Next Man Up: How The Raptors Built Character Through Generosity And Depth
An hour or so before tipoff in what would become the 14th straight win of the Raptors ongoing, historic streak, Nick Nurse was asked if, due to all this winning, he was short on teachable moments. While the drawl in Nurse’s delivery serves to soften the edges around what he’s saying, he was clear that on this streak, or any streak, there’s still room for review.
“Naw, there's always plenty to show.” Nurse said, referring to reviewing mistakes, “Even against the [Nets] last time, we showed a lot of the first half… We just weren't quite where we needed to be, but the second half was better. Indiana, same, first half the other night wasn't nearly as good and I think we carried that into the second game with them. So there's always plenty of mistakes to show out there.”
But when you find the mistakes, when you take what isn’t working and use it as a lens to look through to see what will, is “the hottest team in the NBA right now”, as Pacers head coach Nate McMillan called Toronto, going to listen?
“Yeah, they are,” Nurse continued, “they're a pretty high IQ team and they're always looking to shore things up, a lot of resilience and a high care level.”
What Nurse alluded to is a strong suit of the team this season. Their ability to make adjustments from game to game, but also to shift their style of play as needed in real time. On the floor, they have found a rhythm with each other, a kind of sixth sense of diligence rooted in the care that Nurse referred to. It has given the Raptors the ability to intuit from an opposing team what is going to be a soft spot, a deficit to go after. With the Bulls it was being able to play close knowing that Chicago, first overall in the league in steals (the Raptors are 2nd), would try to capitalize on loose contact and interception whenever they could. With the Pacers, it was using Indiana’s speed to ignite Toronto’s defence and, in turn, fuel a small and relentless offensive push with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis at the fore. With the Nets it came down to turnovers, taking advantage of Brooklyn’s lack of commitment to finish. “Are we allowed to hold it and not shoot it?”, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson joked pre-game of Brooklyn’s turnover problem and the Raptors commitment— “Listen, that’s their strength”—to flail them for it.
There’s a tenacity to what Toronto is doing. The Raptors are showing a different kind of IQ on court when it comes to being able to pull off repeat wins despite injury or playing tired. One of the benefits to the team operating a little bit like a hive mind is that everyone on the floor is open to opportunities.
When Terence Davis hustled hard to grab the rebound off VanVleet’s missed three mid-game against the Nets, he could have stopped and turned, taken a quick pull-up shot and counted on the velocity of Brooklyn’s defenders blowing by him in transition. Instead Davis, barely looking, flipped it fast to Ibaka for the chance at another three-pointer. The shot didn’t end up falling, but in the split-second Davis had to decide—remembering where Ibaka was on the floor, knowing the game was close, seeing the best opportunity for a higher-yielding field-goal—he went with a decision that was unselfish. The team could have pulled ahead and Ibaka would have further flexed on his recently sharpened 3-point threat. This is the added element of care Nurse was referring to when it came to the team’s intelligence. The generosity in this crew has become so second nature, it’s habit.
Part of that now intrinsic knowledge, the constant awareness of one another on court, comes out of deficit. The strain that Toronto was put under early in the season due to injury forced the team to get comfortable fast in a mess of rotations that shifted constantly, one game to the next. It’s given the Raptors the next man up mentality that has made them such a threat. As Bulls head coach Jim Boylen put it, “They plug guys in, they compete. They can play big, they can play small. Their speed and quickness at both ends is a concern.”
Roster versatility has also leant to shrinking individual player limitations. In a league where role definitions are becoming more and more blurred, the Raptors are further altering the blueprint, but for what playing positionless can look like for an entire team. With Marc Gasol currently out, and out for stints earlier in the season, Ibaka and Pascal Siakam have stretched to adapt—Siakam with subbing in at centre and Ibaka with his shooting and passing.
“Serge has been forced into a lot more reps right now,” Nurse said following the Nets game when asked about Ibaka’s increasing versatility, “He works on things very diligently… and I think he's seeing the game a lot better. That's why his passing has been much improved.”
With every healthy player left on the roster shifting into rotations where needed, the only thing that has evolved more than the lineups in Toronto have been the players. This necessary dexterity has created a team that is fluid, inventive, and has had the confidence that came in winning a championship doubled in how effective they have become because of it. Boylen attributed Toronto’s winning steak to hard playing as much as their evolving versatility, acknowledging that the team’s “multi-handlers are very difficult to guard”. Atkinson said pre-game that Toronto “seems like they have eight rim protectors out there”, and that individual players being absent hardly make a difference, “You say well, with Marc [Gasol] out, they don’t have a big centre. But everybody’s tough to finish on out there. Their length gives you a problem, their athleticism gets you problems.”
To the Raptors, both fortunately and not—because, ultimately, this is a team that has yet to play completely healthy together—the need to stay resilient has become the norm.
When asked about another new injury befalling the team in losing Lowry to whiplash, VanVleet’s answer was matter-of-fact, “We’ve had a ton of guys out this year, so we don't really think about it. It's just more opportunity for a guy like Terence [Davis] to get some starting minutes, obviously myself to be primary ballhandler most of the game… guys gotta step up and try to make the most out of the situation, find a way to get a win and move onto the next one.”
The willingness of the team when it has come to stepping up, whether in playing multiple roles or finding new ways to win, has expanded beyond the lines of court. There is an openness in the way the team talks to one another and a sense of care in their communication. Whether it’s in the way they refer to each other in interviews—Terence Davis expressing his gratitude for Ibaka’s involvement in his development on and off court, Dewan Hernandez jokingly stepping in to ask questions of his teammates in locker room scrums, Lowry and VanVleet continuing to testify to the strength of the bench players, even if VanVleet said he felt like he has had the same “conversation five to 10 times this year”—the way they interact across social media—Lowry congratulating Siakam on All-Star, Siakam congratulating Lowry on the same, both of them calling the other “beloved” on Instagram—or how they hype each other up at all times on court, this is a group of players who take chemistry seriously by refusing to take themselves with too much of the same.
Trailing Terence Davis through a tunnel of Scotiabank Arena before the Nets game, I asked whether that “high IQ” Nurse had referred to the team having came down to communication, “No doubt about that,” he agreed, “Communication definitely—”
He was cut off mid-sentence by a small and frantic group of tiny fans, the Raptors Lil Ballas, emerging from a hallway beside him.
“Terence!” Some screamed in unison, others were smiling too hard to speak.
“Wassup guys?” Davis greeted them.
One of the kids sprang forward and managed to stutter out that he was getting a jersey soon. Davis nodded his approval, “Let me know man, I’ll sign it for you.”
The Lil Ballas were corralled back into the hallway, beaming, and Davis continued without missing a beat, “Definitely communication. This team, we communicate well. We just try to learn from each other. There’s not anyone who you can’t say anything to, so that’s always great. Winning is just in our DNA right now. These guys won a Championship last year, I want to do the same. So, whatever it takes.”
The sense that nothing is off-limits, that no player comes above another, has given the Raptors an egalitarian approach to their game, a generosity to their DNA. They are a compassionate team and it translates to a much deeper, hard to predict nuance in their style of play. Matt Thomas referred to the comfort guys have of coming into rotations regardless of recent playing time as a testament to the team’s overall chemistry, “We’re all so good at playing off each other and everyone plays unselfishly and plays the right way”, and Nate McMillan said one of the reasons the Raptors are so tough to beat is how “well-connected” the team is on court.
What makes the Raptors so relentless is depth; in their versatility as much as in their next man up motto. But what drives that depth, what makes it so intelligent, is their precision and care with one another. In how they play, communicate and learn, this is a team that’s intentional. Depth is always a threat to those opting to stay comfortable, in their versatility under pressure, and in the way they never stop looking for each other, the Raptors show they like it best out where it’s deep.