Ahead Of Schedule

by Vivek Jacob

In the first quarter against the Wizards in Washington, it was becoming commonplace to find OG Anunoby pass to a cutting Svi Mykhailiuk while making a move to score himself. The opportunity to score was so easy for Mykhailiuk that the Wizards were left with no choice but to foul on multiple occasions. In a vacuum, this would be a fairly mundane occurrence Zoom out for a minute, though, and it shows how far the Raptors have come in so little time.

This is the type of play that Anunoby struggled to see let alone make just a couple weeks ago on opening night against the very same opponent. Mykhailiuk back then very much looked like a player playing his first game for a new team and the Toronto Raptors as a whole appeared completely discombobulated in a game they trailed by as many as 29.

On one end of that play is a player learning to function as the No. 1 option on offence for the first time in his career and on the other was a player searching for how he can prove he belongs after signing with his fourth team in four seasons. Creating that level of connectivity and understanding within two weeks even when their head coach Nick Nurse estimates it usually takes closer to 20 games is nothing short of special.

“We’re a young team but everybody plays hard,” Mykhailiuk said of how this team has been able to come together so quickly. “We’re trying to learn every time we play with each other and nobody’s really selfish. We’re still learning and I feel like we’ve got some ways to go but I feel everybody’s doing their best to win as many games as we can and play to the best of our abilities.”

The Raptors have won five straight while improving to a perfect 4-0 on the road and that’s something that didn’t look remotely on the cards after a sluggish 1-3 start. The offence was a slow burn and the defence could only do so much huffing and puffing. Since then, Scottie Barnes has unveiled a pleasantly surprising level of aggression and effectiveness as a scorer until sustaining a sprained right thumb, OG Anunoby is looking an all-star on the offensive side of the floor just as much as he is an All-Defensive team candidate on the other, the backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. have combined to create almost as many deflections as the entire Utah Jazz team and account for close to half of the league-leading 22.3 deflections per game the league-leading Raptors create, while finally, Canadians Khem Birch and Dalano Banton have proven to be the bench’s brightest spots.

Offensive struggles seemed a season-long guarantee -- especially in the halfcourt -- and that’s why Nurse has emphasized an uber aggressive defensive style that can create as many opportunities to score as possible. Their best form of transition defence right now is offensive rebounding, because a team can’t run off rebounds if they can’t get the board in the first place. Toronto leads the league in that category and in the six wins have attempted a combined total of 82 more field goals than their opponents. If one were to just exclude the opening game that now looks a complete aberration, the Raptors would rank eighth in the league in offensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass.

Physicality matters when it comes to playing an aggressive style, and perhaps this is where the Raptors have benefitted from the league putting the clamps on non-basketball moves. The NBA created rules that would discourage “abnormal, abrupt, or overt movements” to draw fouls and the results speak for itself. Last season, teams averaged 112.9 points per 100 possessions and that has dropped down to 107.5 thus far in 2021-22. Three-point shooting percentage is down by roughly three percent, while free-throw attempts per game (19.9) are at an all-time NBA low.

“It’s changed so much, drastically, it’s changed,” VanVleet said about how the rules are enforced now. “We’ll continue to learn and adapt to it, not really complaining about it, and it’s just the little, small things here and there but you just can’t really play for fouls anymore. They’re not calling much in terms of one guy trying to get fouled so it works for us. Defensively, I think it’ll be an advantage and offensively we’ll have to continue to learn and adapt.”

The speed at which this young team has picked things up has been thoroughly impressive and speaks to the intelligence and intensity with which this group plays. The will to defend can be contagious, and Nurse has been impressed by how quickly the new faces have picked up on principles regarding help rotations as well as shot contest rotations. One expects a bit of swagger from younger players, but the calmness and composure exuded in the game’s stickiest moments and most hostile of atmospheres has been uncanny. What Nurse would like since he asks so much of his players in terms of how hard they play, is a full rotation of healthy players to incorporate a few more substitutions and keep them as fresh as possible.

“Yeah, for sure,” Nurse said excitedly when asked if he thinks about what the team can look like at full strength. “Everybody playing with this kind of energy and unselfishness, the more guys we get doing it, the more talent we’ve got out there, the better it should be and I certainly look forward to getting everybody back. We still got Yuta over there, too, who plays extremely hard and who cuts and makes plays, he’s 6-foot-10, too. There’s three guys sitting there with some length and some game and, yeah, we should be able to play even harder if we can trim the minutes down a little bit.”

Pascal Siakam is yet to feature this season, the same can be said of Yuta Watanabe. Barnes has missed the last two games. What was supposed to spell disaster for the Raptors has become a rallying cry, and just like that, these Raptors have arrived ahead of schedule.


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