The Turning Point

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The Raptors Find Their Identity Amidst a Three-Game Win Streak, A Career Night For Fred VanVleet, and a Perplexing Game in Brooklyn

It’s safe to say that Raptor basketball hasn’t been all to pretty to watch for the first 22 games of the season, and through all the ups and downs, the Raptors showed signs of being the team we’re seeing now, but they just haven’t been able to put it all together for a consistent stretch.

During this three (pending four) game week, the Toronto Raptors looked like the team of old. A team that scraps, claws, and fights for 48 minutes (or more) every night, and a team that usually comes out on top. A pair of wins against the Orlando Magic, and a statement win on national television agains the Brooklyn Nets have the Raptors back in the playoff hunt.

Here are the biggest reasons why the Raptors have had this resurgence as of late, and why they look poised to make a jump in the standings moving forward.

Surviving Droughts and Getting out in Transition

Rockey Widner / NBAE via Getty Images

Anyone that watches the Raptors knows about their struggles at the offensive end. At times, when the three is falling, the Raptors operate like a well-oiled machine. As the old saying goes however, live by the three, die by the three, and when those triples are dropping through the hoop, the Raptors go on these almost trademarked droughts.

Over these past three games (albeit against the 22nd and 30th ranked defences) the Raptors have been able to better survive those droughts, while also finding consistent contributions from key players.

When I look at the Raptors ability to weather these storms of stagnant offence, the eye test tells me that the contributions of guys like Yuta Watanabe, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Stanley Johnson have been huge for the team.

These three guys in particular bring invaluable energy and hustle on the defensive end, and for Watanabe and Bembry, they’ve been solid on both ends of the court in terms of defence, shooting, and secondary playmaking.

Part of their rises have been due to OG Anunoby’s absence from the lineup, along with matchups against specific players, but the contributions they’ve made are one of the big reasons why the Raptors can play the way the have.

In terms of the Raptors ability to score on the offensive end, this team has always had an emphasis on playing fast since Nick Nurse took over, and ultimately the Raptors are still at their best when they can get out on the break. Aron Baynes is rebounding much better, able to secure those defensive rebounds and igniting the fast break opportunities on the other end.

Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet continue to push the pace at the guard spots, and they’re finding the Bembrys, Watanabes, and the Johnsons, who also run in transition. The Raptors are currently 12th in pace, and I imagine the transition game will be a bigger part of the game-plan moving forward.

Siakam Settling In

Abbie Parr / Getty Images

Pascal Siakam’s play as of late has also been crucial to the Raptors’ success. The three point shot isn’t falling with regularity quite yet, and there are games where he’s not the ‘number one guy’ most expected of him, but he’s doing all the right things to help his team win.

He’s put a greater emphasis on creating opportunities for his teammates, and that was on full display against the Nets. Every time down the court, when Siakam would get the ball, he would take it into the post, and once the double came, he would kick it out to the open man. As simple as it sounds in writing, it’s much harder to execute in practice, and Siakam had a playmaking masterclass in Brooklyn.

Siakam also looks much more patient on offence, allowing the play to develop around him while also refusing to rush any of his moves and decision-making. There will be those nights where Siakam puts up 30, but there will also be other games where Siakam’s contributions are best made on defence, rebounding, and passing.

I’m okay with Siakam taking less threes for the foreseeable future if it means more scoring opportunities for his teammates, as well as for himself (at the rim).

Why We Could be at the Turning Point of the Season

Michael Gonzales / NBAE via Getty Images

A lot of teams around the league are starting to settle into their games, and the Raptors are no exception. The uncertainty and irregularity that COVID-19 has brought to the NBA this season has been tough to deal with, but usually after a quarter of the season, we know what teams around the league are gonna show us on a night-to-night basis.

The Raptors definitely fumbled out the gate to start the season, but now the team has a clear identity, and it’s not too different from past Raptor teams. They don’t have a guy that can put up 25-30 points a night, but they got four guys that could get you that 20-30 points on any given night.

They got a cast of scrappy, long, and athletic defenders that can provide the energy and hustle needed for the team to survive while putting out those transitional lineups with the main guys resting on the bench. They also got their help on the glass, with everyone (now including Baynes) crashing the boards with urgency.

Through these 22 games, we now know what the Raptors can be as a team. They’re not gonna blow the competition out of the water (1.8 point differential, good for fifth in the east), but they’re gonna compete every night.

Looking forward, of the Raptors next 10 games, five will be against winning teams, five against sub-500. teams. Those games against weaker teams will still be important, as good teams almost always beat inferior competition, but those next games against Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia will give us an even better picture of what this team’s ceiling could be come playoff time.

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