The young Toronto Raptors might have sputtered out to a shaky start, but they’re suddenly one of the hottest teams in the league, owners of the NBA’s best win streak of five games.
They appear to be rounding into form more quickly than many people expected.
“I’m not going to lie, it really did surprise me,” Raptors forward and Montreal native Khem Birch said. “It’s funny, when all the older guys left this summer, it was like, ‘Wow, we are pretty young.’ Then I realized that’s kind of a benefit just because they’re able to full-court press and do all the little things that a veteran wouldn’t do just because he is a veteran.
“These guys, with the freedom we have, it gives them a lot of confidence and I feel that is why they are accelerating in the system.”
The Raptors (6-3) were back home Thursday after winning their first four road games of the season – a first in franchise history. It was also their first 4-0 trip since just before COVID-19 shut down the league in March of 2020.
Toronto’s strong start comes despite being without all-star Pascal Siakam, who is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Rookie Scottie Barnes also missed the past two games after spraining his right thumb in Saturday’s win at Indiana. He’s been cleared to play Friday when Toronto plays host to Cleveland.
While Fred VanVleet said he’s not taking his team’s hot stretch for granted, the starting guard’s growth as the team’s leader in place of departed Kyle Lowry has been evident. VanVleet led the way with 33 points in Wednesday’s 109-100 win in Washington, and stepped up whenever the Wizards threatened.
“It’s evolving,” coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “We’re still learning each other. I think you could see times early in the year where we clearly weren’t together at the offensive and we’re just kind of learning what guys can do and our spacing is getting a lot better.
“His comfortability of where guys are going to be, when they’re going to cut, what matchups they have, he’s reading a lot of stuff out there, and then he’s also reading his own game. He knows whatever the coverages are, what he can get to, and his using a variety of shots this year is also a big plus.”
Birch, meanwhile, has played a key role in Toronto’s win streak, including down the stretch of Wednesday’s win. The 29-year-old, who signed a three-year contract extension with the Raptors this past off-season, didn’t have the start to the season he had hoped for after contracting COVID-19. He says he’s now finally back to 100 per cent, and seems to have found a perfect fit with Toronto after the better part of four seasons languishing with Orlando.
While Birch’s stats against Washington weren’t eye-popping – nine points, five rebounds and two assists – he was plus-10 in his 22 minutes on the floor, and he executes critical details such as screening and passing, Nurse said, that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“He’s got a really unselfish kind of team mentality,” Nurse added.
Birch, who said he doesn’t look at box scores, recognizes that he adds value without putting up numbers.
“When you think about it, this organization kind of valued that as well,” Birch said. “What people [outside the team] think doesn’t matter, the organization gave me a good contract this summer, so if anything that should tell me and other people what they value.”
He’s had that unselfish mindset, he said, since the day he began playing.
“I never cared about stats. I used to watch the Detroit Pistons and how they played defence and in high school people told me they loved playing with me because I was so unselfish,” Birch said. “I remember being ranked high in high school and I never averaged a lot of points or anything. The way I’ve played has got me to where I am right now, so I would never change it.”
Birch said the Raptors’ defence is a big part of the team’s identity.
“I think defensively we are one of the best teams in the NBA,” Birch said. “I just feel like everyone is such a cohesive [group]. Everyone is together. It’s not just one man on an island. It’s the whole team against the whole other team. That’s what I love about this team. I think we have a real defensive identity.”
Despite adding nine new players in the off-season, the Raptors are sixth best in the league in defensive rating fewer than 10 games into the season.
After Friday’s game against Cleveland (5-4), Toronto plays host to the Brooklyn Nets (5-3) on Sunday. The Raptors then play a pair of games on the road next week, facing Boston on Wednesday and Philadelphia on Thursday.