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Passing the First Test

When the Raptors season schedule first released, the first seven games jumped out. Between Cleveland, Brooklyn, Miami, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, Toronto was going to have their work cut out for them.

Individually and collectively, this was going to be an early litmus test of the progress that had been made over the summer, the impact of continuity and chemistry, and how the theoretical improvement to depth played out in reality.

Most people would have probably taken a 4-3 record coming in. Getting through this stretch with their head above water knowing that Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes have each missed a game, as well as the fact that Otto Porter Jr. has yet to see the court is encouraging. There’s some frustration, too, knowing that the flattest performance through the seven games came when the Raptors really ought to have taken advantage of a Joel Embiid-less Sixers and that Pascal Siakam’s 37-point triple-double – arguably his best performance in a glittering start to the season individually – came in a loss to the Nets after leading by 10 late in the third quarter..

That’s why they play the games, though, and for all the what-ifs that can be pondered, it’s what is that provides the clearest glimpse of what can be in the months to come instead of what could have been in October.

Pascal Siakam is walking the walk after talking the talk and expressing his desire to be recognized as a top five player in this league. Averaging 26.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 7.4 assists while shooting 49.5 percent on two-pointers and 38.7 percent on three-pointers. Oh, he’s also getting to the line almost nine times a game. The MVP chants and standing ovation he received after checking out of the game against the Hawks Monday night was recognition from the fans that they are witnessing a truly special start to the season from him.

“I feel like Pascal’s been killing it, been playing at an MVP level, he’s been playing really well for us,” Scottie Barnes said Monday night. “ He’s been doing so many different things for our team offensively and defensively so I feel like he should be in that question of being in the MVP with the level he’s playing at. If we keep winning games I feel like it’s just gonna keep bumping him more and more.

Among forwards, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo averaging 33.8 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.7 blocks for a Milwaukee Bucks team atop the league with a perfect 6-0 record stands alone. After that, it can only be Jayson Tatum averaging 30.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting 66.7 percent on twos and 40.8 percent on threes with the Celtics at 4-2 who is likely ahead. The Lakers and Nets’ combined record of 3-10 is surely enough in these way too early All-NBA conversations to keep Kevin Durant (32.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists) and LeBron James (25.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists) in the rearview.

While Siakam has cranked things up a notch, his longtime running mate VanVleet has scaled back his scoring. After increasing his scoring for five straight seasons since entering the league in 2016-17, VanVleet is embracing the backseat as Barnes, O.G. Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. take a more prominent role. He’s currently averaging his fewest shot attempts since coming off the bench in the ‘18-19 championship season but also averaging a career-high in assists. The goal is to have VanVleet peaking come playoff time and even though he’s still third in the league in minutes per game, it’s safe to say these minutes aren’t as taxing as previous seasons.

Another sign of lessons learned from last season for VanVleet is the fact that he sat out the game against the Hawks with some lower back stiffness. At Media Day, he spoke of how he didn’t necessarily listen to his body because the Raptors were in a serious battle for a playoff spot and he was too focused on that and resulted in him ultimately being a shadow of the player we saw in the first half of last season. This back issue appears to be a minor one and so the fact that he didn’t try to battle through it shows that he’s not only listening to his body, but trusting that his teammates can get the job done without him.

In VanVleet’s absence against the Hawks, we got the clearest glimpse yet of what Barnes can be in a full-time point guard role and he finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists. His size was a handful all night and his ability to see over the defence when drawing defenders is a serious advantage. Shockingly, Barnes was absolutely scorching from the outside, knocking down five 3-pointers and is now shooting 52.4 percent from deep. That is surely unsustainable and will drop off, but it’s promising to see him offer some potential as a floor spacer in addition to all that he provides with his bully-ball attacking the basket.

"I think he's always been a playmaker,” Siakam said. “I feel like he wants to pass the basketball. He wants to, obviously, throw out his little fancy passes but he's special when he passes and he has that ability, so I don't see why he wouldn't.”

The way O.G. Anunoby is playing, Siakam may not be the only Raptor relevant when it comes time for awards. The conversation for an All-Defensive Team appearance seems a bare minimum at his current level, and sustaining this should have him figure into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. From Trae Young to James Harden, Anunoby has been tasked with plenty on that end of the floor and is proving an absolute menace, applying intense ball pressure and using his length to create deflections or steals and get the Raptors out in transition. He currently leads the league in steals, three ahead of VanVleet, and is also tied with Christian Koloko for the team lead in blocks.

With Chris Boucher’s return, the bench has shown signs of life and one would imagine that the impending return of veteran Porter Jr. will only add to that.

“He’s been very professional,” Nick Nurse said of the leadership Boucher provides as a veteran on the team now. “That’s one thing about Chris; he really, first of all he’s a guy that practices hard. He kind of just has a gear that he plays in and that is good. Even if it’s 5-on-zero he’s flying around in his mode. That I think is leading by example. He really prepares well for games. You can see him getting ready. He has his routine, he has his mental preparation and things that he does to get ready to go, but also just seems like an older guy now. Being around makes you feel that way, right? But he does. He does try to pitch in and help more as he goes up the ladder a little bit in experience here.”

Precious Achiuwa has had an up and down start to the season with extremes in highs and lows including a 22-rebound performance in Miami but also a zero-point performance against Philadelphia. His defence has been very good and it’s worth noting that the Raptors are consistently winning the minutes he is on the floor. Gary Trent Jr. has picked up where he left off last season, continuing to space the floor and score the ball effectively while complementing the length and switchability with his ball pressure adequately.

Overall, the vitals provide some interesting things to ponder. The team has continued to force turnovers at a high rate to lead the league in transition frequency, and is doing a tremendous job taking care of the ball themselves with the second-lowest turnover rate. It’s still very, very early but one thing I did NOT expect with the Raptors is for them to be leading the league in defensive rebound rate. Not only are they doing a better job boxing out, they’re also reaping the benefits of continuity in better executing the defensive schemes and thereby being in better positions when shots go up. They’re not hitting the offensive glass as hard as last season and that certainly helps in reducing transition opportunities for the opposition, but this also seems a good trade-off especially with the improvement their 3pt shooting has shown so far.

As a team, the Raptors are Top 10 in three-point shooting and it’s the above the break makes that are really encouraging as spacing the floor from that area of the floor and expanding the court vertically should reap benefits for the offence over time. In the half-court, Toronto continues to struggle as they’ve put up just 93 points per-100 half-court possessions and the stagnation that occurs especially going up against a zone defence is of particular concern. The half-court defence has seen both sides of execution, and it currently leaves them 27th in half-court defensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass. Once again, it is in fast break situations where they shine, ranking first in points allowed per transition opportunity.

The consistency in overall effort level and intensity is also something to monitor, as that’s something Nick Nurse and the team take a lot of pride in but they no-showed in Miami on Oct. 22 until they rallied around a Christian Koloko ejection and seemed absent for the majority of an Oct. 28 battle at home against Philadelphia. In an Eastern conference that seems as stacked as ever, the nights you look back on with regret need to be minimized. There’s going to be off nights over the course of 82 games, that’s the way it goes, but Nurse’s teams usually find a way to keep them to a bare minimum.

Over the next eight games, the Raptors face teams that are a combined 20-30. Again, early days, but it’s worth remembering that they went a below par 20-12 against sub-.500 teams last season and a lack of experience and consistency in effort level was a factor. It’s another opportunity to show the ways in which they’ve grown from last season as it only gets harder after that with another challenging seven game stretch coming against Miami, Atlanta, Brooklyn (x2), Dallas, Cleveland, and New Orleans.

There’s going to be a lot revealed in terms of both sustainability and consistency of what the Raptors do well, and even what they don’t but for a first test, they’ve told enough on themselves.