Better without Leonard? Streaking Raptors relying on reserves
WASHINGTON – No one thought defending NBA champions the Toronto Raptors would be better without Kawhi Leonard. But they are.
After holding on for Saturday's home win over Brooklyn, the Raptors (39-14) have won a team-record 14 straight games and are off to the best start in franchise history. They have also won 10 consecutive road games.
"None of them has been easy," guard Fred VanVleet said. "But we continue to go out there and work and grind away and find ways to get wins in different ways."
The Raptors haven't lost anywhere since January 12 against San Antonio or on the road since January 2 at Miami. During their streak, they are first in points per 100 possessions (118.3), second in overall shooting (.499) and three-point shooting (.399) and third in assists (26.8). They are also first in points allowed (107.9) and steals (10.3) and fourth in opponents' shooting (.444).
"We play 48 minutes," All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said. "That's how we play."
Even more astounding is how the Raptors have kept winning despite numerous injuries. Spanish centre Marc Gasol (hamstring) has sat the last six games. Guard Norman Powell (broken finger) has missed the last four contests. And Lowry (neck) sat out Saturday.
Toronto's top five scorers have all missed at least 10 games this season.
"At this point, I think we're experienced enough in that realm, unfortunately," VanVleet said. "We've had a ton of guys out this year. We don't really think about it."
"Incredible depth," Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said. "Not only a good basketball team but a good programme. They have young guys deep in their roster that have helped them. They are deep. They're playing great basketball."
After leading the Raptors to their first championship last June, Leonard left via free agency, signing with the Los Angeles Clippers. Starting guard Danny Green signed with the Lakers.
The Raptors signed career reserves Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson to fortify their bench while elevating VanVleet and Britain native OG Anunoby to starting roles. But they have also relied on player development.
Powell is averaging a career-high 15.3 points, reprising VanVleet's supersub role. Anunoby is averaging career highs of 10.1 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Rookies Terence Davis and Matt Thomas are contributing as well. Over his last four games, Davis is averaging nearly 20 points while shooting 61 per cent from the arc. Thomas has seen limited action but scored a season-high 15 points in Saturday's win. "Our assistant coaches do a great job of keeping those guys ready," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "I think the mindset of 'you never know' and 'stay ready' maybe helps a little bit once in a while."
It hasn't been the bench entirely driving Toronto's success. Lowry is an All-Star for the sixth time. Cameroon's Pascal Siakam, the 2019 Most Improved Player, has made another quantum leap and is an All-Star as well. Veteran Serge Ibaka is averaging 21.2 points in Gasol's recent absence.
Powell is out indefinitely, but Gasol and Lowry are expected to return soon.
In the meantime, the Raptors will just keep plugging in players to fill the holes.
"That's how you go on a long streak in this league," Atkinson said. "You just can't do it with your top five or your top six. You've got to be deep, and they are deep."dpa