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Raptors blog: VanVleet and Gasol are the kings of early 2020

Philadelphia 76ers guard Furkan Korkmaz (30)  and forward Al Horford (42) try to block a shot attempt by Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) during the first half at Scotiabank Arena: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Philadelphia 76ers guard Furkan Korkmaz (30) and forward Al Horford (42) try to block a shot attempt by Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) during the first half at Scotiabank Arena: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Raptors-Sixers was nice because it feels like it’s a rarity these days to see two good teams on the floor at the same time. Even without Joel Embiid, this wasn’t the usual January whatever type of game.

Toronto was facing what had been the NBA’s second-best defensive team over the last four games, yet shot 47% against them. Over this five-game winning streak Toronto has recorded an NBA-best 61 steals. The team’s 145 assists in that span also leads the league. That’s helped the Raptors easily overcome a run of their own turnovers (15.6 per game, tied for 23rd) and 23 opposing three-point makes per game (most in the league). The Raptors do concede a lot of threes, but they keep opponents out of the paint (only the league-best Bucks surrender fewer points in the paint).

One of the priorities for these Raptors is to create havoc defensively and to force opponents into mistakes. It’s most apparent with the way they attack the best players in the league, either aiming to get the ball out of their hands, or make life as difficult as possible. Kawhi Leonard used to hound Ben Simmons, but on Wednesday, Toronto did it by committee.

Remember when Gasol and VanVleet averaged 36% or so from three? It wasn’t all that long ago, but January surges (53% for VanVleet, mainly on the strength of 13-for-15 work in two recent games) and 58% for Gasol have each of them up to 40.2% for the season, inside of the Top 75 and behind only Norman Powell on the Raptors.

It’s pretty wild that VanVleet is at 53% for the month despite opening it with a 1-for-11 three-point shooting performance. Gasol’s splits during this streak are hilarious: .667/.583/.571. VanVleet isn’t even just launching threes, he’s also going downhill to the basket as often as he can and it’s putting a lot of pressure on defenders. VanVleet, Powell and Kyle Lowry all do this so opponents never really get a break.

How locked in and confident is Powell right now: He grabbed a rebound late in the first quarter and went coast-to-coast for a one-handed jam after a Eurostep. In the past he probably wouldn’t even have attempted to dunk there. Later he motored past three Philly defenders, including two of the league’s best in Ben Simmons and Al Horford for another jam.

Rookie Matisse Thybulle is really interesting. He’s an absolute terror in the passing lanes, doesn’t give up on plays (even if Pascal Siakam is in flight and about to throw down a big dunk) and is coming along as a three-point shooter.

Siakam finally cooled down against the Sixers after handling them well in the past, but still grabbed 15 rebounds. OG Anunoby went AWOL again, but that’s OK when six of his teammates score at least 16 points, the first time that’s happened since Orlando did it back in 1996, per ESPN.

A couple of random, fun moments: Lowry and VanVleet combining for a mini pick-and-roll, and the play when the Raptors trailed by seven in the third quarter and played some beautiful basketball. Lowry found VanVleet, who posted up Anunoby, but Anunoby was too high up and fed it back to Lowry who gave up a good shot for a better one from VanVleet, only to see VanVleet do a pretty touch pass to Gasol for a wide open corner three, which went in.

THREE STARS

1 — Fred VanVleet

2 — Marc Gasol

3 — Tobias Harris

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