Raptors’ New and Old Start Season in Style

Basketball fans! The Toronto Raptors returned to the court this past October, and what a return it has been.  The new kids on the block have been impressive, with rookie big men Pascal Siakam (power forward) and Jakob Poeltl (centre) enjoying more playing time than expected early on. Sophomores Lucas Nogueira (centre) and Norman Powell (guard) have also been major contributors of late, seeing more time on the Raps’ second unit. Superstar guard DeMar DeRozan is tearing up the NBA, having scored 30 or more points in 10 of 12 games. Ranked #46 in the top 100 NBA players by Sports Illustrated, DeRozan has more than disproved this grossly false ranking. The team has combined for an 8-4 record, with three of those losses coming at the hands of the NBA’s best in the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. All things considered, this is an impressive start to the season despite currently ranking fourth in the East.

The Raptors navigated through a particularly tough stretch of their schedule this week, facing the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors on a back-to-back before heading out for an easier tilt with the Denver Nuggets merely a day later. The Cavs and Warriors could face one another again in the NBA finals (for the third straight year), so dropping both games was by no means unexpected. In 2015, the Raptors gave the Cavs a run for their money in the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing out in six games. The Raptors are expected to get just as far this year. If they can stay disciplined defensively, there is no reason to doubt they will give LeBron et al. a hard time or even *gasp* finish them off this time around.

Though the rim-protecting play of Bismack Biyombo (now a very rich man) is missed, he is replaced by emerging big Lucas Nogueira; through less than 12 games, Nogueira is averaging just shy of 2 blocks per game. Like starting centre Jonas Valanciunas, Nogueira has soft hands and is often the recipient of a sweet dish from point guards Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph under the opposing teams basket. And boy does this guy ever throw it down—but not without jumping several feet first. Masai Ujiri and his team emphasized patience with this young, developing player and it seems to be really paying off. This also bodes well for the development of newbie Jakob Poeltl, who has already shown significant promise particularly at the defensive end of the floor.

Now let’s talk small(er) guys. Norman Powell has been sensational guarding the best in the NBA, including Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and, yes, LeBron James. Comparisons to DeMarre Carroll can certainly be made. Norm’s athleticism makes him a piece of work; he moves his feet freakishly fast while somehow staying in his opponent’s face. Norm is feasibly capable of playing and guarding both shooting guard, and small forward positions. Improvements to his offensive game are still in the works but, nevertheless, we’ve seen him blow right by a fair number of defenders straight to tin. Between him and Carroll, good luck to you LeBron.

Point guards Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph continue their notoriously reliable play of late, with Kyle averaging more than 7 assists a game.  After a slow first three games which had the critics all a-raving, Kyle stepped on the gas. He’s now up to 18 points a game. To the critics: a) Told you so, and b) Kyle doesn’t need to pitch in huge points since others around him can also score. Case in point: Valanciunas has more than 13 points a game. Terrence Ross has improved this year, pitching in 10 a game.

While this all very impressive thus far, further work is needed. The Raptors still lack the killer instinct needed to really finish off opponents. They have a messy habit of letting teams back into things after opening up leads, particularly in the middle quarters. As Dwane Casey recently put it, “We need to appreciate the 48-minute grind, and need to maintain our defensive mentality.” It all goes back to defense. Though the Raptors have been averaging 109 points per game, that’s with DeMar pitching in 33 a night. Realistically, one simply cannot expect this Jordan-esque level of production night in, night out. The defense needs to shoulder some of the load—meaning, they can’t fall asleep on coverages, and pick and rolls, even if they’re up by 10. Casey knows this and is undoubtedly working tirelessly to instill this in his charges. If they can make the adjustment to 48 minutes of defense, it won’t matter if the ball’s not falling; they will always have a chance to win. This will be critical down the stretch, particularly against the Cavs and in the playoffs.

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