The Blueprint Checks Out

by Vivek Jacob

Hop on a rollercoaster, you know exactly what to expect. Exhilarating highs and uncertain lows, each sequence either leaving you asking for more or wondering if the end is near. A young, relatively inexperienced team in the NBA looking to establish a new and extreme style of play? Hold onto your seats, folks.

In the home opener against Washington on Wednesday, the Toronto Raptors looked every bit the team full of fresh faces they are, throwing passes to shadows and opponents in equal measure and rushing the offence as if the shot clock was set to warp speed. Friday night in Boston, a special rookie performance full of poise -- the type that in years people will ask, “Where were you when?” -- accompanied by the full dose of what a long, athletic and versatile defence applying relentless ball pressure is capable of brought a 32-point signature victory.

Then there was Saturday night, where the offensive issues returned against the Dallas Mavericks, partially due to foul trouble and weary legs on the second night of a back-to-back. As opposed to forcing the issue like they did against the Wizards, this time the bodies couldn’t push the pace even though the minds know better.

“Our pace wasn't probably good enough,” Nick Nurse said after the Mavs loss. “I thought we had chances to be more aggressive. I felt we got a little tentative up the floor until late, we kind of started attacking them early and getting into the paint and guys making some plays and, obviously, a little too late and probably ran out of gas a little bit too.”

The sense of urgency on offence is necessary and pursued by design. Struggles in half-court execution -- where they currently rank second-last to the Detroit Pistons in efficiency -- are expected, and so the ability to generate cleaner looks early in the clock will be crucial in mitigating what happens against a set defence. Nurse has bemoaned the team’s lack of efficiency in transition thus far, and it’s understandable. While the combination of leading the league in deflections per game and defensive loose balls recovered per game helps the Raptors stand fourth overall in creating transition opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass, they are 28th in actually converting them into points.

There have been some missed connections on alley-oop feeds but other missed opportunities could be chalked up to players getting comfortable in different roles, where some who are accustomed to finishing plays are now starting them and vice versa. These misses become all the more glaring because Toronto is doing the hard part of minimizing its halfcourt possessions very well, getting into 5-on-5 action less frequently than any team not named the Minnesota Timberwolves thus far. The Raptors are establishing their process well, it’s the execution that has some ways to go.

Where there can hardly be a complaint is the rookie department, as Scottie Barnes is turning heads around the league and Dalano Banton has made do with the minutes he’s received to make his own impression. Jason Kidd, head coach of the Mavs, was recently named one of the 75 greatest players in NBA history and is regarded as one of the best basketball minds around. After witnessing Barnes firsthand, Kidd couldn’t help but be effusive in his praise of the Raptors’ fourth overall pick.

“Scottie Barnes is a heck of a rookie, great player,” Kidd said. “He’s really, really good. He causes a problem on both ends of the floor and he knows how to play the game. He’s gonna be a star in this league -- if he’s not already a star. He loves to play the game, watching him on tape you would think he’s been in the league three or four years so it’s very impressive what he’s done early on in his career.”

The exposure Barnes is getting in the absence of Siakam should only help the team once the Cameroonian returns. Playmaking has been at a premium for the Raptors thus far and the combination of accelerating Barnes’ development with his current dosage of reps as well as the re-introduction to the rotation of a player who has grown accustomed to reading and reacting to double-teams as Toronto’s leading scorer the last couple seasons should cause a notable uptick in the team’s offensive capabilities at the very least.

A big week awaits, as after the next three home games, Toronto begins a challenging stretch in which 11 of the next 14 games will be on the road. Until the offence gets its best scorer back, the key question will be how often the Raptors oscillate between falling flat on their face and opponents not knowing what hit them.

“It’s gonna be a process,” Fred VanVleet said. “Overall, I think everyone’s feeling good and confident and excited about the challenges that lie ahead and think if we can continue to be physical and play at the defensive end, I think the offence will come around. It’s been a little bit of adjustment, and I think it’s gonna be a big adjustment that isn’t gonna be solved in one night.”

Strapped in for the long haul, the fun in figuring it all out is just beginning.

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