Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 117-109 win over the Denver Nuggets in the last of eight seeding games ahead of the 2020 NBA playoffs.
One — Efficient: This was yet another example of organizational excellence by the Toronto Raptors. Despite resting four starters, the Raptors were still able to compete against a Denver Nuggets side that played most of their guys. Marc Gasol and Norman Powell provided just enough stability to start the game, and the deep bench players took it from there. This is the type of win that the San Antonio Spurs used to be famous for, where Gregg Popovich would rest his Hall-of-Famers on primetime games, enrage the league office, only for unexpected contributors like Matt Bonner to light it up in a win. With the 22-year playoff streak coming to an end for the Spurs, the new model franchise in the league might just be the Raptors, who are a third of the way there.
Two — Star: So much of success comes down to confidence. Look no further than Stanley Johnson, who legitimately played one of the best games of his career after hitting a game winner earlier in the week. Johnson showed exactly why he was a former No. 8 pick, as he flat-out dominated this game. He opened the game with a few explosive drives, bursting by his man and getting to the rim before the help could rotate, and finished it off with back-to-back threes over the impossible wingspan of 7-foot-7 center Bol Bol. Johnson finished with 23 points, including four threes and four assists.
Three — Intrigue: It’s too late for Johnson to crack the rotation, but you can see the talent and how it could fit the Raptors’ future plans. He’s a strong ball handler, and has assumed the role of point forward for the third unit. Johnson was confidently calling out plays and triggering the start of sets, much like how Pat McCaw played for the year before Rondae Hollis-Jefferson took his place due to injury. Unlike the other two, Johnson seems to have some scoring pop. Hollis-Jefferson cannot hit at all from deep, and has a habit of forcing up contested layups, while McCaw just shies away from shooting altogether. Again, two decent games in the bubble isn’t life-changing, but there’s no reason why Johnson couldn’t fulfill that role in the future. He’s clearly more talented than he’s shown thus far.
Four — Promising: Another breakout performance came from Paul Watson Jr., who the Raptors added on a two-way deal. Watson was a standout at the G-League level as someone with good size and athleticism, that also shot the three efficiently. Watson showed that tonight, with 25 points on an assortment of moves. It was much like how Norman Powell operates in the offense, in that Watson is a decisive finisher who is a threat to catch-and-shoot, while also having enough strength and agility to attack a closeout and finish at the basket.
Five — Gem: Watson might just be the latest find by the Raptors’ unrivalled scouting staff. Watson trained with Pascal Siakam’s guy Rico Hines last offseason, and caught the eye of 905 coaches in a G-League tournament in South America. Now after spending time inside the bubble, Watson seems to have also impressed Nick Nurse, who said after the game, “he’s gonna be part of our future from what I can see.” If he continues to develop, Watson could be the latest example of how the 905 benefits the big club, with other graduates including Chris Boucher, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet.
Six — Confident: Matt Thomas continues to be reliable when counted upon. Thomas didn’t hunt for his shot as much as he usually does, but made solid contributions in other areas. Thomas slid his feet well and was sharp in his help defense assignments. He also made good reads to not force shots, especially since the Nuggets carefully scouted him and swarmed him at the perimeter to deny any airspace. Thomas parlayed that extra attention into good looks for his teammates. For example, on the play below, watch how Thomas shifts the defense to overload the middle, before swinging a pinpoint pass across the floor and against his body to Powell in the corner. That’s the sign of progress and more to come.
Seven — Steady: Powell was steadying force for the second unit players. Whenever the Raptors needed a basket, Powell would get into a two-man game with Marc Gasol, and they would usually create an open look. Gasol was also solid in his own right, as his main assignment was to shade Nikola Jokic. The Raptors ran a bit of an unusual scheme, with smaller wings checking Jokic while Gasol lurked behind in a soft double team, and that pressed Jokic into passing more and being less aggressive than usual.
Eight — Shaky: Terence Davis was off to a hot start, scoring 10 points in the first quarter before getting raked across the face. He wasn’t as steady with the scratch on his mug, as Davis made a handful of mistakes by forcing the issue on offense, such as driving into traffic for no apparent reason. Davis still can have those moments of brilliance — he nailed two threes in short order — but in the playoffs it’s all about who can make fewer mistakes. That, more than anything else, might lead to fewer minutes for Davis in the weeks ahead.
Nine — Talented: It’s clear that Dewan Hernandez holds promise, especially for a 59th pick. He’s very fluid at his size, seems comfortable handling the ball, and has a knack for the offensive glass. The main issue is that he is undersized and can’t seem to hold his position down low. His conversion near the rim isn’t that great because he’s easily bumped off his spot. Still, with more training and a healthy year in the G-League, don’t be surprised if Hernandez also becomes a piece for the future. He’s more skilled than an average second-round pick.
Ten — Achievement: Having gone 7-1 inside the bubble, the Raptors finished the bisected season with a record of 53-19, which is good for second-best in the league, even ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s been an unbelievable regular season filed with so many surprise wins, with several players stepping up to fill Kawhi Leonard’s void. More than anything, they have made fans proud by competing every night, unfazed by injuries and unbothered by doubters. They have proven to be an incredibly flexible side with the talent to defend any opponent in the league, and that will carry them in the playoffs.
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