Sky Sports NBA analyst Mike Tuck offers three takes on the Toronto Raptors as they prepare to host the Houston Rockets.
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'An exciting and dangerous team'
Like the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors are not getting enough attention. They are the reigning champs and still they don't get the respect!
One reason for that is because Kawhi Leonard left but the other is that, in the States, they are still seen as that little team up in Canada who nobody talks about whose games are rarely shown on national TV. Despite winning the title, they are still the ultimate underdogs.
Nobody's talking about them and that is fine. They will quietly go about their business and keep winning games.
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I think the sky is the limit for the Raptors. Kawhi went to Toronto last year and showed them the blueprint of how to get to the Finals and win the title. Now, guys like Pascal Siakam are filling the void Leonard and Danny Green have left. They have been winning games while missing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka for long periods.
Role players are stepping up and finding different ways to win games. OG Anunoby has come back and is looking really good this year. I'm really happy with how he has been playing, especially on the defensive end.
Guys like Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher have all stepped up the to challenge. I'm not sure Nick Nurse was ready to inject them into line-ups, injuries forced his decision to a degree but it has paid off for them.
The Raptors have been shooting the lights out from three. That's one of their biggest strengths, the ability to spread the floor and create good shots for each other. You have bigs like Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka who can shoot the three - and Boucher too, who can knock down open shots from three.
Nurse is a coach willing to try things and roll the dice. Remember the 'box and one' defense in the Finals against the Warriors. It sounded like a crazy idea but it worked for them in that moment.
I think Nurse is a player's coach. He 'gets it', he is in tune with his players. He demands respect and his players get along with him, which is a big thing. He proved it in the playoffs last year and now has a group of guys in front of him willing to listen and willing to try things that are a little bit out of the box.
It's working. They've got one of the top records in the league and they are exciting to watch. Toronto are a dangerous team in the East.
Changing times for Lowry?
Fred VanVleet is doing a great job. He and Kyle Lowry, who has just returned from injury, are a great one-two punch.
Although Lowry missed 11 games and was poor in his first game back, don't forget he played the first nine games of the season and averaged 20 points and seven assists.
Lowry rediscovering his shooting touch won't be easy after a thumb injury and it will take time. That's why it is great that VanVleet is in there playing the way he is. He and Siakam are the best two players on the team currently.
For Lowry, it's a 'changing of the guard' situation. The young guys are coming through. Lowry has been a mentor to VanVleet who is now coming through, playing really well and being very consistent.
He will have looked up to Lowry. You can tell that from the way Fred plays and the way he is becoming a leader.
Your role on a team can change. It happened to me. I used to be the man. Over time, your role gets reduced, your minutes get reduced, you come off the bench, but you find ways to still be effective, be it in a leadership role or being the 'older brother' on the team.
After all his years shouldering the responsibility in Toronto, It must be nice for Lowry to be able to share the load, especially with the run the Raptors are having.
He is at a point in his career where he will be mature enough to realise they have a good thing going. But it can be a tough pill to swallow though for some guys, especially if they have been a legendary player for a team.
A thriving development culture
Like the Miami Heat, the Raptors have surrounded their superstar player, Pascal Siakam, with a bunch of shooters within a good organisation that has a strong culture.
The Raptors have got a great management system that has taken members of their coaching staff and installed them in their G-League team, the Raptors 905. They sent their assistant coach Jerry Stackhouse there, for example.
The 905 are based in Mississauga which is a 25-30 minute drive from downtown Toronto. Most G-League teams are based huge distances away from their respective NBA teams but with the Raptors, you have a stream of players there just around the corner - Boucher was one - ready to be called up to play for the Raptors. It's an ideal situation.
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Toronto are using the 905 Raptors as their secondary development team to bring new guys up. It's a whole development culture going on where the team are taking guys and putting them into positions to be successful.
They've created a stream of players able to come up to Toronto and contribute. Siakam is the ultimate test for that. Two years ago he was averaging seven points a game and now is arguably a top-five player in the league.