Rings, Banners, and Beyond

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The season has begun, and it started not with a whisper but with a bang. Fred VanVleet is a hero, and Pascal Siakam is a star, and the rings were the greatest of all time, and … we’re only one game in. Sit back and enjoy the ride. We’re looking back at the past week and forward towards the next one, trying always to explain the inexplicable.

The explanation for this new weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report, is fairly simple. Is it a literary journal? Maybe; it sure sounds like it. If it were, I would probably read it. There would be stories about leaping pell-mell into giants, like Fred VanVleet on the break. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This idea is for me and Samson Folk to simultaneously look forwards and back, explicating the under-examined and trying to explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board.

LOOKING BACK – ZATZMAN

The Raptors beat the pants off of the Brooklyn Nets. If the Raptors were General Sherman, then the Nets were Atlanta. It wasn’t just that the Raptors won, but it was the way in which they won. No rotation player boasted a usage rate above 25 percent. 10 different Raptors hit at least one triple. Fred VanVleet was brilliant. Kyle Lowry’s numbers weren’t fantastic, but he threw some mind-bending passes that displayed how uniquely he views the court. The defense was excellent, with the team contesting 73 Nets’ shots. The offense pinged the ball around, showing that no one this year will stop the flow. We all asked during the pre-season if Pascal Siakam was ready to be an alpha scorer, but the Brooklyn game re-phrased the question: Will Toronto need an alpha scorer?

ROSTER PREDICTIONS: ALSO PERFECTION

If there’s an opportunity in writing for self-congratulation, it’s here. I looked forward last week, so it’s time for some back-patting in my back-looking here. As far as roster predictions, I was bang on. Malcolm Miller ran away with the Raptors’ final roster spot, and Nick Nurse even said he’s “very close” to an actual rotation spot. I was wrong about the number of cryers — I predicted three, but there seemed to only be two, as far as I could tell — and about the Raptors losing to the Pelicans. You win some, you lose some.

After the news broke that the Raptors signed Shamorie Ponds to a two-way contract, the roster is complete. The Raptors had a near-perfect off-season, as far as adding young players to the roster. They had only the 59th draft pick, yet they added four players they believe can be contributors at the NBA level in the near future: Dewan Hernandez, Terence Davis, Oshae Brissett, and Ponds. Between Powell, Siakam, VanVleet, and this new quartet, Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster, Dan Tolzman, and company have proven time and again that they are excellent at finding talent late or outside of the draft. What an incredible competitive advantage.

 RAPTORS WALTZ TO WIN AGAINST PELICANS

I haven’t seen Toronto win a game with solid effort in maybe six total minutes since … last season. Completely understandable emotional jitters after the ring ceremony meant the Raptors fell behind 13-4 within only three minutes of game time. The Raptors brought the game back within reach almost immediately, but they never locked in defensively until the end. For a long stretch, the entire offense was either VanVleet creating at will the dribble or Siakam getting to the line. VanVleet, especially, was phenomenal attacking downhill. Kudos to both for adding so much to their games and becoming such unbelievable scorers, but the Raptors as a team weren’t clicking well. On the one defensive possession during which the Raptors really tried, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby danced a beautiful two-step waltz in the pick-and-roll on New Orleans’ last offensive possession of regulation, leading to an impossible Jrue Holiday attempt against the longer Anunoby. Then what did the Raptors do with the chance to win the game? Norman Powell threw it away with a deep, contested triple. The champs really don’t care what anyone thinks, as Powell dominated on offense in overtime, penetrating at will and kicking the ball out to shooters. The game may have been close, but the Raptors were never really in doubt.

It’s nice to have that championship gear in reserve.

POWELL TAKING STEPS FORWARD

VanVleet and Siakam deserve all the love they received after the Pelicans game, but Powell deserves his share too, even after his, uh, hiccup at the end of regulation. Powell has always been criticized for his inability to play in multiple gears. He only has a top speed, especially around the rim, and he often moves too quickly to keep his balance and footwork. Against New Orleans, Powell didn’t show much burst, but that was actually for the better. He drew the defense and hit open shooters around the perimeter. He didn’t tally many assists, but he was terrific at creating and continuing advantages for the Raptors’ offense. Powell succeeded by making the simple plays in first or second gear; if he can combine that with his top-end boost and knockdown shooting, then that’s what will make him a multi-tier scorer.

LOOKING FORWARD – FOLK

GRIMY, GRUBBY, AND GROSS

If you sat down to watch the Celtics first game of the season – they played the 76ers – you were greeted with an extremely gross brand of basketball. The fact that Celtics fans had to buckle in to watch the 76ers defense buckle down, when Kyrie Irving was dropping 50 points in another jersey is high comedy. I’m on the record for choosing the 76ers to win the title, they’re very good. But, the Celtics looked remarkably… bad.

After Al Horford left the Celtics front-court it went under the magnifying glass, as many wondered what type of change this would necessitate in the Celtics playstyle. That question is decidedly not answered in the whole, and maybe not even partially. The 76ers ate the Celtics for dinner in the paint, on the glass, and shockingly matched them from downtown.

The way things look, the Raptors will go up against the Kanter-less Celtics in the paint. This looks like a prime opportunity to shift Ibaka into the starting center role, and let Gasol operate as an offensive cog in the 2nd unit. Ibaka was impressive against the Pelicans, and provided that he’s given the opportunity, we could be in for a big game from #mafuzzychef in the Garden.

OG Anunoby showed out against the Pelicans, with his defense stealing the show — lock down Jrue Holiday and you’ve made a fan out of me — and his offense looking sharper than I expected. He missed out on a premiere matchup against the Pelicans, but he’ll likely draw the Jayson Tatum assignment Friday night. The more opportunities for Anunoby the better, and it’ll be nice to see him square up with Tatum.

WHAT WE DO HERE IS GO BACK (TO THE FIRST ROUND)

The Raptors remarkable dedication to their brand – losing the first game of the playoffs at home – didn’t waver for a second during their title run. In what was a triumphant title run, the Raptors were still clowned on mercilessly at the outset. I lost a bet (the price of which was a case of beer), because my stupid brain thought the Raptors could beat the Magic in game 1, and they didn’t. The Raptors and Magic both have a lot of continuity in their rosters, which makes this matchup pretty interesting.

The Magic provide plenty of intrigue outside of being a footnote in the Raptors championship. If you took any pleasure in watching Pascal Siakam stuff the stat-sheet like there’s no tomorrow, then you should love the looming matchup with Jonathan Isaac. Isaac might be the player with the exact frame and physical gifts to guard Siakam effectively. Every possession that they went at each other in the first round was a treat to watch. A battle in the ongoing war, with counters, and counters to counters. Siakam was turning over both shoulders on one possession, Isaac frantically shuffled his feet to keep up; outstretched arms reached for the rim.

Louis and I wrote pretty great pieces on what the Siakam/Isaac matchup looked like last year.

For both these teams the backup point guards were the story of their openers. Fred VanVleet came out gangbusters, putting 34 on the Pelicans’ heads, and Markelle Fultz (whom I love) stepped firmly back into an NBA rotation after being relegated to a joke in the league. Both players are extremely heady and gritty defensively, but they work with significantly different toolkits.

VanVleet leverages his elite outside shooting to bend the defense to his will. Fultz’s absurd physical gifts and passing vision allow him to succeed despite his limitations. VanVleet’s pick n’ roll acumen is finally starting to catch-up to the rest of his game, and Fultz’s pick n’ roll wizardry is the base of his. As of right now, VanVleet is hitting much higher highs, but to see two players who had been counted out of the league finding ways to succeed is cool as hell.

I’ve never enjoyed watching a player in college more than Fultz. His mix of explosion, slithery pick n’ roll play, and disruptive defense was incredibly fun to watch. If these two players chop it up after the game, or during, I hope they recognize the ways in which they both turned the blueprint of success on it’s head.

POUND THE ONE WHO POUNDS THE ROCK

Last year Dwane Casey’s Pistons swept the Raptors in the regular season. Casey also famously alluded to the fact that the Raptors franchise didn’t have championship pedigree, and that the Pistons did. Do championships from 15 years previous live in the franchise of the day? Who’s to say, but the Raptors for damn sure think that the championship of mere months ago lives within their current roster.

Blake Griffin is a terrific player, and one of the toughest matchups for Siakam in the league. However, Griffin is slated to miss the game on October 30th. The Raptors will have the Pistons at home, without Griffin, and with some of Casey’s aforementioned “championship pedigree”.

It is of the highest importance that the Raptors stomp the Pistons in that game. Casey was integral in helping build the Raptors to this point, but the undefeated streak can’t go on any longer. Andre Drummond will be a lot to handle, but the duo of Gasol and Ibaka should be able to quell him for the full 48. Luke Kennard is a nice young piece, but won’t flip the game on his own. Lastly, Derrick Rose will look to add some flair to the Pistons offense, but the Raptors back-court options – Powell, VanVleet, Davis II – should be able to handle him, provided that he has one of “those” games.

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