The Toronto Raptors are about to run the NBA gauntlet. If their first West Coast road trip was going to be their first litmus test — one they failed — this next stretch is going to be an even tougher challenge.
Starting on Monday, the Raptors are going to play six straight games against the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, and Milwaukee Bucks. Three of those four teams have winning records this season and the only one that doesn't, the Heat, were in the NBA Finals last year. Combined, those teams have won 53.5% of their games this season, a considerable step up from Toronto's .483 strength of schedule — the ninth easiest in the NBA — so far this year.
The biggest thing for the Raptors right now is trying to find some consistency. It's not so much about being great all the time, it's more about limiting the lulls on both ends of the court. If those five to seven-minute lulls come less frequently or become two to three-minute skids, that would make a huge difference.
"I think you just continue to find ways where you can stop those tough stretches," Raptors guard Norman Powell said. "When the ball isn’t going in or guys coming are fumbling a couple passes like early on in this game. It seems like it took a little bit to get going in terms of finding the reads and just getting ourselves into the game. But you just try to level it off by limiting the defensive mistakes that keep us at bay."
That's the thing that Raptors coach Nick Nurse is looking for. Some nights shots aren't going to go in for everyone. That's just the nature of basketball and even more so when you're a 3-point centric team like Toronto. But if your shots aren't following due to some tough luck on one end, the Raptors can't let it affect their defence on the other end.
"When it’s not so good need to be still solid, you know, solid, kind of average," Nurse said. "We can’t have a, like if it’s a 1-for-7 shooting night we can’t also have a bunch of defensive lapses. Those 1-for-7s are going happen, but still playing solid and impacting the game and defensive rebounding."
Some of it comes from just overthinking things, OG Anunoby said. It's still early in the season and with the amount of rotation tinkering the Raptors have had, everyone is still getting accustomed to playing with one another.
"Just got to, again, keep learning and teaching, we got to show the film and try to fix the mistakes," Nurse said following Saturday's victory. "We've still got a lot of new guys, guys who’ve played relatively small amounts in this league and they just gotta get more seasoning to be able to play and extend our good segments of play."
If Toronto was 8-4 instead of 4-8, then there would be a little more time to work out some of those kinks against some of the NBA's best. But the reality of the Raptors' situation is they lost some winnable games and now as they enter their first truly tough stretch of the season, there's not as much wiggle room anymore.
If things go well, the Raptors could thrust themselves right back into the Eastern Conference playoff conversation. If things go poorly, however, Toronto fans eyeing a high draft pick this season might have something to cheer about.