Two games is a very, very small sample size but this new era of Raptors basketball is fun to watch isn’t it? The Raptors were in a free fall mode before the all-star break having lost 11 out of 16 games and in clear need of a spark. The Toronto brass of GM Jeff Weltman and President Masai Ujiri went out and provided that spark with a pair of moves that brought Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to Toronto. This past weekend they beat the Celtics 107-97 and followed that up with a 112-106 win over the Trailblazers. The victories weren’t pretty and there is still plenty of work for this team to do as they learn to play together. Unfortunately time is against them as they only have 20+ games to the end of the season and with Kyle Lowry out of the lineup with a wrist injury, that time is quickly dwindling. For now though, let’s take a look at what we have seen so far and why these moves mean so much to this team.
They Didn’t Sell the Farm
To get good pieces, you have to give up good pieces and the Raptors did in losing Terrence Ross and a late first round pick. Ross could one day become a star player but from the Raps perspective, they were dealing from an area of strength as they have Norman Powell. Although Powell didn’t shoot well Friday, he brought energy off the bench in both games and will only get better. Sullinger never really had a chance to get a good footing (sorry for the pun) in Toronto as his injury and subsequent lengthy rehab kept him out of the lineup. With Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Patrick Patterson and now Serge Ibaka, there really was no room for him anymore anyway.
Finally, draft picks are always tough to give up, but again they came from an area of surplus. The Raptors get to keep the better of their two first round picks this year (one from the Clippers) and although you can find gems in the second round (hello Norman Powell) Toronto is already one of the youngest teams in the league and therefore could afford to trade those away.
The Raptors now have a multitude of lineups that can be used depending on matchups. They can go traditional as they did with their starting lineup Joseph (while Kyle is injured), DeRozan, Carroll, Ibaka and Valanciunas. However, even when they need to play “small ball” they can go with a lineup that is actually quite physical. After being down 17 against the Celtics, the Raps made their comeback with Ibaka and Patterson as the big men, Tucker and DeRozan on the wing and Joseph as the point guard.
In fact, since we are talking about versatility how about PJ Tucker spending some time successfully covering Isiah Thomas and Damian Lillard. There are so many options… let me correct that, there are so many great options that Coach Casey has, he will have a difficult time to figure it out which lineup works best in what situation. Even this uncertainty though is a benefit to the team as it leads to the final point.
Raptors management have proven they have done their job as they filled the glaring needs which was a stud 4, better defence and some toughness. In doing that, they also sent a message to the players. It’s on you now. From top to bottom, the strength of this lineup is something this city has never seen before. Which literally means if you don’t do your job well, there is someone else that will. Lucas Nogueira for example missed a few defensive assignments that led to some easy Portland buckets in the second quarter on Sunday. Fast forward to the end of the third quarter when Bebe was slated to come in again but instead, Casey went with Jakob Poeltl. Throughout the starters, backup and bench there are quality basketball players that are working their tails off to play more minutes. This internal competition just makes everyone better and that is a great sign moving forward.
So despite a few shaky starts, the Raptors have come away with wins and a new found admiration. If this team can learn to play together quickly, they not only can get themselves a good seeding, but they can roll into the playoffs as one of the best teams in the league.
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