past, the Raptors aren’t the deepest of teams and any injury -- let alone one to their leading scorer -- will be a big blow and simply lead them without enough horses to get to the finish line.
This could be seen in all four losses they had while out on the road with their bench, in particular, taking a major hit.
Toronto has the dubious distinction of featuring the least productive second unit in the NBA, but that’s likely because many of the pieces that would normally be there simply aren’t available either due to injury or because they have to step into a starters’ role in place of an injured player.
Should the Raptors find a way to get healthier, then the bench productivity will likely increase and problems there should be less apparent.
Unfortunately, it looks like things might be trending in the opposite direction there, with the Raptors confirming that Birch will miss Toronto’s next game -- Sunday against the Celtics -- while Anunoby remains questionable and Trent is also questionable after he left Friday’s game with a calf contusion.
The elephant in the room with the Raptors during their trip -- and for about half of the games they’ve played total this season -- is a team that’s supposed to be strong defensively has been anything but.
Toronto allowed a dismal 117.3 points per 100 possessions while on the trip and, by the sounds of things, this poor defence has been a major point of consternation for the team.
“I would say not surprising, it’s disappointing because, in theory, defence is effort and heart and want-to and will. In theory, that’s the easy part,” said VanVleet when asked if he was surprised to see the Raptors’ offence ahead of its defence so far this season. “Offence, there’s a lot of other things that have to go into that. I don’t know, maybe because our buckets have been coming with relative ease in some of these games it just puts us more relaxed, I don’t know.
“I’ve been searching for some of the answers, we’ve found some, we haven’t found all of them, but I think it just comes down to manning up and guarding your yard, taking pride in the defensive end of the floor, staying locked in the game plan. The coaching staff, they give us great game plans every game, we’re prepared, and it’s up to the players to go out there and execute that, to be locked in and we haven’t done that the last however many games, 10 games? Our defence has taken a slide so we gotta find a way to get that back but I’m confident that we will.”
Of course, there have been times when effort and focus have been lacking -- that game against the Golden State Warriors, in particular, comes to mind -- but with all the injuries the Raptors have sustained, and given the all-out style of the Raptors’ defensive scheme it feels like being down bodies makes trying to execute the defence that much more difficult.
Not that VanVleet wants to use fatigue as any excuse, that is.
“I mean we’re playing for our life. This is what we do. We can be tired after the game,” said VanVleet. “I can limp around and barely walk today, can’t get out of bed, I’ll be ready to play by six o'clock tomorrow, that’s just how it goes. When that ball is up you’re ready to give it all you got and we live with what comes after that.
“I think that’s like a mental thing, to be honest with you. Guys are in and out, and there’s more opportunity than you could ever imagine and wish for as a young player. So whoever’s coming and the guy that’s coming in, he’s pretty fresh, you know what I’m saying? We did have a tough trip and we travelled and we played some games, but, like, I’m leading the league in minutes and miles ran per game and I’m OK, you know what I mean? I’m OK, so anything under that, you should be OK.”
As the locker room leader, VanVleet has taken ownership of the Raptors’ defensive woes, but he’s going to need guys to come along with him if the team really is going to turn things around on that end.
“I think Fred’s play has been super consistent,” said Nurse. “Like some of the nights that we’ve had, and I think it’s been about a split, where our defence has been really, really good by the numbers and not so good by the numbers, but Fred’s just been good regardless of that. So he’s doing his job. He’s leading by example and he’s doing his job and we’ve gotta get one of those guys to come with him on a consistency level and a compete level. Consistent compete level.”
A team of more guys like VanVleet would certainly help things, but that may be more wishful thinking on Nurse’s part than anything else.
Siakam still adjusting to things
In the six games out on the road, Pascal Siakam’s looked pretty good and productive.
Even with that dud of a performance he put up in Utah, he’s averaged 18.5 points and seven rebounds per game while shooting 44.8 per cent from the field, 38.5 per cent from deep and getting to the free-throw line about five times per game.
The biggest problem with Siakam, however, has been a lack of stage presence.
Yes, he had that fabulous game against the Sacramento Kings, but, overall for the trip -- while he’s put up decent numbers -- the general impact of the points he’s scoring haven’t come in all-too-important moments and likely explains why there’s been so much divisiveness about him among the fan base.
He puts up good numbers, but they don’t seem to come in as important times as, say, when VanVleet hits a shot.
Of course, Siakam is still adjusting to some of the new faces on the team as they are to him, so everyone is getting comfortable with each other.
“Just continuing to focus on all the little things, defence, rebounding and do all the other things,” said Siakam after Friday’s game. “And with time just getting my rhythm on offence and finding ways to be more effective and things like that. For me personally, just continuing to do the little things.”
It’s entirely possible Siakam is still feeling things out with his new teammates before he asserts himself again.
The Raptors would probably like to see him assert himself sooner than later, though.
Honey, we’re home! pic.twitter.com/jG23X319lV
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 27, 2021
Home cooking next on the horizon
Lastly, after what was a gauntlet of a schedule that saw them, of course, just play six games on the road and eight of their last 10 away, things will shift for the Raptors, who will play a seven-game homestand -- beginning Sunday against the Celtics -- and 10 of their next 11 at Scotiabank Arena.
Oddly, the Raptors have been somewhat poor at home, sporting just a 2-6 record and a minus-4.1 net rating.
“I don’t know, but there’s no better time to fix it than now,” said VanVleet when asked why the team has performed so poorly at home this season. “It’s right here in front of us so we need to start that tomorrow with a professional effort.
“I think, again, learning to protect your home court is something that feels so normal and natural but until then it’s not. You have a lot of guys who don’t really understand what that means, have to learn the dynamic between the crowd and understanding this has been one of the best home-court advantages in the last how many years -- five years, for sure, maybe more than that -- and we have to get back to that and we have to start to build that again. Not saying we should be undefeated or anything like that but 2-5 [sic] is unacceptable and we have to change that.”
Added Nurse: “We’ve got to make sure that we treat this very businesslike, very professional at home. We’ve got to get a little tougher, just tougher and defend our home court. We’ve got the opportunity now to do that so we’ll look forward for the opportunity to play at home.”