NBA

Healthy Raptors hitting their stride as trade deadline looms

By Sports Desk February 09, 2022

Injuries, playing games on back-to-back nights and COVID protocols are part of the landscape of the NBA all teams are forced to navigate through in today’s world.

The Toronto Raptors were dealt significant blows to their roster over the season’s first two months, but now close to full strength, they’re climbing the Eastern Conference standings and will likely be looking to make a move before Thursday’s trade deadline.

Through the end of November, only four teams used more starting lineups than Toronto’s eight, as Nick Nurse was forced to constantly shuffle his rotation. The low point came Boxing Day, when the Raptors had 10 players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols and found out just hours before their scheduled tip-off against the Cleveland Cavaliers they would in fact play. With a patchwork eight-player roster featuring four hardship signees, they were promptly obliterated by 45 points.

Undermanned again two nights later, they suffered another defeat at hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. But as the regulars returned to the Raptors’ roster, the wins have been piling up.

With Monday’s 116-101 victory over the Charlotte Hornets, Toronto extended their winning streak to six games and improved to 15-6 since New Year’s Eve – only the 76ers have a better record at 13-5 among East clubs. This surge has vaulted the Raptors into sixth place in the conference after sitting in 11th on December 30.

Much of the recent success is because Nurse can count on writing in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Gart Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes into his starting lineup.

The Raptors are 11-4 when starting VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, Trent and Barnes, averaging 114.3 points while shooting 45.9 per cent and making an average of 13.9 3-pointers in those games. When those five don’t start together, Toronto is 18-19, averaging 106 points on 43.4 per cent shooting with an average of 11.9 made 3s per game.

It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Toronto’s success is tied to the starting combination of VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, Trent and Barnes given how heavily the Raptors rely on their starting five.

Toronto’s starters account for 79.2 per cent of their scoring – the largest percentage in the NBA – with an average of 85.8 points per game – also a league best. The Raptors’ bench, meanwhile, is averaging a mere 22.6 points – the fewest by any group of reserves since the 2012-13 Portland Trail Blazers bench averaged 18.5 points. The difference of 63.2 points between Toronto’s starting five and reserves is the largest by a team in a season since 2004-05, when the Phoenix Suns had a difference of 73.2 points (91.8 starting average, 18.6 bench average).

Over the last few seasons, Nurse regularly asked VanVleet and Siakam to play serious minutes, but with a lack of a bench, Anunoby, Barnes and Trent are also spending more time on the court.

VanVleet averages a league-leading 38.6 minutes, followed by Siakam at 37.9 and Anunoby at 37.2. No team has ever had players finish a season 1-2-3 in minutes played per game since minutes began being tracked in 1951-52.

Barnes then checks in at No. 6 in the NBA with an average of 36.1 minutes. That’s right, four of the top six players in average minutes all play for the Raptors. Trent is no slouch, either, averaging 34.8 minutes – good for 16th in the NBA.

With depth being a considerable issue, Goran Dragic is likely to be shipped out. Acquired as part of the sign-and-trade that sent Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat, Dragic has appeared in just five games for the Raptors – and none since November 13 – as he’s been away from the team due to a personal issue. A handful of teams have reportedly shown interest in Dragic, and the Raptors would love to move the veteran point guard so they could shed his hefty salary and fill his roster spot with someone who will actually play.

Following the offseason departure of Lowry, the 27-year-old VanVleet has emerged as the team leader, averaging career highs in points (21.6), assists (7.1) rebounds (4.7) and made 3s (3.9). In 19 games since clearing the league’s health and safety protocols, the recently named first-time All-Star leads the NBA with 90 made 3-pointers since New Year’s Eve.

VanVleet, who is slated to participate in the 3-point contest during All-Star weekend, has been putting up eye-popping numbers over his last 21 games, averaging 24.3 points, 8 assists and 4.9 3-pointers. Only two other players have ever averaged 24+ points, 8+ assists and 4.5+ 3-pointers over a 21-game span in a single season and that’s James Harden and Damian Lillard.

During this incredible run, VanVleet has regularly been feeding Siakam, who has found his shooting touch on jumpers close to the basket.

Since December 14, VanVleet’s 46 assists to Siakam are tied for sixth most from one player to a teammate. His assists to Siakam are nearly double those of his next-closest teammate with 28 going to Anunoby, and 26 going to each Barnes and Trent.

Siakam is averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds and 5.5 assists during Toronto’s winning streak – and no other Raptor has ever averaged those numbers over a six-game span in a single season. He had 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists Monday – the second time he’s reached those numbers in a game in his career. There have been only four other instances a Toronto player reached those numbers in a game in franchise history.

In 23 games since December 14, Siakam is averaging 23.3 points after averaging 18.8 points in his first 16 games, and part of the reason for that scoring boost stems from his 55.6 per cent shooting on jump shots attempted within 8 feet of the rim – fourth-highest rate in the league among those with at least 35 attempts. Prior to this stretch, he was shooting just 38.5 per cent on jump shots up to 8 feet from the hoop.

Trent, meanwhile, is shooting 56.7 per cent from the baseline – eighth in the NBA among those with at least 20 attempts – but it's the perimeter where he's suddenly gotten hot.

Since returning from a six-game absence with an injured left ankle, Trent is shooting 48 per cent from 3-point range – the best mark in the league among the 49 players with at least 50 3-point attempts since January 21. Most impressive about this stretch is he’s also attempted more 3-pointers than anyone else since January 21 with 100. So, in these last 10 contests he’s averaging 14.4 points off 3-pointers after previously averaging 8.1 points off 3-pointers while shooting 36.8 per cent from deep.

While he’s suddenly emerged as a dangerous 3-point threat, Trent has spurred Toronto’s swarming defence, which is forcing a turnover on 14.7 per cent of its opponents’ possessions – the highest rate in the NBA.

Trent's average of 1.84 steals per game is the fourth-highest rate in the league, while Anunoby ranks seventh at 1.68 per game and VanVleet is eighth at 1.66. Since steals first began being tracked in 1973-74, only one team has had at least three players finish in the top 10 in steals per game and that was the 2009-10 Golden State Warriors with Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and Stephen Jackson.

Barnes has also made an immediate impact on the defensive end. Selected fourth overall in the 2021 draft, Barnes was projected to be a disrupter on defence and he’s excelling, ranking fourth among rookies with 1.8 defensive stops per game.

His average of 2.6 offensive rebounds per game is the best among first-year players and has fuelled Toronto’s offensive attack. The Raptors’ average of 16.2 second-chance points per game trails only the Memphis Grizzlies’ average of 18.0 for the best in the league, and they’re an NBA-best 15-3 when scoring 18 or more second-chance points in a game.

With 15 points and eight rebounds on Monday, Barnes notched his fourth straight game with at least eight boards – the first Toronto rookie to accomplish that since Jonas Valanciunas in 2012-13. No Raptor first-year player has had a longer streak of consecutive games with eight or more rebounds since Jamario Moon had six in a row in 2007-08.

Barnes has been selected to participate in the 2022 Rising Stars event during All-Star weekend, along with second-year teammate Precious Achiuwa, who is averaging 7.8 points on 52.8 per cent shooting and 5.3 rebounds during Toronto’s winning streak.

The Raptors are one victory away from notching their first seven-game winning streak since the 2019-20 season, and have a couple of favourable matchups next on their schedule with games Wednesday and Thursday against a pair of last-place teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. (The schedule over the next three weeks actually looks quite advantageous, as the Raptors’ opponent winning percentage of .417 from Wednesday-March 4 is the third lowest among all teams.)

While playing on consecutive nights would seem to present greater problems for the Raptors, given how many minutes their starters play, it hasn’t been much of an issue for Nurse’s club. Toronto is 7-3 on games on zero days’ rest – tied with the Boston Celtics for the league’s second-best mark.

Toronto, though, may have a different look when it takes the court Thursday, or Wednesday for that matter, if the front office decides to make a move before the trade deadline to bolster the lineup.

Related items

  • Women's Euros: History, contenders and storylines to follow as Spain lead challengers to hosts England Women's Euros: History, contenders and storylines to follow as Spain lead challengers to hosts England

    Five years after Sarina Wiegman's Netherlands team triumphed on home turf at the European Championship, Sarina Wiegman's England begin among the favourites to ... triumph on home turf.

    Wiegman's switch to coach the Lionesses has served as a key sub-plot to the tournament, which will put women's football in the spotlight throughout July.

    It gets under way when England play Austria at Old Trafford on Wednesday, women taking the spotlight in a year when the men's World Cup unusually takes place in November and December.

    Almost 120,000 spectators attended games when England's north west staged Euro 2005; however, the overwhelming majority were either at games featuring England, or at the final between Germany and Norway at Blackburn Rovers' Ewood Park.

    That meant some games were sparsely attended, with just 957 spectators seeing France beat Italy in the group stages in Preston. This time, with the tournament boosted from eight to 16 teams since England were last hosts, over 500,000 tickets have been sold, meaning near-empty stadiums should be a thing of the past.

    Here, Stats Perform looks at what to expect from the 26-day finals.

    German dominance gives way as rest of Europe catches up

    Germany used to be the queens of the Women's Euros, but their crown has slipped. After winning six consecutive titles, the Germans fell short at Euro 2017 when they lost to eventual runners-up Denmark in the quarter-finals.

    It was all rather end-of-an-era stuff, with the rise of professionalism across Europe's most powerful and forward-thinking footballing nations only likely to be further in evidence this year. Germany, of course, are included among those powerhouses, but they have plenty of company now at the top table.

    The Dutch hosts roared to glory at Euro 2017, with Vivianne Miedema scoring twice in a 4-2 victory over the Danes in the final, having demolished Mark Sampson's England 3-0 to reach that stage. Miedema joined Arsenal shortly before that tournament and has become the Women's Super League's record scorer while with the Gunners, the defining player of the blossoming WSL.

    This is a tournament that was first officially staged in 1984, with Sweden beating England on penalties in Luton after the teams finished tied on aggregate after home and away ties.

    From the second staging in 1987 through to 1997, the tournament was staged every two years, with Norway triumphing in 1987 and 1993. Germany – and West Germany in 1989 – otherwise swept the board and continued to do so when it became a quadrennial championship.

    The mighty Germans dismissed England 6-2 in the 2009 final in Helsinki, with a Lionesses team that included Alex Scott, Kelly Smith, Karen Carney, Eni Aluko, Fara Williams and Casey Stoney overwhelmed. Another survivor from that match, veteran midfielder Jill Scott, features in Wiegman's squad this year.

    Mighty Spain top list of trophy contenders

    Spain are favourites with the bookmakers, and what a team they are, built on classic foundations of players from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Their sensational midfielder Alexia Putellas could own this tournament, but the Spanish rise was checked by Barcelona's stunning defeat to Lyon in the Champions League final.

    French outfit Lyon have been established titans of the women's game for years, but Barcelona looked to have surpassed them, winning all 30 of their Primera Division games last season in a display of their might. Yet on the biggest club stage of all, Barcelona, with their many Spain stars, were caught cold and slumped to a 3-1 loss.

    That should give Spain's Euros rivals some hope, as should the blow that Spain suffered when star forward Jennifer Hermoso was ruled out by a knee injury.

    There are plenty of credible challengers, with hosts England among them. Since Wiegman replaced Phil Neville, England have won every match under their new coach, including a 5-1 victory over the Netherlands at Elland Road in June, and they should be able to handle group games against Austria, Norway and Northern Ireland.

    Expect the familiar European giants to contend. Women's football is gradually becoming big business, and the richest countries are building the best facilities and funding the game on a professional level, which is a far cry from how the game was a decade ago.

    England go Dutch, Dutch go English, Scandinavians on a mission

    France have left national team greats Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer out of their squad, so how they cope without that illustrious duo remains to be seen, while England are without long-standing former captain and defensive mainstay Steph Houghton, who was judged not fit enough by Wiegman after an injury lay-off.

    The hosts have Barcelona's new recruit Lucy Bronze, another rock of their team for many years, while the likes of winger Lauren Hemp and strikers Ella Toone and Alessia Russo should announce themselves on the big stage. Not for the first time, England look forward-heavy, with question marks over their midfield strength. New captain Leah Williamson attended the last Euros as a fan, so this is a significant step up.

    While England are coached by a Dutchwoman, the Netherlands are bossed by Englishman Mark Parsons, who had a long spell with the Portland Thorns before replacing Wiegman. The reigning champions are contenders again, given the presence of Miedema and the mercurial Lieke Martens, who has traded Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain in the off-season. The thumping by England was a jolt, but don't read too much into that result.

    Denmark's Pernille Harder and Norway's Ada Hegerberg are superstar strikers in teams that might cause a surprise, Sweden sit second in the FIFA rankings so rightly fancy their chances, and then you have Germany. The eight-time winners lack the star power of their rivals and must play Denmark and Spain in the group stage, but their squad is packed with experience, so count them out at your peril.

  • Wimbledon: 'I had my own tactics out there' – Kyrgios overcomes frustrated Tsitsipas in controversial third-round clash Wimbledon: 'I had my own tactics out there' – Kyrgios overcomes frustrated Tsitsipas in controversial third-round clash

    Nick Kyrgios acknowledged having his "own tactics" after overcoming Stefanos Tsitsipas in a dramatic, ill-tempered affair to reach Wimbledon's last 16.

    Kyrgios produced an outstanding display to rally after losing the first set on No. 1 Court, eventually prevailing 6-7 (2-7) 6-4 6-3 7-6 (9-7) in an incident-filled match.

    The enigmatic star set the tone with an incredible outburst after a frustrated Tsitsipas struck a ball into the crowd at the end of the second set, narrowly missing a spectator.

    The Australian immediately called for his opponent to be defaulted, recalling Novak Djokovic's contentious exit from the 2020 US Open after he had accidentally hit a line judge in frustration after dropping a game.

    Kyrgios could be heard calling the umpire a "disgrace", and then, after Tsitsipas had been let off with a warning, the unseeded talent asked: "Are you dumb?"

    He then hit out at the umpire, yelling: "What are you talking about? Novak hit someone, it is the same, it happened right there. 

    "Bring out more supervisors, I'm not done. You can bring them all out, I don't care. I'm not playing until we get to the bottom of it. 

    "What happened to Novak when he hit the ball into a girl? She was injured. You can't hit a ball into the crowd and hit someone and not get defaulted."

    But the drama was far from done as Tsitsipas flew into a rage of his own early in the third, having been hit with a point deduction for wildly firing another ball towards the crowd – but hitting the scoreboard instead – after Kyrgios produced a mischievous underarm serve when holding to love.

    The fourth seed's frustration was evident as he then appeared to hit a couple of shots right at Kyrgios to boos from spectators, who vociferously cheered every point for the Australian.

    But after producing some outstanding tennis to end the aggravated Tsitsipas' hopes of winning a first grand slam title, Kyrgios said he had no problems with the Greek, whom he played doubles with at Wimbledon in 2019.

    "Honestly, it was a hell of an atmosphere, an amazing match, I honestly felt like the favourite coming in; I played him a couple of weeks ago, but I knew it was going to be a tough match," he said.

    "He's a hell of a player, I had my own tactics out there – he knows how to play me, he's beaten me once, and obviously I've had success, so it was a hell of a match.

    "I'm just super happy to be through, he was getting frustrated at times and it's a frustrating sport, that's for sure. I know you all think you can play, but it's very frustrating, whatever happens on the court, I love him."

    Kyrgios now holds a 4-1 head-to-head lead over Tsitsipas, having also got the better of the world number five on the grass at the Halle Open earlier this month.

    The 27-year-old also previously courted controversy during his run to the fourth round when he spat in the direction of a "disrespectful" fan during his first-round win over Paul Jubb.

    But Kyrgios claimed his antics serve to drive interest in the sport, adding: "It's amazing, everywhere I go I seem to have full stadiums.

    "The media loves to write that I'm bad for the sport, but clearly not."

  • Wimbledon: Nadal swats aside Sonego in outstanding round-three win Wimbledon: Nadal swats aside Sonego in outstanding round-three win

    Rafael Nadal enjoyed serene progress into round four at Wimbledon with a stylish 6-1 6-2 6-4 defeat of Lorenzo Sonego on Saturday.

    For the first time at SW19 this week, there was little evidence of Nadal's recent fitness problems as he completely outclassed his Italian opponent.

    And on this form, the calendar Grand Slam appears a genuine possibility for the Australian Open and French Open champion.

    Indeed, it was hard not to feel sorry for Sonego – and he did appear to have the sympathy of the Centre Court crowd – as Nadal's strokes painted pretty patterns around him.

    The Spaniard remarkably dropped only two points on his own serve in the first set – both to double-faults. It was a similar story in Sonego's service games, too, as he held at the first attempt but then lost the next nine in succession.

    Such was Nadal's superiority a relieved Sonego lifted his arms to salute the crowd as he finally held serve in the fifth game of the second and was given a generous cheer.

    That small victory scarcely slowed Nadal, who wrapped up the second on his own serve and then blasted Sonego away in the opening game of the third to break once again.

    Sonego soon found a more effective way to hold up his opponent, however, appealing at length for the Centre Court roof to be closed and eventually succeeding after a brave hold and a handful of points on Nadal's serve informed officials he was capable of dragging the contest out under fading light.

    So it briefly proved, as Nadal – perhaps irked by the delay – lost his composure and was broken to love after Sonego made a noise as he approached the ball; Nadal deemed the umpire an unnecessary middle man and called Sonego over for a word, clearly upsetting the Italian.

    A fired-up Nadal immediately broke back, and after finally delivering a little drama, the match – and Sonego's campaign – was over.

    Data Slam: Rafa ramping up

    This was Sonego's first meeting with Nadal, and he might have picked a better time to face this fiercely focused great. The 22-time major champion has now won 10 third-round Wimbledon matches in a row, including the past four without dropping a set. Sonego had a hard enough time merely winning a game for much of the match.

    WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
    Nadal – 24/17
    Sonego – 19/17

    ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
    Nadal – 2/4
    Sonego – 2/2

    BREAK POINTS WON
    Nadal – 6/8
    Sonego – 1/1

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.