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The Toronto Raptors' gutsy 109-100 win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night propelled them to a 6-3 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference despite being without Pascal Siakam, Yuta Watanabe, and most recently Scottie Barnes. It was their fifth win in a row — a streak they didn’t accomplish all of last season — and the first time in franchise history the team has started 4-0 on the road.
Remember: This was a Raptors team that was supposed to struggle, at least out of the gate. After all, Vegas placed the Raptors' Over/Under at 36.5 wins (at this rate they would hit the over by the All-Star break) due in large part to the fact they were young, inexperienced, and unproven.
Sure, Fred VanVleet, Siakam, Chris Boucher and OG Anunoby were members of the 2019 championship team, but Boucher and Anunoby didn’t play in the playoffs that year and Siakam is still recovering from shoulder surgery after an up-and-down season in Tampa Bay. In fact, those were the only four Raptors who played a home game in Toronto prior to this season. Plus, they shipped out veteran Kyle Lowry for a 22-year-old Precious Achiuwa (and Goran Dragic, who is out of the rotation) and drafted three more relatively raw youngsters in Barnes, Dalano Banton, and David Johnson (yes, he still exists).
The Raptors entered the 2021-22 season as one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 25. They have just 68,000 combined minutes of NBA experience, which is fewer than the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Charlotte Hornets. Exclude the 24,298 minutes Dragic has played in his 13-season career, and they are the least experienced team in the entire league. Barnes and Achiuwa, two of the Raptors' opening night starters, are 20 and 22 years old, respectively.
Against all odds, the Raptors are off to one of their best starts in franchise history. And a lot of it comes down to the youngsters playing like seasoned veterans.
“I think learning to play the full 48 [minutes] with all its ups and downs is part of the experience,” head coach Nick Nurse said early this season. “These games are long and they take a lot of turns, a lot of directions, and not getting caught up in any of the severe turns they take is part of the experience.
“I think that's probably the part that I'm trying to just focus on: continuing to play and maybe not getting caught up sometimes in the scoreboard and things like that… And I think you got to be able to handle some emotion there, you got to have some maturity.”
The Raptors have displayed a ton of maturity over this five-game win streak, staying even-keeled in the heat of some very close games. After a loss to the Chicago Bulls that came down to the wire on Oct. 25, the Raptors blew out the Indiana Pacers 118-100. Then, they beat the Magic, Pacers, Knicks, and Wizards all in games decided by fewer than 10 points.
They trailed in three of those contests in the second halves before coming back and winning, including against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden where the Raptors were down 15 before a dominant third quarter in which they outscored the Knicks 38-22. It was one of the biggest tests of the season, and the Raptors passed with flying colours despite being without some key players and using a 10-man rotation.
Whenever the Raptors have needed a bucket this season, veterans VanVleet and Anunoby have been there to give them one. In fact, the Raptors have been one of the best “clutch” teams in the league this season after struggling to close out games all of last year, with the league’s fifth-best offensive rating in the final five minutes of close games at 123.5, and a net rating of 18.0. VanVleet has been the team’s closer early on this season, using 28.6 percent of the Raptors' clutch possessions, where he has a 77.3 true shooting percentage.
“If I play better, there’s a steady feel out there: shots are going in, you get a rhythm, you get a feel, the other team is taking a ball out of the net,” VanVleet said about keeping the team even-keeled. “So, me personally, I'm not gonna be everybody's shrink on the floor all the time making sure they're [okay] but if I'm playing good, that's a calming presence.”
“He’s a great leader. He’s a great player. So obviously everybody trusts him. We trust him,” 24-year-old guard Svi Mykhailiuk said of VanVleet. “And he makes the game easier for everybody. For us, we just need to make the right play and play hard on defence.”
The Raptors’ hot start is made even more amazing by the fact that they have had a compact schedule to start the campaign, being one of only six teams to have already played nine games. VanVleet leads the league in minutes per game at 38.8, and Anunoby (36.9) and Barnes are not far behind (34.9).
But it hasn’t all been VanVleet, either. It has taken a real team effort to propel the Raptors forward this season, with Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. each providing consistent scoring and defence, and each of the young guys playing within their roles regardless of the context, giving Nurse the confidence to play them in any situation and know what he is going to get.
Despite their youth and inexperience, role players like Mykhailiuk, Banton, Malachi Flynn, Boucher, Achiuwa, and Khem Birch have all stepped in when asked and given the Raptors good minutes. Barnes has looked like a veteran every time he steps on the court, playing at his own pace and making the right reads almost every time he touches the ball.
“All of those guys, they spent a lot of time this summer and this fall working with the team. They’ve been on point and they’ve been locked in, so we have a good group in terms of being on the same page,” VanVleet said of his young teammates. “It’s fun to play with them as the point guard, and we just have a good flow right now, a chemistry.
“I love these guys’ make-up. I love this group that we have more than the talent and the effort and all of that, just their mentality of not being afraid. They're not shy. We go out there, we play hard… So we’ve got to continue to get better and handle adversity and everything that comes our way, but we're building trust on a daily basis and you could feel the chemistry growing. And it's going to be an up-and-down journey all year.”
VanVleet is right: the Raptors can’t count on it going this smoothly all season. Their upcoming stretch of games includes contests against the Nets, 76ers, Jazz, Warriors, and Bucks, and we still don’t know exactly when Siakam, Watanabe, and Barnes will return. Plus, the transition period when they do return could present its own challenges as the coaching staff gets everyone re-acclimated to playing with one another. But nobody could have predicted this start, including the guy in charge of building the roster.
Logic would certainly agree. But as VanVleet alluded to on media day, anything’s possible.
“I read a quote the other day that said, ‘There are things that have never been done being done everyday,’” VanVleet said with a smile.
“So, I’m up for the challenge, and the team is ready for the challenge.”
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