Last year at at this time, folks in Toronto were packing every sports merchandising store nearby, hoping to snatch up a Raptors jersey crested with the legendary #2. The more daring of us paid a visit to our barber shop and shocked everyone in sight when we walked out with braids, claiming we just wanted to be”like Kawhi”. It didn’t even matter if it was a gameday or not; whether in Toronto, or in Wisconsin; whether 25 degrees and sunny outside or frigid and wet; assuredly there would be a few Canadians letting the flame in their soul that we call Raptors pride burn bright enough for the world to see, as they camped out on Lakeshore Boulevard to reserve their square-foot of space in Jurassic Park.
It was a time at which ‘the shot’ was fresh in our mind, having bounced, and bounced, and bounced, and bounced just 11 days ago. It had been just a few days since Stephen A. Smith went on First Take and proclaimed that the Eastern Conference Finals was a wrap, after the Bucks had gone up 2-0 on their home court. It was only a couple of days since the birth of Fred VanVleet Jr. – the baby who would go on become Canada’s saviour, before he even learned to crawl, and a couple of days since Toronto tied the Eastern Conference Finals at two games apiece.
The narratives surrounding Game 5 were more Bucks-centric than Raptors-based. Heading back into Milwaukee, it was the Bucks’ turn to defend home court. Win, and you have a chance to close it out on the road. Lose, and risk what could potentially be one of the final years that Giannis Antetokounmpo plays for your small market team. Lose, and you’re about to get your butt kicked by Toronto for the third time in five years. Lose, and The Klaw will dispose of you like cardboard on recycling day. Lose, and risk becoming just the sixth team in NBA history to blow a 2-0 series lead in the Conference Finals. The analytics spoke louder than anything though: team’s in Milwaukee’s position were 51-5 all-time. For the sake of their dignity, they couldn’t let that ratio drop.
Ultimately, tonight was the night that Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors grabbed the Bucks by the throat, tossed them to the ground, and looked them in the eye, before ultimately lighting a polar country on fire.
Tonight should have been the night that Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet did it all once again. Unfortunately, God had other plans.
The last time that a full slate of NBA games went ahead as scheduled was March 10th – what now seems like eons ago – but a boring 74 days later, the optimism that the 2019-2020 NBA season will return has tied its shoes and is off to the races. As long as this optimism doesn’t trip over its own toes and is able to materialize, we could be back to setting our fantasy lineups and recalling our pre-game routines by mid-July. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the latest update is that Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort is most likely to host any NBA games to be played out this year, while the league has also been discussing strategies of how they will rapidly and efficiently test players, coaches, staff, and personnel before and after each game, with the help of several national testing providers. All in all, the stars are beginning to align for fans to re-engage with our beloved game sometime within the next couple of months.
That begs the question then, what remains of the season?
While the format is still being discussed, and there are plenty of questions still to be answered, there is very little that we can be sure of. Whether or not the final 17 games of the Raptors season are played out or not will depend on whether or not all 30 NBA teams are invited to come back. While it seems blasphemous that some may not, the argument is that there’s no value in inviting a team like the 19-46 Cleveland Cavaliers to come out to Orlando for a few weeks, lose some games, spread the virus to a few people, waste a lot of testing, and inevitably go home. Given the circumstances, it would be unfair to the players, the coaches, the staff, and their families.
If the Raptors aren’t granted the opportunity to chase after their first 60-win season, which looked like a real possibility given the strength of their upcoming schedule, then at least we can be sure that they’ll be playing. Being one of four teams in the league to have clinched their playoff berth for the seventh consecutive year, let’s delve into how good Toronto’s chances would be of repeating as champions.
When the season started, absolutely nobody expected Toronto to top the standings again, and yet, they did. When the Raptors traded for Kawhi, the idea was that if he left in free agency, the Raptors would have clear books with a relatively young core and could look toward rebuilding, but something about that word doesn’t seem to register with this group. Instead, Kyle Lowry is playing some of the best old man basketball that the NBA has ever seen. Pascal Siakam has taken an exorbitant leap to categorize himself as a borderline superstar. Terence Davis Jr. has proven that draft picks are worth bruised potatoes when you’ve got eyes like Masai Ujiri. Fred VanVleet is once again showing that hustle and heart beat height every day that ends in ‘y’.
Here are three reasons why I believe that this core – if everyone comes back – can compete with absolutely anybody.
The coaching staff
In what was supposed to be a stress-free season of no expectations, Nick Nurse once again threw the saddle on the horse and galloped away the only way he knew how. By mid-November, he had found a way to convincingly down the Los Angeles Lakers without any help from Kyle Lowry or Serge Ibaka, and by February, he had the Raptors’ 15-game win streak marked on the hit list of every other team in the league.
Bare with me while I explain my analogy, but Nurse among coaches is almost like Dennis Rodman was among players. As Phil Jackson explains in The Last Dance, they’re the Heyoka’s of the tribe. Nurse is always willing to be different, he has a unique ability to think beyond the practicality of modern basketball theories, and most of all he doesn’t care what the media makes of his choices.
In a story written by Andrew Joe Potter just last week, he explains that Nick Nurse had actually gone down to northern Montana to spend a few days with the eleven-ringed Phil Jackson before the 2018-2019 campaign began. A rather odd pairing, given that a rookie head coach was granted such a long meeting with one of the greatest basketball minds to ever exist, was set up by Toronto Raptors Vice President of Player Health and Performance, Alex McKechnie, who had worked with Jackson in Los Angeles during the Kobe Bryant era.
Well-known previously, but further brought to light in Netflix’s latest hit-series, The Last Dance, Jackson was commended for introducing the triangle offense which gave basketball a more team-focused and fluid approach. The triangle ensured all five players on the court were active and had a role, instead of simply letting Michael Jordan isolate his defender on every possession, and thrusted the Bulls to six championships in eight years.
While many other teams in recent history have attempted to build similar systems, they’ve failed – most notably, the New York Knicks in their time with Kristaps Porzingis. Teams were so focused in on the paradigm that the triangle was the best way to run a team, and would literally construct their roster around a few players whose skill sets imitated those of the 90’s Bulls or the 00’s Lakers just to run their offense like Phil Jackson did. Rather than taking such a managerial approach, Nick Nurse took the entrepreneurial approach, working with the tools at his disposal.
In a quote from Potter’s article, Nurse says, “You’ve heard a lot of those guys in The Last Dance talk about it, I think that, again, five guys being integral parts of the offense like we like to run it now – ours is less of a triangle and more of a big, spaced-out square – but it got better over the year and then they’re in a situation where now there’s more opportunities for them.” What exactly Nurse means by this remains to be understood, as a square would leave one player removed from the schemes. Maybe we’ll have a documentary explaining the various options that can result from each action within his square offense. For now, all we know is that it damn sure works.
Nurse, just the 9th rookie head coach to win an NBA championship, has never lost a playoff series, and it’s not ridiculous to think that his streak would break this year. Beating Nurse four times in a seven game series isn’t difficult because of the starpower that he perennially has at his disposal. The stars that he yearns come from his own crafting, with his ability to get the most out of every player on his roster.
Beating Nurse four times in a seven game series is because of his constant ability to adjust his schemes – something that we very rarely saw in the Dwane Casey era. In the Philadelphia series last year, Nurse quickly recognized how effective Marc Gasol was in playing against Joel Embiid, and from that moment on, he didn’t allow Embiid to be on the floor one second longer than Gasol. Against Milwaukee, he planned perfectly against Giannis, giving him space on the perimeter, and bringing a quick double team as soon as he touched the paint so that he would spin into either Gasol or Ibaka. Even after VanVleet had shot an abysmal 6/44 in his last ten games leading up to Game 5 in Milwaukee, he kept faith in his guys. Against Golden State, he broke the internet after using a box-and-one against Stephen Curry to effectively shut him down, and make Freddy look like the best defender in the NBA.
With how creative and quick Nurse is, it just seems implausible that he could face off against the same team seven times in a row, have all the data and information that he needs at his disposal, and lose more times than he wins.
Depth was one of the Raptors biggest issues in last year’s playoffs. After OG Anunoby went down just before the First Round started due to an emergency appendectomy, Toronto’s core rotation was cut from nine players to just eight. As early as round two, the fatigue began to show. It’s a true mystery of how those top eight players were able to battle through their injuries and play over 40 minutes each night, on days when the most competitive and aggressive basketball in the world was being played, but they did – and they won.
This year, depth seems to be much less of a concern. While at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, it felt as though Nick Nurse had cinder blocks for shoes having to dangle a mere two or three players off the bench again, that quickly changed when he was forced to loosen some leashes after the injury bug hit. At the time, it seemed like Murphy’s law, but of course, it was within the organization’s control to turn it serendipitous.
Eight games into the season, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka both suffered injuries that would hold them out for weeks. That gave leeway for Chris Boucher to excel in 20+ minutes off the bench, as well as gave Rondae Hollis-Jefferson his first chance to prove himself, from where he never looked back. It also provided the pair of undrafted rookies more time to find their rhythm, which has visibly paid off. By the time the season was postponed, Terence Davis Jr. was unanimously pegged to make an all-rookie team, and Matt Thomas had developed into one of the league’s best catch-and-shoot guards, just as the Raptors fan base knew he could.
The injury bug would continue to make its way around the locker room, holding Gasol out for 29 games, Powell out for 21, VanVleet out for 17, Ibaka out for 15, Lowry out for 13, Siakam out for 12, and the list goes on.
That would give the shorthanded squad, or as some monikered them, Bench Mob 2.0 even more run to make some waves around the league. Two of the most memorable games of the season were when Toronto strolled into the Staples Centre and casually took down LeBron’s Lakers, in a game where Chris Boucher looked like the All-Star and Anthony Davis looked like he played in the G-League last year, and also the Raptors historic 30-point comeback win in December against the Dallas Mavericks.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen how many minutes Boucher, Hollis-Jefferson, Davis, or Thomas would see in the heat of a Conference Finals playoff series, but having so many weapons at Nurse’s disposal has to be comforting, knowing that any of 11 players on the roster can step in at any time and play quality basketball.
The Raptors’ defense this season has been historically dominant. At the break, Toronto ranked first in the league in opponent points per game, first in opponent three-point percentage, second in defensive efficiency, second in opponent field goal percentage, and second in opponent points in the paint per game.
Ranking so high in one defensive category is impressive. Ranking top-two in five of the major team defensive categories is surreal, especially given the plethora of injuries to some of the top players on this team. When the entire roster is among the best defensive players in the league, both on-ball, and off-ball, and you have as much intellect and switchability up and down the team as the Raptors do, it becomes an uphill battle for opponents to score every basket.
Ultimately, defense was going to be this team’s calling card. There were going to be nights when shots wouldn’t fall, and there wouldn’t be a Kawhi Leonard that you could throw the ball to and get out of the way. On nights like those however, it wouldn’t be about scoring more points than the other team, it would be about making sure the other team doesn’t score as many points as you.
One fatal flaw in sports is allowing performance on one end of the floor to dictate effort on the other side. We’ve seen it first-hand as Raptors fans, that when shots aren’t falling, the defense becomes complacent, and the game becomes an all-around disaster. This team is special because they’re not like that. They have the heart of a champion, they know that they can win every game no matter the situation, and they play every possession like it matters.
With the personnel of this roster, the track record of defensive excellence, and the multitude of assets they have on that end of the court that they could throw at any superstar they meet in The Playoffs would make Toronto a hard team to bet against. Hopefully, this storybook has an ending.