Raptors Cage

Five Thoughts for Friday

It’s Friday, and I’ve got some thoughts. Without further ado:

1. Kawhi Leonard 

Who else? “The Klaw” has somehow been even better than advertised. If his name wasn’t already in early MVP conversation, Wednesday’s dissection of the Minnesota Timberwolves will make it a fixture. He was phenomenal.

It was evident from the opening tip that the Timberwolves had no answer for him at the offensive end – it felt like every push to cut into Toronto’s lead was met with a flurry of buckets from Leonard. His offense came in whichever fashion he chose, hitting on a healthy trail mix of layups, threes, and midrange J’s. His defensive prowess was also on display as his help defense was instrumental in limiting Karl Anthony-Towns to a paltry 14 points on 5/17 shooting. Leonard also blocked two shots and grabbed two steals – one of those steals being an insane no-look premonition of a Gorgui Dieng bounce pass. Have you ever seen anything like it?

Kawhi Leonard finished the game with 35 points on 15/23 shooting; 5 rebounds; 2 assists; 2 steals, and 2 blocks. What a game, what a player.

2. KAT versus Jimmy Butler

Before their matchup with the Raptors, I hadn’t gotten around to watching a full Timberwolves game this season. Ever since the story broke of that one, notorious practice in Minneapolis, I’d been looking forward to seeing how the off-court dramatics would translate into on-court play. More specifically; how would Karl-Anthony Towns respond to all of Jimmy Butler’s very public criticisms of his game and attitude?

Well, Wednesday’s game against the Raptors did not paint a very pretty picture of the prodigious big man. I don’t typically like to try and gauge someone’s effort through their demeanour, but man; Karl-Anthony Towns did not seem very interested in playing basketball. Toronto’s defense was smothering him, yes, but most of his 17 shots never looked like they had a chance to go in. His last shot of the game – an airball three from the Raptor logo – was inexcusable, and was his second airball triple of the half. He was totally out of rhythm and chucking up pointlessly difficult shots.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler was once again the best player on the court for Minnesota. While I do believe that Butler’s aggro antics don’t necessarily represent the best way to lead or inspire a team, I’ve got to admit that he backs up all of his talk.

I can’t help but feel that there’s an alternate reality where Butler, Towns, and Andrew Wiggins are the most fearsome trio in basketball. In this reality though? Not even close.

3. Toronto’s big men

What was billed in the offseason as one of Toronto’s biggest weaknesses is looking like one of their biggest strengths.

Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are doing really well. Serge has emerged in his first games as a traditional big man, and it’s a role that actually makes a lot of sense for him. The only thing that doesn’t make sense is why the Raptors have never even tried to commit to Ibaka being a five before now.

Ibaka’s skillset is exactly what you look for in a modern NBA center; he’s a ferocious rim protector; he has the strength/length to finish inside, and he’s a good shooter who can space the floor. He’s not as fast as he once was – a fact that was routinely exposed by all the wings that he failed to guard at the perimeter last year. But as a center who mainly stays in/around the paint? He’s more than mobile enough. Ibaka is looking like a great complement to the starting lineup.

Valanciunas, on the other hand, is becoming a focal point of the offense. A starter in 434 of his first 440 games, Valanciunas is now having to play a new role – instant offense off the bench. Opposing bench bigs are totally unable to defend him, especially when he’s hitting threes. His contributions to the reserve offense have been essential, as last year’s vaunted Bench Mob has had a rocky start to the season. It will be really interesting to see his role evolve throughout the year, and whether he can snatch that starting spot back from Ibaka.

4. Nick Nurse 

The real evaluation of newly minted head coach Nick Nurse will begin in April, but the preliminary results have been fantastic. The Raptors are 5-0, but more importantly; a healthy 5-0. They’ve been in total control of games. The only time they’ve looked like the inferior team was in the first half against the Celtics last Friday.

More specifically, Nurse has so far lived up to his reputation as an innovator. His experiment with Ibaka as the starting center, as mentioned earlier, is paying immediate dividends. He’s been very unafraid of trying out different lineups, sometimes subbing players just one or two minutes after they’ve been in the game. The constant in-game adjustments are a breath of fresh air in comparison to the years of Dwane Casey’s frustrating in-game patience. We’ve also seen some very creative set plays, like this double pick that gets Kawhi Leonard into the lane for an easy dunk.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it 1000 more times before the season is done. Nick Nurse succeeding as a head coach is just as, if not more important for the Raptors’ success, as Kawhi Leonard returning to MVP form is. It takes a long time to fairly evaluate a coach, but Nurse is off to a great start.

5. The Bench Mob

Amid all the early success for the Toronto Raptors has been one disappointment: the reserves. Last year, the bench could be relied on to build upon already established leads. This year, however, they’ve been squandering those same leads. It hasn’t been fun to watch.

In fairness, it hasn’t quite been the same lineup as last year. Delon Wright, a key piece, missed the first four games of the year to injury, and when he finally came back against Minnesota – albeit only playing five minutes – it was announced that Fred VanVleet, the bench’s main ball-handler, would sit out with a sprained toe. With Jakob Poeltl now a Spur, Pascal Siakam in a starting role, and CJ Miles now GoCursed by his new GoDaddy ad campaign, it’s hardly the same Bench Mob that captured the hearts of Raptors fans last year.

Still, there’s plenty of time for the bench to gel and for everyone to get healthy. I’m very intrigued by the idea of a VanVleet/Wright/Powell/Anunoby/Valanciunas lineup – every one of them can hit the triple, and everyone but JV can defend. I’d put Miles in over Powell, but until CJ’s PJ’s are in the grave, I don’t see him being a valuable contributor to this team. Seriously, how many slumps do we have to see before MLSE realizes that GoDaddy is ruining the Toronto Raptors?

The Toronto Raptors’ next game is at 7:30 pm at home tonight against the Dallas Mavericks. That’s all for this week’s Five Thoughts!

 

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