TORONTO — If it didn’t happen all the time, we would call the way the Raptors ended 2022 strange. Instead, it was right on brand.
There are not many teams that would feel right at home in the type of game that produces an all-time weirdo box score: 27 turnovers for Phoenix, a shooting percentage that was above 50 all night and, still, an outcome that was in doubt into the final minute.
The Raptors wound up beating the undermanned Suns 113-104 on Friday in a manner that did not scream sustainability. At this point, the Raptors cannot quarrel with a positive result. Coach Nick Nurse said he spoke to the team for 20 minutes before the game and largely leaned on the need to expend more energy, and however rickety the defence remained, the Raptors did appear to be scrambling a lot better.
“I think it’s not the easiest decision in the world when you’re going to do one of those sessions,” Nurse said after the win. “I think you’re rolling the dice a little bit — and it’s a roll of the dice that turned out.”
All in all, it was not a game that should change the outlook as the Raptors head into 2023. Things have been dark lately. New year, new perspective, though: Here are five things for Raptors fans to look forward to as the calendar flips.
Conventional wisdom says that if any individual player is so good in the oft-heliocentric world of NBA basketball, his team can only ever be so bad. On far too many nights, Pascal Siakam is making observers question the merits of that (largely disproven) notion.
Siakam is playing like a fringe MVP candidate. If he had even moderate support, he’d be in the conversation. Siakam came into the game averaging 26.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game, leading his team in all three categories. The Raptors have won his 961 minutes on the floor by 65 points and lost the 777 they have played without him by 62. (On Friday, the Raptors were plus-20 in Siakam’s nearly 41 minutes, losing his seven minutes of rest by 11.) Among high-usage non-centres, only Giannis Antetokounmpo is consistently better on defence than Siakam. He does everything for the Raptors, and lamentably he has to continue on that path.
Siakam’s job, with his closing out to shooters, battling for rebounds against players much thicker than him and running the Raptors offence, seems exhausting. The degree of difficulty is off the charts.
An underrated part of the Raptors’ upcoming buy-sell decision at the trade deadline: If they decide to run back the “Play-In for what?” mindset and concede competitiveness this season, how do they tell Siakam, whose potential contract extension would grow if he made another All-NBA team, to sit games out in March and April?
If the organization is guilty of anything, it is buying into its brand a little too enthusiastically. The Raptors have been excellent at developing players and innovating stylistically for so long that they perhaps went too far in on their own methodology.
A first half like this one has to at least make you question yourself, even if it doesn’t ultimately change the answers you reach. Some of the questions the Raptors need to ask themselves: Are they developing their own players in an ideal fashion? How much of the same traits, even if one of those traits is versatility, is too much? Is there a better style to maximize the roster than the one they’re using?
The list goes on. The Raptors have a lot of smart people working in the organization. Smart people aren’t shy about questioning themselves, just as they aren’t beholden to groupthink. Their answers will have reverberations that are felt all over the franchise, on the floor and off it.
Scottie Barnes has disappointed in his second season. Even a 50th percentile outcome for his sophomore year would have the Raptors in a much better spot than they are in now. Not knowing what they are going to get on a game-by-game basis from one of their most important players is a huge problem.
At the same time, there have been enough flashes this season to remind you of just how special Barnes can be. His passing and nose for the ball are excellent; it’s the connective tissue to his game that needs refining.
He also just needs reps, period. The more he plays, the quicker he should be able to process what opponents are doing to take him out of games. The dribbling in space should dwindle, and his decisions should become quicker and quicker.
He needs to figure this out, obviously. It wasn’t that long ago that Barnes was considered one of the best young prospects in the league. It wouldn’t take much to get back in that conversation, but he will have to absorb the lessons he’s learning a bit quicker.
Come on, you know it is coming. The man who brought you “(expletive) Brooklyn,” “Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves,” “Play-In for what?” and “The Tampa Tank” is going to have a tough time staying quiet if this season continues on this path.
Masai Ujiri – "The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. I think that's old and we should move past that. Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves." pic.twitter.com/ZaTzXxbLqx
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) September 24, 2018
The team president generally keeps his news conferences to two or three per year, but he is also savvy enough to recognize when a team — and its fan base — needs to hear from the leader. We’re approaching that time.
Ujiri is pretty good at maintaining his poker face, but he’s emotional at heart. That always comes through when he speaks, which is part of what makes him so popular in this city. When he speaks, it’s appointment viewing.
Develop unhealthy crushes on six-minute YouTube scouting reports. Get mad at mock drafts. Get angry at agents for telling their clients to avoid going to work out for certain teams. Don’t lie: You love it.
French phenom Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, a guard with the G League Ignite, are the two prizes. The picture gets more muddled after that, but there are lots of high-upside freshmen in the collegiate ranks, plus more polished bigs if the Raptors decide to go in that direction.
Of course, that assumes the Raptors don’t trade away their first-round pick between now and June. At this moment, doing so seems imprudent. As the Raptors showed last January, though, things can change pretty quickly.
(Photo of Pascal Siakam driving on the Suns’ Torrey Craig: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)