September 28, 2021

Will Raptors do what Jordan-less Bulls could not?

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The 1993-94 Chicago Bulls couldn’t repeat as NBA champions without the retired Michael Jordan. Will the Toronto Raptors do it without Kawhi Leonard?

Sunday’s NBA playoff games

  • Gm 1: Celtics @ Raptors | 6pm
  • Gm 6: Clippers @ Mavericks | 8:30pm | Sky Sports Arena
  • Gm 6: Nuggets @ Jazz | 1:30am | Sky Sports Arena

When Jordan first retired just before the 1993-94 season began, nobody quite knew how losing the best player in the NBA would impact the Chicago Bulls. They’d been the champions for three straight seasons.

But Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson kept a core together and managed to put together a top three defense in the league. General manager Jerry Krause would add a few new pieces and the Bulls once again competed for a top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Siakam and Lowry pose with former team-mate Kawhi Leonard at the 2020 All-Star Game
Image: Siakam and Lowry pose with former team-mate Kawhi Leonard at the 2020 All-Star Game

This 2019-20 of the Toronto Raptors has a group of unselfish, defense-first team-mates who share chemistry with one another. Last year, they had their version of Jordan in Kawhi Leonard and won the franchise’s first championship.

Without Leonard, nobody expected much from Toronto when the 2019-20 season started. Sure, they were going to be well coached, they were going to work hard, but few could have predicted they would post a better winning percentage than in their title-winning season (73.6 per cent in 2019-20) and sweep their first-round opponent so easily – something they couldn’t do in 2019.

Was it right to be so dismissive of this team’s chances to repeat? In 2018-19, Leonard sat for 22 games. Without him, the Raptors had a winning percentage of 77.2 per cent, and managed 68.3 per cent with him in the line-up.

That’s not to say they were worse with Leonard. When you reach the playoffs, every team needs a player of his quality to make the type of shot he made against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 to lead the team to the Conference Finals.

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Pascal Siakam is congratulated by Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet
Image: Pascal Siakam is congratulated by Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet

During the regular season, well-constructed teams can amass a good number of wins, which is exactly what this year’s Toronto team has done.

Their real test begins against the Boston Celtics on Sunday at 6pm (UK time). This will be where the lack of a traditional superstar might come into play – especially against a team that has Jayson Tatum playing at an all-time high and Kemba Walker looking like one of the best non-superstar point guards in the league.

Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics 2:00
Jayson Tatum scored 32 points and 13 rebounds in the Boston Celtics’ opening game victory over the Philadelphia 76ers

Before the playoffs, head coach Nick Nurse spoke to Double Clutch about how players on his team have stepped up and will continue to do so. He said: “We have played well at home, we have played well away. I think our guys are in good shape and with Kawhi and Danny [Green] gone, that’s two holes to fill.

“But Pascal Siakam has taken his game up another notch, OG Anunoby has slid in there nicely, Norman Powell has improved, Fred VanVleet has improved, Serge Ibaka – these guys keep getting better.”

Nick Nurse has enjoyed another stand-out season with Toronto Raptors 0:59
Nick Nurse feels Toronto have a legitimate shot at being NBA champions for the second season in a row

The numbers back Nurse up. Comparing last season to 2019-20, Siakam scored 16.9 points per game and 22.9 this year. Anunoby went from seven to 10. Powell practically doubled his from 8.6 to 16. VanVleet improved from 11 to 17.6 and Ibaka upped his average slightly.

These add up to 23.4 points, which is just shy of the 26.6 points Leonard averaged last season. And when you throw in the increased scoring and typically excellent defense of Kyle Lowry, the team had a great regular season. But to take it to the next level, the Raptors still need someone who can score at will.

The main candidate on paper is Siakam, who, like Scottie Pippen on that 1993-94 Bulls team, has emerged from a superstar’s shadow to become the leading scorer on this squad. Due to the extra attention he is getting from opposing defenders, this season has seen his shooting efficiency dip slightly, but he is scoring, rebounding, assisting, blocking and stealing more than he ever has before. His numbers were helped by playing the 11th most minutes per game in the league.

At first glance, Siakam doesn’t appear to average an especially impressive number of clutch points per game (the final five minutes when his team was within five points of their opponent). His 2.8 makes him the 31st best in the league among players who have at least 15 games of clutch possessions. Ahead of him is team-mate Lowry, who averaged 2.9.

Pascal Siakam is congratulated by Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet
Image: Pascal Siakam is congratulated by Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet

They were behind players from 25 different teams. Individually, there are a number of clutch performers better than Siakam, but most of them are doing it alone. Combined, Lowry and Siakam averaged nearly six points at the end of close games.

So many teams rely on one hero – but just like everything else the Raptors do, being clutch is done by committee, and they have a record of 25-12 in those games.

Karl Lowry of the Toronto Raptors 0:16
Kyle Lowry throws an end-to-end pass to Pascal Siakam for the score during the Toronto Raptors’ victory over the Brooklyn Nets

The Boston Celtics are another team that achieves as a collective, which is why this second-round match-up is such a fascinating match-up. Tatum and Walker combined for five points in the clutch in the regular season, whereas the Raptors did better, and also had input from VanVleet, who averaged 2.3 in the final few minutes to tip the scales.

This resulted in Siakam contributing to a 20-10 record when the Raptors played close games, unlike Tatum, who only managed to win 55 per cent of the time in such scenarios.

Pascal Siakam 1:51
Pascal Siakam scores 26 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the Toronto Raptors’ dominant win over the Brooklyn Nets

This shouldn’t overlook what Lowry offers to the team. The point guard is still the best on the team in ‘box plus-minus’ (which estimates the points per 100 possessions he contributed above a league average player), closely followed by VanVleet, but Siakam is used more than everyone else on the team and is getting superstar treatment by opponents.

Facing the Celtics won’t be easy, but Toronto had the stingiest defense in the league, something those 93-94 Bulls came close to, but didn’t quite manage without Jordan.

Kyle Lowry and Nick Nurse share strategy during a Raptors game
Image: Lowry and Nurse share strategy during a Raptors game

The Raptors also have clutch performers and, in Nurse, the Coach of the Year, who seemed pretty confident about his team’s chances at winning a second consecutive NBA championship.

“I’d say our guys believe we have a legitimate shot. I’m not sure many guys in the league believe we do, but I believe we have a legitimate shot of doing it again,” he said. “We have a smart, tough-minded team that has a lot of togetherness – there’s a lot of good qualities.”

Losing a Finals MVP doesn’t happen very often, and returning to contention in the next season is even more rare.

But just like the Bulls, the Raptors have picked up the slack as a unit, and that is how they will have to play in order to get beyond Boston.

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