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NBA Second-Quarter Awards: Best Team, Player, and Surprise

With half the regular season in the books, it’s once again time to hand out some imaginary hardware. We spotlight the ahead-of-schedule Grizzlies, two bigs in Cleveland turning heads, and a player out West who could change the calculus for his franchise’s future.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been a rocky ride for the NBA over the past six weeks. More than 300 players (as well as plenty of team staffers, referees, and other personnel) have landed in the COVID-19 health-and-safety protocols, leaving teams scrambling to fill open roster spots in hopes of remaining competitive and staying afloat. Amid the absences and upheaval, though, the league has pressed on, managing to white-knuckle it through the first half of its 2021-22 schedule.

With 41 games now in the books for all 30 NBA teams, let’s celebrate our arrival at a manageable fraction by taking stock, recognizing the best of the best of what we’ve just watched, and handing out some imaginary hardware. Before we get underway, a point of clarification: These awards are based purely on performance in the second quarter of this season, the 20-plus-game period between our last check-in on December 2 and this third week of January. Focusing on who rose, fell, delighted, and disappointed during that time, rather than on who has played best through the entire season, better crystallizes the state of play as we enter the second half.

These are not predictions of who will take home the league’s official individual and collective trophies come season’s end, but rather a tip of the cap to players and teams at this particular moment. And at this particular moment, the hottest spot in the NBA is Grind City:

All stats and records updated leading into Wednesday’s games.

Team of the Quarter: Memphis Grizzlies

You can nitpick individual wins if you want: Phoenix without Deandre Ayton, the Lakers without Anthony Davis (twice), the Clippers without Paul George, the Cavs with only one guard (Darius Garland) who can dribble, the Warriors without Draymond Green, etc. But you don’t caveat your way to an 11-game winning streak, a 20-5 record, or a plus-11.4 efficiency differential—all of which were the best in the NBA during the second quarter. You crush your way to that.

Besides, it’s not like the opponents got the Grizzlies at full strength every night. Ascendant superstar point guard Ja Morant missed the first 10 games of this stretch recovering from a knee injury and COVID. Starting swingman Dillon Brooks, who was playing great after missing the start of the season with a broken left hand, spent six games in protocols before landing right back on the shelf with a nasty ankle sprain. Starting center Steven Adams, key reserves De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, and Kyle Anderson, and rookie wing Ziaire Williams have all been in and out of the lineup during this run, too. None of it has mattered; the deepest team in the NBA has still had enough to win.

Jaren Jackson Jr. has sloughed off his early-season inconsistency—11 games of 20 or more points in this span, 16 with two or more blocks, nine with two or more 3-pointers, and, perhaps most importantly, only four with five or more fouls—as he continues to mature into one of the league’s best two-way big men (more on that later). Desmond Bane (19.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game in Q2 on 47/44/88 shooting splits) is blossoming into not only a sharpshooting complement for Morant in the backcourt, but a vital piece of Memphis’s long-term core in his own right. A second unit replete with contributors has stepped in to keep Memphis’s war rig rolling on the Fury Road when necessary: Clarke against the Clippers, Tyus Jones against the Warriors, John Konchar against the Wolves, and on and on.

Concerns that the Grizzlies defense would sink once Morant returned to the fold have proved unwarranted: Memphis ranks third in points allowed per possession since his return, and has been stingier with him on the court than off it. Their offense has remained dynamic, too, with Morant torching opposing defenses (24.9 points and 6.6 assists in just 31.9 minutes per game, shooting 50 percent from the field), everybody crashing the boards (no. 1 in the league in offensive rebounding rate and second-chance points), and everybody sprinting the floor (first in fast-break points and second in transition frequency). Add it up, and you’ve got far and away the most balanced and brutalizing basketball team going—one that has blasted into position alongside the Warriors, Suns, and Jazz in the race for Western Conference supremacy.

What we’ve seen over the past six weeks—and particularly over the last dozen games since Morant’s return—is a full-tilt ass-kicker of a team announcing its arrival, loudly and unmistakably. The branding might lean “next generation,” but there’s nothing “next” about the Grizzlies anymore. The second-youngest team in the league might be ahead of schedule, but they’re here right now. And they’re a fuckin’ problem.

Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Suns (16-6 in Q2 despite Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton each missing a couple of weeks, the only team besides the Grizz in the top five on both offense and defense, now firmly atop the West), Cavaliers (Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and Evan Mobley are OFFICIALLY one hell of a core), Heat (no Jimmy, no Bam, no problem; Erik Spoelstra for emperor), Bulls (13-7 with a nine-game winning streak amid a COVID outbreak is nothing to sneeze at), Jazz (a few ugly losses without Rudy Gobert that surfaced those persistent concerns about their perimeter defense, but man, that offense is scorching), and 76ers (we’re getting there).

Player of the Quarter: Joel Embiid, 76ers

Despite continuing to get zero production from its second-highest-paid player as Ben Simmons stays away from the team, Tobias Harris and Danny Green both struggling with their shots, and kickstarter point guard Tyrese Maxey missing seven games, Philly posted the second-best record in the East in Q2, and sits just 2.5 games out of first place. There’s one reason for that—and he’s really friggin’ big.

After an up-and-down return from COVID-19 in November, Embiid’s been on an absolute heater, averaging a league-best 30.6 points per game in Q2 to go with 10.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 combined blocks and steals per night. He’s been pouring in those points with downright alarming ease, posting a scorching .637 true shooting percentage despite finishing a mammoth 36.8 percent of Philadelphia’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, turnover, or foul drawn—a combination of usage and efficiency that only prime James Harden has ever produced over a full season.

Already shouldering more offensive responsibility with Simmons MIA, Embiid absorbed an even greater share with Maxey in and out of the lineup and Harris struggling, averaging 74.1 touches and 53.7 frontcourt touches per game in Q2—both of which would be his highest numbers in three seasons. He’s more frequently pushing the ball the length of the court by himself off defensive rebounds, and has more actively set the table for his teammates, assisting on 24.6 percent of their baskets while turning it over on just 11.1 percent of his plays—both significantly better than his previous full-season career bests.

He’s done all that while still making his usual presence felt on the defensive end, too: Opponents are attempting fewer 3-pointers and free throws against the 76ers with him in the middle, and his sheer size makes ball handlers think better of driving deep into the paint a handful of times a game. Philly grabs a larger share of defensive rebounds in his minutes—a big deal, considering how much Simmons’s absence hurts its teamwide rebounding. And while the Sixers actually allowed more points per possession with Embiid on the floor in Q2 than when he sat, they still defended at a near-top-five level with him out there. Considering how dramatic a difference he makes to their offensive output—they’ve scored like the no. 2 offense in the league with him on the court, and far and away the NBA’s worst with him off of it—that’s been more than good enough to put Philly back within striking distance of the top of the conference.

It’s anybody’s guess whether Daryl Morey will turn the perplexing 6-foot-11 hole in the Sixers roster into something that can help Embiid and Co. stand toe-to-toe with the East’s best teams come spring. I’m hoping he does, though; this version of Embiid is good enough to go to war with anybody, and deserves the very best support his organization has to offer.

ARTVIMB: Giannis (averaging more than 29-10-6 on 54 percent shooting in Q2 for a Bucks team that’s been a meat grinder with its big three healthy), Nikola Jokic (still leading the NBA in nearly every advanced stat that we have after averaging 25-14-8 on .630 true shooting to keep the Nuggets alive in the West), LeBron (whose incredible production since his move to center in Anthony Davis’s absence has kept the Lakers in playoff contention), Kevin Durant (get well soon, man), DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine (a pair of playmaking scorers at the peak of their powers to carry the Bulls), Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam (playing arguably the best ball of their careers to help lift the Raptors back into contention), Morant and Garland (here’s to the Third-Year Leap for Point Guards), Gobert, Trae Young (in a cold snap with his shot on a team that’s dying on defense, but the whole averaging-almost-30-and-10 part merits at least an honorable mention).

Cleveland Cavaliers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

Rookie of the Quarter: Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

Our first repeat winner this season! A mid-December stint in COVID protocols interrupted Mobley’s phenomenal rookie run, but it didn’t derail him; he’s scored 15 or more points in 10 of 12 games since returning, and shooting 56.5 percent from the field to help the surprising Cavs surge to within just 1.5 games of first place in the East.

The no. 3 pick continues to contribute in all areas of the game. He can finish inside (72.4 percent in the restricted area in Q2) and operate comfortably in the midrange (43 percent on 2-point shots away from the basket). He’s a vital connector in Cleveland’s offense, with the patience to let plays develop when he’s facilitating from the post or the elbows, and the vision and touch to find cutters off the ball:

He pairs that offensive poise with uncommon defensive chops for a 20-year-old big man, showing both the quickness to stick with guards on switches on the perimeter and the paint-protecting acumen to hold up inside. Mobley held opponents to just 50 percent shooting at the rim in Q2 when he was the nearest defender—ninth out of 111 players to defend at least 50 such up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Save for a shot that’s still coming online—just 31.5 percent on jumpers and 66.7 percent from the free throw line in Q2—Mobley looks like the total package, capable of more than holding his own in big minutes and a critical role for a team that’s got a legitimate chance to win 50 games and make a deep playoff run.

ARTVIMB: Scottie Barnes (he missed more action than Mobley did in Q2 and has struggled with his shot, but remains a vital two-way piece for the resurgent Raptors), Cade Cunningham (16.9 points, 5.9 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game in Q2, 38 percent from deep on six attempts per game, and the clunkers are getting fewer and farther between), Franz Wagner (forced into a larger role than he should occupy on the woeful Magic, but handling it with aplomb), Herb Jones (53/45/81 shooting splits plus a legitimate All-Defense case for the 35th pick; the Pelicans’ starting lineup—second best in the NBA in Q2!—took off once he entered it), Josh Giddey (13-8-7 per game in Q2 at age 19; if that jumper develops, the sky’s the limit), Omer Yurtseven (averaged nearly 14-14-3 on 54.5 percent shooting in 10 starts, a huge reason Miami stayed afloat with both Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon out), Ayo Dosunmu (the hard-charging second-round pick filled in capably for the sidelined Alex Caruso, earning minutes in Chicago with his defense, complementary playmaking, and ever-revving motor).

Reserve of the Quarter: Kevin Love, Cavaliers

Given how frequently Love demonstrably expressed his displeasure with the state of affairs in Cleveland post-LeBron-and-Kyrie, it seemed most likely that his time as a Cavalier would come to an end via trade or buyout—especially after GM Koby Altman traded for, drafted, and spent about $200 million on dudes who play center and power forward. A funny thing happened on the way to the trade machine, though: Coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s commitment to staying big opened up minutes in a crowded frontcourt, and the development of Cleveland’s young talent kickstarted the growth of a bona fide contender.

For the first time in years, Love had the chance to play on a real team, in meaningful games, in a consequential role—if only he’d buy in to coming off the bench. Well, so far, so freaking good:

Love has been dynamite as the first big off Bickerstaff’s bench, serving as a high-IQ, high-usage floor-spacer and facilitator who can slot in effectively at either power forward or center alongside Cleveland’s many other capable big men. He’s playing fewer minutes than ever, but he’s been unleashed in them—especially during a recent stretch that’s seen Allen, Mobley, Garland, and second-year guard Isaac Okoro all miss time, and key reserve guard Ricky Rubio lost for the season.

Cleveland outscored opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Love on the court in Q2, benefiting from his ability to rip down defensive rebounds, quarterback the second unit from the block and post while maintaining a low turnover rate, and launch triples at both high accuracy and high volume. (And I do mean high volume: He averaged more than seven 3-point attempts in just under 22 minutes per game in that stretch.)

Love’s per-minute production over the past six weeks looks an awful lot like it did way back in his Minnesota heyday:

You Can Find Love Again

Season Pts/36 Rebs/36 Asts/36 TOs/36 FG% 3P% FT% USG%
Season Pts/36 Rebs/36 Asts/36 TOs/36 FG% 3P% FT% USG%
2011-12 24.0 12.3 1.9 2.1 0.448 0.372 0.824 28.8
2013-14 25.9 12.4 4.4 2.5 0.457 0.376 0.821 28.8
Q2 2021-22 25.9 11.3 3.5 2.1 0.444 0.423 0.871 26
Per-minute stats via Stathead and

Heading into the season, coming off several underwhelming campaigns plus a curtailed stint with Team USA, I’m not sure anyone saw this kind of performance coming. As it turns out, though, a healthy and engaged Love is still one hell of a player—the kind of smart, experienced, and productive veteran that any contender would likely love to add at the trade deadline, but one that the Cavaliers, a possible contender in their own right, likely wouldn’t dare deal at this point. Love rediscovering both his game and a spark of joy in Cleveland ranks as just one of the many reasons the Cavs have been one of this season’s biggest and best surprises.

ARTVIMB: Tyus Jones, Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton, and damn near everybody else in that second-unit wrecking crew in Memphis; Tyler Herro, continuing to scorch nets and drop dimes for the surging Heat; Jordan Clarkson, kicking in 15 a game and keeping that Utah offense humming once he checks in; Cam Johnson, averaging 14 and 5 on 47/45/89 shooting splits off the pine on Q2, and putting himself in line for a pretty serious payday once he’s eligible for an extension after the season; P.J. Washington, who had by far the best on/off splits in Q2 on a Hornets team that’s looking to nudge its way out of the play-in bracket in the East; Kenrich Williams, a consistently efficient and effective do-it-all gap-filler in Oklahoma City.

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies

It is extremely reasonable that Ja gets an overwhelming amount of attention for the Grizzlies’ ascent. (I mean, just look at this shit.) Memphis’s rocketship ride up the Western standings, though, has been fueled in large part by the NBA’s no. 1 defense in Q2—and that end of the floor is where a different young Grizzlies star has shined brightest.

Tabbed as a defensive game changer coming out of Michigan State, Jackson’s potential largely outstripped his production on that end through three pro seasons. No more, though: Over the past six weeks, only Myles Turner has blocked more shots than Jackson, who’s also tied for 10th in total steals in that span. Among high-volume rim protectors, only Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Mobley-Allen pair in Cleveland were stingier in Q2 than Jackson. The tendency to hack that plagued Jackson’s first three seasons has begun to wane, as well; averaging 4.2 fouls per 36 minutes in Q2 doesn’t sound great, but it’s a welcome improvement on the 5.2 he’d averaged before this season.

The same fluidity that helps Jackson take opposing centers off the dribble and race off pindown screens to get open for 3-pointers has more frequently shown up on defense, evident every time he closes out to run a shooter off the arc, or sticks with a guard step-for-step on a drive from the perimeter. Those physical gifts now come with a more nuanced understanding of how opponents plan to attack, and quicker decisions when reading the floor. He’s getting better at the cat-and-mouse game of defending both the ball handler and the dive man in the pick-and-roll. And good luck trying to loft a lob pass over the top of a fronting defender into the paint when he’s lurking on the weak side.

That advancing awareness has helped Jackson become a defensive force whether he’s playing with another center or not. Memphis’s defense was elite in Q2 when Jackson shared the court with either Steven Adams or Xavier Tillman, but—in a departure from previous seasons, and in an extremely exciting turn of events for the Grizz—it was excellent when he slid to the 5, too:

Bear Essentials

Lineup in Q2 Minutes Defensive Rating Net Rating
Lineup in Q2 Minutes Defensive Rating Net Rating
JJJ + Adams 323 100.1 12.2
JJJ + Tillman 76 95.6 11.4
JJJ Without Either 271 101.5 10.9

One helpful factor there: A lot of Jaren-at-the-5 minutes have come with Brandon Clarke, a similarly styled athletic and versatile shot blocker, riding shotgun at power forward. Playing the 6-foot-11, 242-pound Jackson and the 6-foot-8, 215-pound Clarke together ratchets up Memphis’s ability to both switch screens and protect the rim; the Grizz blitzed opponents by 64 points in their 158 shared minutes in Q2, holding them to a microscopic 95 points-per-100.

This is the future the Grizzlies hoped for when they gave Jackson a $105 million contract extension during the offseason: that he’d develop into a player capable of not only spacing the floor for Morant’s forays into the paint, but also acting as a Defensive Player of the Year–caliber anchor for a defense stout enough to move Memphis from play-in contention to just plain contention. Whether it will hold up remains to be seen, but for now, the still-just-22-year-old Jackson looks like he’s on track to make the Grizzlies’ gamble pay off handsomely.

ARTVIMB: Gobert (the Jazz had the same defensive rating as the Grizz with him on the court and gave up 120.3 points-per-100 in the five games he missed; nuff said), Mobley and Allen in Cleveland, Draymond Green (still the linchpin of a top-flight D when healthy, which, right now, he ain’t), Dejounte Murray (led the league in steals and deflections in Q2 while routinely taking the toughest perimeter assignment in San Antonio), Mikal Bridges (just chugging along as the havoc-wreaking tip of the spear for the Suns’ elite defense), Jrue Holiday (was an absolute monster on the ball before going down with an ankle injury), Herb Jones (seriously, this dude just smothers people), Embiid.

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Anfernee Simons, Trail Blazers

There hasn’t been much joy to find in Portland during a season marred by dismal defense, dramatic departures, and devastating injuries. One silver lining has begun to shine bright of late, though. Pressed into a larger role by the absences of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Norman Powell, Simons has flourished, averaging 26.1 points and 8.0 assists per game on pristine 50/43/93 shooting splits since entering the starting lineup.

Drafted no. 24 in 2018 out of IMG Academy as a talented but raw prep-to-pro project, Simons spent his first three seasons serving as Dame and CJ’s understudy and climbing the ladder, step by step: from G-League stints to summer league splashes to solidifying a role in the second unit to earning playoff minutes. With the team’s veteran backcourt injured, coach Chauncey Billups opened 2022 by plugging Simons into the first five against Atlanta, and the 22-year-old hasn’t looked back, using the threat of his silky smooth pull-up 3-point shot to open up a drive-and-kick game that has helped keep Portland’s offense churning:

The Blazers have won five of nine with Simons at the controls; in that span, they’ve scored nearly 19 more points-per-100 with him on the floor than off of it. Some of that owes to the paucity of shot-creating options available lately on an injury-racked Blazers roster. Some of it, though, speaks to Simons’s spark off the bounce, the chemistry he’s quickly developed with Jusuf Nurkic, and the confidence that comes from spending three years preparing for an opportunity to present itself so you can seize it when it does.

“He’s becoming, like, everybody’s favorite guy,” Billups recently told reporters.

That tends to happen when you’re scoring and distributing at levels of efficiency that only future Hall of Famers have ever mustered over the course of a full season; it’s likely that Simons’s Q rating in Portland will drop off at least a smidge once his play does. If Simons can keep something like this up, though, it could influence the decision-making calculus—whether before next month’s trade deadline, or come the offseason—for a Blazers team that’s got more than $90 million in salary committed to Lillard, McCollum, and Powell for next season, and that’s about to see Simons enter restricted free agency.

We’ll have to wait and see what interim GM Joe Cronin plans to do with his crowded backcourt and flailing roster. It seems clear, though, that Simons has at least played his way into being a significant part of the planning—and, for the time being, a significant part of the on-court product.

ARTVIMB: Caleb Martin (went from a fringe player in Charlotte who joined the Heat on a two-way contract to a legit rotation player in Miami, averaging 13 points and five rebounds per game on 55 percent shooting in Q2); Siakam (per-minute scoring, rebounding, and assists all up from Q1 to Q2, which, combined with excellent multipositional defense); Garland (like Siakam, his production and efficiency are up across the board despite an uptick in usage, solidifying an increasingly strong All-Star case); Jaylen Nowell (went from out of Minnesota’s rotation to averaging about 12-3-3 in 20 minutes per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 39 percent from deep); Jalen Smith (so far out of the Suns’ plans that they declined the third-year option on his rookie contract and gave him just 32 garbage-time minutes through their first 22 games … until injuries ravaged Phoenix’s big-man rotation, and he suddenly averaged 11 and 9 on 48 percent shooting over a 10-game stretch that suggested 2020’s no. 10 pick might have a future in the league).

Minnesota Timberwolves v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Disintegrating Hawks

After sputtering to start the season, Atlanta had seemed to find its footing around the season’s quarter mark, winning eight of nine to get back over .500 and into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. From there, though, the Hawks have imploded, going 6-15 in Q2—only the ping-pong-ball-pursuing Magic and Pistons have posted worse records—with the NBA’s second-worst defense in that span.

Trae Young has continued to bombard opposing defenses, averaging 29.5 points and 9.7 assists per game in Q2—good for sixth and third in the NBA, respectively—as he closes in on a second All-Star nod. Beyond Young’s production, though, precious little has gone right of late. COVID tore through the Hawks roster to such a degree that Young told reporters he’d come to shootaround “not knowing most of my teammates.” Clint Capela, Young’s primary pick-and-roll partner and the centerpiece of what was a near-top-10 defense after Nate McMillan took the reins last season, struggled to return to form after a stint in the protocols before missing the past six games with an ankle sprain—a stretch during which the Hawks gave up a jaw-dropping 121.1 points-per-100 outside of garbage time.

John Collins, whose reported grumbling last season was quieted by the Hawks’ second-half surge, a strong postseason, and $125 million, would now like to revisit the topic of how he’s used in the Atlanta offense. And, beyond that, how the Hawks approach … well, everything.

“I feel like that’s one of the biggest positive sides of this team is we’re deep, extremely deep,” Collins recently told reporters. “But we’ve got to give a damn. We’ve got to give a damn for any of that ... for any of that to matter. We’ve got to care.”

Bogdan Bogdanovic has missed 14 of Atlanta’s past 22 games with ankle, knee, and COVID issues, and has missed nearly two-thirds of his shots in the eight he did play; his replacement in the starting lineup, the newly extended Kevin Huerter, hasn’t been much better. Cam Reddish, mere months ago a source of present-tense excitement and hope for the future, is now a Knick, jettisoned for financial flexibility and the possibility of addition by subtraction on a roster that GM Travis Schlenk now thinks maybe shouldn’t have been brought back after last season’s Eastern Conference finals run.

There are bright spots: Young’s playmaking, some eye-popping flashes from second-year big man Onyeka Okongwu, the return of hugely important two-way wing De’Andre Hunter after a two-month layoff following wrist surgery. Overall, though, Atlanta just seems to be a whole frustratingly less than the sum of its parts. While it’s possible that better health and rhythm changes that, it’s getting late early in the Eastern Conference playoff race. FiveThirtyEight gives the Hawks a less than one-in-three chance of making the postseason; projection models from Inpredictable (26.2 percent), (4.1 percent), and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (3.5 percent) are even less optimistic.

Not replicating last season’s playoff run would be disappointing, but understandable; not even making the top 10 in the conference would be cataclysmic. Young famously showed last spring that he knows what to do when the show is over. If he and the rest of the Hawks don’t get on a run, and soon, the curtain might fall on the 2021 postseason’s darlings a hell of a lot sooner than anybody anticipated.

ARTVIMB: The overarching and overwhelming insanity that omicron has wrought on the NBA (and, y’know, everything else); Utah’s problems on the perimeter, which just aren’t going away unless Danny Ainge and the front office can work some magic by the deadline; the Kings, working on their SIXTEENTH STRAIGHT sub-.500 season, still somehow needing help damn near everywhere on their roster; that we still have not seen Zion Williamson or Ben Simmons play basketball this season; that it’s starting to feel like we might not see Paul George play much more basketball this season; that we’re still only seeing Kyrie Irving play basketball outside of Brooklyn; Rubio going down while playing his best basketball in ages in Cleveland; Myles Turner, the league’s leader in blocked shots and one of the most widely discussed trade targets in the league, suffering a foot injury right before the trade deadline; the Wizards, Lakers, Celtics, and Knicks all generally underwhelming.

Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Raptors Turning It Around

I’ll admit some personal bias here. Heading into the season, I pegged the Raptors as my most intriguing team, because despite going 27-45 during their yearlong sojourn in Tampa, I could never shake the feeling that—even without longtime leader Kyle Lowry—there was a real, and potentially dangerous, team nestled within the thicket of limbs that Masai Ujiri had stockpiled for Nick Nurse to deploy. It took some time to develop, with the back-in-Toronto Raps finishing November under .500. But once they started to get healthy, that team I’d envisioned—huge, versatile, swarming, tough, and ballsy—started to come into view.

The Raptors went 12-7 in Q2 and outscored opponents by 4.2 points-per-100 outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass, third best in the East behind only Cleveland and Miami. Their recipe for success resembles the one the Grizzlies are cooking with out west: youth, length, and athleticism that allows them to overwhelm and overpower the opposition, and in the process create easier looks than they typically can against set defenses (Memphis ranked 23rd in half-court scoring efficiency in Q2, Toronto 29th) where shooting struggles (Memphis was 27th in 3-pointers made, Toronto 22nd in 3-point percentage) become magnified.

With Nurse calling for dialed-up pressure and a roster full of long-armed defenders with active hands eager to oblige, Toronto finished Q2 third in opponent turnover percentage and fifth in points scored off of cough-ups. All those stops—fourth in steals per game, eighth in blocks—helped the Raptors push the pace, ranking first in the NBA in transition frequency and second in fast break points. And all that length and collective defensive IQ makes for eminently switchable lineups that can keep a lid on opposing offenses when the game slows down; Toronto ranks in the top 10 in points allowed per possession in the half court. Add it all up, and a Raptors defense that ranked 25th in points allowed per possession in Q1 soared to sixth in Q2, providing a steady backstop for a team that can struggle to score when its stars aren’t carrying the load. Thankfully, there weren’t quite so many of those off-nights.

Fred VanVleet has stepped comfortably into Lowry’s role as Toronto’s heart-and-soul pace-setter, averaging 24.5 points, 7.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 42.4 percent from deep on nearly 12 attempts a night. (If he’s not an All-Star come next month, we riot.) After a slow start following his return from shoulder surgery, Pascal Siakam spent Q2 making a case to join FVV in Cleveland: 23 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.4 steals per game, league-average shooting from 3, confident playmaking, and excellent defense across multiple positions. Coming off nearly a month and half away due to a hip pointer and COVID, OG Anunoby picked up right where he left off, averaging 18.9 points per game and slotting seamlessly into Nurse’s defense.

The Raptors will go where the holdover members of their championship team can take them, and that core has shined of late: Lineups featuring VanVleet, Siakam, and Anunoby outscored opponents by six points-per-100 in Q2, a strong number. Add in sensational rookie Barnes, whose scoring and playmaking prowess looks to be well ahead of schedule, and Gary Trent Jr., whose jumper can be streaky but who seems to be straight-up ripping the ball out of somebody’s hands every time I turn a Toronto game on, and the Raptors have something pretty interesting brewing.

Maybe Ujiri will look to improve on the Precious Achiuwa–Khem Birch–Chris Boucher triumvirate at center with a more stable pivot—say, old pal Jakob Poeltl?—who might help Toronto improve upon its bottom-five defensive rebounding rate. Then again, maybe not; if playing more traditional lineups means playing slower, then maybe the Raptors will eschew convention in favor of continuing to get weird, fielding a team that is somehow simultaneously small, huge, fast, and chaotic. That might not be enough for a deep playoff run. It ought to be awfully entertaining, though.

ARTVIMB: Klay Thompson coming back after 941 days, dunking almost immediately, promptly leading the NBA in shot attempts per minute, and looking blessedly healthy; Allen and Garland making serious All-Star pushes to cement the Cavs as no joke; the Heat near the top of the East despite Jimmy Butler playing only nine games in Q2 and Bam Adebayo playing only one, thanks to major contributions from the likes of Yurtseven, Martin, Max Strus, and Gabe Vincent; the Wolves—still .500, still firmly in play-in position—blitzing opponents by 26 points-per-100 with Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell on the court; the Pelicans torching fools with the new starting five of Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Hart, and Secret Second Quarter MVP Herb Jones; the Mavericks—like, the ones from Dallas, Luka and Porzingis and them—turning into the NBA’s second-stingiest defense in Q2.