Winning is a whole lot of fun.
No question there, but a team learns the most about itself in times of adversity.
In a short, three-games-in-five-days trip that began in New York and ended in Atlanta, the Toronto Raptors experienced plenty of that.
That the trip ended on a winning note, evening the weary Raptors’ road record at 6-6 through the first 19 games of the season, was nice. But the wins and losses total don’t also tell the tale of the trip.
Here’s a look at some of the things we learned about the Raptors on this trip.
1. Young bench is super
That young bench mob is far deeper and more impressive than it is being credited for — and it still hasn’t reached its peak. Toronto’s second unit was youth personified in the final leg of the trip — with not one player on the court with more than three years of experience. That’s three years of mostly watching, if truth be told. Against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, there was no C.J. Miles, no Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan to turn to when things got hairy. The kids did it themselves to the tune of a 39-14 second quarter that determined the outcome of the evening. Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown, Norm Powell, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl did it themselves. Earlier in the trip, when they were keeping the Raptors afloat both in Indy and New York — games they eventually lost — the bench was doing it with one of the vets. VanVleet was asked afterward if that was as smooth as he can remember the second unit operating and he correctly pointed out it has been pretty smooth this entire trip. The only difference was in the road finale, when both units were locked in. That they excelled in the final two games with Miles back in Toronto tending to his newborn daughter suggests this group has even more in the tank than we suspected.
2. DeRozan can dish
DeMar DeRozan, even when he’s not scoring, is still a force. The Raptors’ leading scorer left his shooting touch back in Toronto on this trip. DeRozan managed a total of 33 points in this three-game trip, often a one-game output for the high-scoring guard. But even in a slump he has managed to find ways to contribute. In Saturday’s trip-saving win in Atlanta, DeRozan had only two points, but he also had eight assists. For the trip, he accumulated 14 assists in total. As for the scoring slump, DeRozan is not the least bit worried. “It happens, man,” he said after the loss in Indy. “We play so many games. Nobody is going to be perfect every game and that’s fine. I try to find other things to do, go out there and play hard, cheer my teammates on — whatever I can do. But one thing about me, I understand when I have games like this, the bounce-back is always much better.” Charlotte on Wednesday might demonstrate just what that kind of bounce-back looks like.
3. Centre gets the attention
The only thing certain about the way Dwane Casey is going to employ his stable of centres and centres posing as power forwards is the uncertainty of it all. Casey has Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira and Serge Ibaka — and even Pascal Siakam — if he wants to extend it even further to play the position. The metrics all confirm Valanciunas at centre with Ibaka at power forward is sub-optimal. Ibaka, the numbers back up, is far more effective as the centre, which leaves Casey to either leave Valanciunas on the bench for lengthy periods, which he did on Friday in Indianapolis, or play a less-efficient lineup. As it stands now, Valanciunas and Ibaka are starters, but even in the second half of Friday’s game, when Casey normally returns with his starters, Casey flipped the script and started Siakam at the four and Ibaka at centre to get more speed. He has not done this yet to start a game with everyone healthy, but that may not be far down the road.
4. Size doesn’t matter
Kyle Lowry has designs on becoming the smallest big man to lead his team in assists in a season. OK, Lowry never said this, but all indications are the 6-foot point guard has it in him. Lowry has been in double digits in the rebound department six times, including all three games in the just-completed trip. Lowry is averaging 6.3 rebounds a night so far — sixth in the NBA among guards behind Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James (who isn’t really a guard, but qualifies as one), Lonzo Ball and Jaylen Brown. Of that group, only Westbrook is even close in height with Lowry — and he still has three inches on him.
5. VanVleet not going anywhere
Fred VanVleet isn’t going to just let them take his minutes. With everyone healthy, Casey has been going with as many as a 12-man rotation with the knowledge that eventually he will cut that down. VanVleet is a player who often gets mentioned as one player who could lose his minutes when this happens. With Delon Wright out for the time being, VanVleet isn’t going anywhere at the moment. Even when Wright returns, VanVleet, through his heady play and defensive doggedness, is making a strong push to stay in the lineup. VanVleet hasn’t had the big minutes other players have enjoyed, but through Saturday’s games, he is both No. 2 in the league in individual defensive rating and No. 2 in the league in net rating. On the three-game trip, he averaged just over 21 minutes and contributed an average of nine points, 3.5 assists and just under two steals per game.