Apart from an ankle injury to Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors first two games were a picture of flawlessness. Two convincing wins, one against the thought to be up and coming division rival 76ers — to be fair, they were missing Joel Embid who has yet to be cleared for back-to-backs. Embid, himself, has vocalized his displeasure with his medical state but it seems to be out of his hands at this point. #TrusttheProcess Joel.
Two games in, 80 to go.
Early indications suggest the second unit is much further along in the adoption and execution of the new offence than the starters. Despite the seemingly steeper learning curve, the starters have still performed admirably and have benefited enormously from a bench unit that appears to be one of the better second units in the league.
Key word being “appears”…
Tonight marks the first of six road games out west which will provide an early litmus test for Dwane Casey’s men.
Bullying the Bulls and Sixers is one thing…
Conquering the Western Gauntlet is something entirely different, starting with the San Antonio Spurs, who the Raptors will play tonight — with no Leonard or Parker in the lineup, a road triumph seems within the realm of possibility.
With no Leonard to deal with, containing the Spurs will start with making life difficult for LaMarcus Aldridge who through two games is averaging 26.5 PPG and 10.0 RPG in 36.0 MPG. Aldridge is the Spurs’ workhorse, especially in Leonard’s absence, averaging ~10 more field goal attempts than the next closest player with a usage rate of 32.7% (1st on his team, 9th in the league).
Defending Aldridge is never an enviable task, but expect Serge Ibaka to draw the assignment, with cameos from Nogueira and Poeltl (though I cringe at those two defending him for any length of time). Double teams should come frequently, especially when you consider the Spurs lack of reliable three-point shooting — currently sit last in the NBA with a team percentage of 27.3%).
Offensively is where I expect the Raptors to face the biggest challenge. Even without Leonard’s defensive prowess, the Spurs always present an offensive challenge. Through the first two games, they rank 3rd in defensive rating, trailing only the Clippers and THE RAPTORS! (We’re really doing it though aren’t we?!)
If the Raptors hope to defeat the Spurs, a team with a championship pedigree regardless of injuries, they will need to continue their dominance on both sides of the ball but more specifically, they will need to maintain the level of offensive execution they’ve displayed in their two previous contests.
Normally, I would refrain from calling a road game against San Antonio as a should-win, but that is essentially what tonight’s game is. The Spurs are missing two starters, one of whom is their best player, and in my opinion, a top 3 player in the league and the Raptors are missing a guy who they’ve tried to trade for the last year or so. I KNOW HE’S PLAYING WELL!
By no means would a loss tonight signal cause for concern, — although it would bury my erroneous 82-0 claim — but it would provide a much needed boost heading into a showdown with the Golden State Warriors, who could and should be without Steph Curry for at least one game following his hissy fit a few nights ago (Raptors would need a 2+ game suspension to benefit).
If you don’t agree with me, to each his own, but I remember Udonis Haslem getting suspended 1 PLAYOFF game in 2006 for throwing his mouthpiece on the ground, having it bounce towards the ref. Steph Curry deliberately threw his at an official. He deserves to sit out at least one.
This road trip comes at a great time — (I know, it’s an overstated narrative in sports) — with the Raptors feeling on top of the world after their two home wins. They appear to be a different team, with a different philosophy and mindset. It’s all for the purposes of finally reaching the NBA’s precipice of Elitism.
The road to an Elite label in the NBA necessitates that teams consistently provide answers to tough questions (opponents) they face night in and night out. Doing it sporadically places you in the murky middle-ground of the NBA, a place the Raptors have resided for far too long.
Anxious to see how the Raptors answer the question they will face tonight…
Enjoy the game everyone.