TORONTO — Given that the latest Raptors victory took place on the same night as municipal elections in Ontario, it is worth putting the team’s hot start in some context.
Toronto is leading the league, but with 4.8 per cent of polls reporting.
Still, to the extent that anything significant can be gleaned from the early returns on this season, it is that the Raptors are not waiting long at all to answer the various uncertainties that have been asked about them repeatedly since management took a stick of dynamite to the best team in franchise history over the summer.
Would Kawhi Leonard be healthy?
After sitting out the second half of a back-to-back on Saturday night in the District of Columbia, noted fun guy Leonard played 31 minutes in Toronto’s 127-106 blitzing of Charlotte on Monday night. It was a remarkably complete performance, with 22 points on 64-per-cent shooting, four rebounds, three assists and two steals. He shot the ball beautifully — four of seven from three-point range — and appears to have found a stroke that was understandably a bit off after a season in which he played only nine games. That it has only taken him a week to find it is a huge bonus. While that was somewhat unexpected, that Leonard has been a holy terror on the defensive end is not. The two-time defensive player of the year plays like he has eight-foot arms, constantly disrupting passing lanes, and he can bother anyone on the opposing team. He found himself alone in the paint with Charlotte centre Cody Zeller on Wednesday night and coolly stayed in front of him, then got a hand up to stop a layup attempt, forcing the seven-footer to reset and take a three-second violation. Zeller loped back up the court, metaphorically pulling up the shorts that Leonard had just dropped to his ankles.
Would Kyle Lowry be happy?
If he plays like this when he is mad, then coach Nick Nurse should be doing everything possible to irritate him. Let the air out of his tires, change the WiFi password without telling him, the whole deal. Lowry scored 16 points on just nine shots against the Hornets and added 14 assists. He and Leonard were a combined 54 per cent from three-point range, and when that happens the Raptors will be lethal.
Would Nurse be able to find minutes for all of his guys?
After the season-opening win over Cleveland last week, the new coach was quick to mention that he was proud of players who had accepted new roles, singling out Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, who each started last year but are now spelling each other at the centre position. Valanciunas was a force playing mostly with a bench unit against Charlotte, piling up 17 points and 10 rebounds in just under 20 minutes, but he was also on the court in the fourth with Lowry and Leonard in a new-look closing lineup. Ibaka seems reborn, playing with an energy that was often absent last year, and he leads the NBA in post-block celebrations per 100 possessions.
The broader question that loomed about this team, though, was whether the changes that were made would help it address the problems that have habitually plagued it during the post-season. And again, the early returns are promising. Toronto struggled to defend elite offences last season, and they were often torched from the perimeter by those teams. The Cleveland Cavaliers shot 41 per cent from three-point range against the Raptors in the playoffs last year, and 46 per cent from distance in the previous playoffs. In related news, the Raptors were 0-8 in those games. And so, on Wednesday night the Hornets came into Scotiabank Arena having set an NBA record for most three-pointers through three games (39) — and the Raptors promptly snuffed that part of their game. They didn’t make a single three until the second quarter, and finished nine-of-28, or 32 per cent, from distance.
Nurse said after the win that when hot-shooting teams come in, there’s an emphasis on trying to anticipate the kickout pass, and getting out to the perimeter half a step sooner or jumping a little quicker to disrupt it.
It also helps that he has Leonard and Danny Green, his former San Antonio teammate, on hand to help with that disruption. On their own, they are defensive game-changers on the outside. Green, though, said that running out to defend the three is about knowing that someone else will pick the guy up if he runs around you.
“A big part of defence is trusting the guy behind you,” he said. He said he had played on teams like that before. Oh, yes: that one that won a title.
Nurse said a few times in the pre-season that he had stressed broader themes of “nitty gritty” defence, things that he thought the Raptors could do better. Contesting shots, getting up for rebounds, basic stuff like that.
He spoke again on Wednesday about simplicity. In the case of Charlotte, it was taking away something that they knew the Hornets would try to do over and over. That meant talking a lot, and getting out and up on shooters.
It is early, yes. So very early. But so far, these Raptors are listening.