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The Raptors gave the response Nick Nurse was looking for in a second crack at the Miami Heat on Friday. After getting played off the floor a couple of nights earlier, the Raptors stepped up significantly defensively and had a hot shooting night and were able to overcome the pesky, aggressive Heat defenders (and the referees who simply decided to let both teams play, no matter how often they were hacking the crap out of each other).
The best sign for the Raptors was that Pascal Siakam looked great, even though Kyle Lowry was out, forcing him to be the clear top option and key player. He answered the call and overall, the Raptors provided a bit of a look at what life could be like one day. Fans don’t want to think about it, since Lowry is the greatest Raptor ever in terms of overall achievements and play, the franchise’s talisman, to borrow a soccer phrase. But whether it’s after this season when he becomes a free agent, after he inks a short-term new deal, or, and this is extremely unlikely, he gets dealt sometime this year, one day Lowry won’t be in the lineup. At that point Fred VanVleet will be seeking all-star berths as the starting point guard. Siakam will be the man and OG Anunoby (who again looked fabulous, continuing a recent trend) will be asked to do more heavy lifting on offence.
Speaking of Anunoby, he’s up to 41% accuracy on three-pointers (on 5.9 attempts a game) and is also averaging two steals per outing. Only Larry Nance Jr. And Kawhi Leonard are shooting at least 40% from three and averaging two or more steals. Only three other players are averaging 1.5 steals and 40% shooting. Plus Anunoby continues to raise his free throw accuracy from 62.9% as a rookie, 58.1% as a sophomore and 70.6% last season to 73%. He’s been great.
Still not sure what the Raptors should do about Norman Powell. He’s followed up his career season with some massive steps back so far, but, it has to be noted that three of his top four games so far have come over the last four (the other one being arguably his worst outing of the year in the loss against Miami). The team is 3-1 in his starts, 3-8 when Powell has come off the bench. Powell’s averaged 17.8 points on 55/40/100% shooting in his starts. The numbers sink to 12.5 points on 42/39/88% when Powell has come off the bench.
With Lowry and VanVleet both putting up numbers befitting all-star selections (or close), it’s not like it makes sense to bring either off the bench (and it’s simply not an option where Lowry is concerned). Going even smaller also doesn’t appeal. Lowry/VanVleet is already about the league’s shortest backcourt. Adding Powell at small forward and forcing Anunoby and Siakam to play up a spot isn’t viable on a nightly basis.
But how else do you get Powell going?
Is it a mental thing. What if they made VanVleet the sixth man, except he checks into games nearly immediately (in place of someone with early foul trouble, or Baynes, or even Powell). Would that be enough to spark Powell?
The Raptors also have to be pleased with the uptick in the play of Aron Baynes. Baynes has been protecting the rim nicely and grabbing rebounds far more efficiently and that’s enough to help the team quite a bit. Of course it would be nice if he could hit some shots and maybe get to the free throw line, but for now he can be useful setting great screens and defending and rebounding.
And now we get to see what the Raptors are made of in another two-game set, this time against Nate Bjorkgren’s Indiana Pacers. Bjorkgren, Nick Nurse’s former right-hand man, was a bit of a surprise hire, but has Indiana off to a 9-6 start with the ninth best offensive efficiency in the NBA. You can bet both sides will know what the other will do because of the long history between Nurse and Bjorkgren.
1 — OG Anunoby
2 — Norman Powell
3 — Pascal Siakam
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