Raptors can be cautiously optimistic about the foundation they are building



TORONTO — The Raptors have a good thing going. It is a small sample, but their current starting lineup has been dominating. And only one of those five players will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

That is called growth.

No need to relive last year’s mistakes, when the Raptors walked into the offseason with a few too many question marks. The group of Immanuel Quickley, Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., RJ Barrett and Jakob Poeltl are playing well together. They couldn’t quite stop the Luka Dončić show on Wednesday, losing their 21 or so minutes by two points in a 136-125 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

“We’re very balanced,” said Barrett, who had 26 points, six assists and five rebounds against the Mavericks. “I think … Quick, he has so much energy all the time, running around everywhere, making plays, many shots, setting everybody up. And then you got Scottie: He’s doing everything out there. Jak is really good. He has his floater. He’s dunking, getting assists, blocks. He’s doing a lot of things, too. Gary’s a crazy (shooter). Any time you pass the ball to Gary, I think it’s going in. Myself, I just try to do what I can out there to help the team. That group together, we just play very well off each other.”

“We’re gonna make mistakes. But we can cover for all of that with effort,” head coach Darko Rajaković added before the game. “Since the All-Star break, that was kind of the theme with us. We were able to have all five guys engaged and playing together on the defensive end. And on the offensive end, we were able to move the ball and play together as well.”

Entering Wednesday’s game, the Raptors starters had outscored their opponents by 39 points in 135 minutes over eight games, translating to a positive net rating of 12.2 points per 100 possessions. For points of comparison, powerhouses such as the Denver Nuggets (14.1), Los Angeles Clippers (12.6), Minnesota Timberwolves (9.9), Boston Celtics (13.8) and Milwaukee Bucks (15.3) have dominant starting fives. Being an excellent team almost always starts with having a great first unit.

A lot of that has been shooting. The starters were shooting 41 and 83 percent from the 3-point arc and free-throw line, respectively, while their opponents were shooting 36.4 and 68.1 percent. In terms of sheer volume, the Raptors starters had hit 18 more free throws than their opponents. You would expect those numbers to normalize slightly, although having Quickley and Gary Trent in the first five will help your team shoot better. They have also dominated the offensive glass like last year’s possession-obsessed team.

That is part of the idea, though. Work rate is important. Still, the Raptors must be able to put this in context.

Even after this year’s two big trades, Raptors president Masai Ujiri was still citing the team’s 15-11 record with Poeltl after the trade deadline last year. That group went 4-8 against playoff teams, which included a win over Milwaukee on the last day of the season when the Bucks were resting their best players. (Some players missing in some of those wins: Jimmy Butler, Anthony Edwards, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo.) Going 11-3 against teams that did not ultimately make the playoffs carried them home. The Raptors will have to be able to put what their team does down the stretch this year in context.

“(Numbers) show a lot, but a lot of times it’s also the schedule,” Rajaković said. “It’s not just us, but it’s other teams as well. I think that probably around 15 to 20 games, that’s where numbers are becoming more relevant and can paint the picture better. Definitely seeing that the stretch of eight games and starters doing a good job with net rating, that’s very positive for us. We’re aware of it, for sure. We still have a lot of work to do and get better.”

On paper, there is a lot to like about this group: a guy who can do a bit of everything, a fearless driver, two elite shooting threats and a solid defensive centre. Even if Trent leaves in unrestricted free agency, Gradey Dick should be able to fill in at that spot with a little more time to develop.

It’s important to allow the sample size to grow, and not get complacent. The Raptors lack a defensive specialist on the wing, especially if Barnes is allowed to be more of a roamer, which is his strength. The Raptors will need to find that sort of piece somehow.

They can be cautiously optimistic about the foundation they are building from, though. Let’s see what this lineup looks like against some legitimately scary teams.

Notes

• All versions of the Raptors’ bench got crushed on Wednesday. They play nice offensive basketball, but they lack size and physicality defensively.

• Before the game, Rajaković mentioned how Barnes brought up winning Defensive Player of the Year as one of his primary goals upon meeting for the first time last offseason. He got the bulk of the Dončić assignment when the two shared the floor, and did an admirable job. Of course, the Raptors still switched liberally, and he made an awesome play to come from the Mavericks star’s blind side after a switch to catch him napping. That doesn’t happen often.

Also, watching him compete for this ball on the glass was awesome.

• On the other hand, I don’t think trying to use your opponent like a tackling dummy is the best way to avoid a loose ball foul. Barnes looked a bit frustrated at that moment.

• Fun step through, Immanuel Quickley.

• It is good that Barnes keeps looking for Kelly Olynyk over the top of the defence when he has a smaller man on him, but Olynyk has to trust the pass a bit more instead of extending his arm(s) to maintain the separation. That is what his hips are for.

• Remember when everyone was worried about Dick’s shot? Well, running into a screen set for him on a pindown and still drilling a contested jumper is perhaps proof all that scouting didn’t completely miss the mark.

• I don’t find the pace with which Dončić plays with enthralling, but his pure passing makes watching him a treat nonetheless.

“It’s on his pace,” Rajaković said. “It’s on his terms.” Very true.

(Photo of Immanuel Quickley and Luka Dončić: Cole Burston/Getty Images)





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