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With 20 games of the NBA season completed, the Toronto Raptors exit their six-game road trip just under .500 at 9-11.
You’d think the revolving door of injuries and roster inconsistencies would make it difficult to glean any information, but the Raptors have revealed themselves to be a young, offensively talented and defensively disoriented team. Now approximately a quarter of the way into the regular season, they’ve been defined by high highs and low lows— a rather foreign unpredictability to a team once defined by steadiness and reliability.
In some comments following Saturday afternoon’s practice, Fred VanVleet bluntly stated, “there’s a real learning curve in this league and it’s no babies allowed, so you’ve got to get up to speed or you’re going to keep getting stepped on. We’ve got to figure it out fast.”
It’s clear where his observations stem from, as the Raptors have been a difficult watch on the defensive end. The first, second and third line of resistance ball-handlers once encountered when facing the team has turned into blow-bys and wide open lanes to the rim. Steals and deflections have become backdoor cuts and easy lobs for the opposition.
Players are being challenged out of their typical roles and spread thin. The natural defensive cohesiveness fans became used to has shown itself to be anything but natural. This communication and quick processing requires engagement that VanVleet notes is very absent from the team.
“...defensively, to not compete, no consequences at the rim, no physicality, no talking... come out of a timeout and we’re not matched up, falling asleep... that’s stuff that can’t happen," he said
It’s tough to exaggerate the team’s inexperience. Third in the NBA in fewest total number of games played by the active roster, only behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, the Raptors’ youth is most prevalent in their inconsistent quarter-to-quarter intensity.
The team typically enters the first quarter with offensive energy, only to lose steam and fall behind in the second. Guns blaze out of the halftime break, likely after some encouragement from the coaching staff, only to once again struggle to catch up and close the matchup.
But game management comes with reps, and it isn’t all bad.
Entering Friday's game against the Indiana Pacers, the Raptors boasted the league’s second-best offensive rating over the last 15 games — and it’s easy to see why. Between multiple post-up options in Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby, the Raptors have forwards that warrant defensive attention, and a backcourt comfortable with scoring in any area of the court.
Playmaking capabilities are shared between several players. Gary Trent Jr. conveniently decided to become one of the toughest shotmakers in the NBA, and Precious Achiuwa seems to have found a little chemistry with his point guard in VanVleet on the roll.
If anything, the offensive rhythm and resourcefulness the team has tapped into makes the leaky defence all the more frustrating— though judging by head coach Nick Nurse’s comments following the Friday night loss to the Pacers, it’s a matter of engagement within their control.
"We've shown we can play some really good defence and we've shown that if we're not engaged fully, that we can not be so good defensively as well," Nurse said.
Likely the biggest indicator of the Raptors' youth and lack of collective experience is the engagement level, also echoed by Pascal Siakam’s postgame insistence that the team must simply play harder than its competition to win. It sounds easy enough, but the comments from the team follow a consistent theme here — the Raptors have the tools, it’s just up to them to put the pieces together.
With 17 of their next 21 games at home, they’ll have the chance.
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