Friday's matchup with the Washington Wizards officially marks the halfway point of the 2019-20 season for the Toronto Raptors.
They enter the game with a 26-14 record, good enough for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They've surpassed even the rosiest of expectations heading into the season, even with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol each missing significant time with injuries.
But what do we really know about this Raptors team? Heading into Game 41, our NBA.com Staff gives their biggest takeaways from the first half of the season.
Nick Nurse got hired a lot was made about the creativity the Raptors would have on offence, less was made about how good the Raptors would be defensively.
Last season with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the fold, Toronto had a top-five defence.
This season Leonard and Green - two of the team's best defenders from a year ago - are gone and the Raptors have somehow managed to have an even better defence. Toronto sits second in the league in defensive rating at 104.2 an incredible feat when you consider the number of injuries they've had to deal with.
When Serge Ibaka went down on November 8th in New Orleans eventually missing 10 games, the Raptors still had the second-best defensive rating in the league without him. Kyle Lowry who was also injured in the same game as Ibaka was out during that time too and Toronto didn't skip a beat without one of their best rim protectors and perimeter defenders.
Marc Gasol's presence quarterbacking the team's defence had a lot to do with the little to no drop off defensively without Ibaka and Lowry, so when Gasol went down in December no one would've been shocked if the team's defence suffered drastically.
Gasol was out for 12 games and the team's defensive rating slipped from their 104.2 season average to 105.5 - which, by the way, was still top six in the league in the time of the Spaniard's absence.
Nurse and the coaching staff have implemented a system built on the foundation that Dwane Casey left behind that's clearly working for the Raptors. Toronto's defence has carried the team thus far this season and will carry it as far as they'll be able to go in the second half of the year.
- Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay)
Being the No. 1 option suits Pascal Siakam well
When Kawhi Leonard left via free agency, all attention shifted to Pascal Siakam, who was coming off of a breakout season that earned him the honour of being named the league's Most Improved Player.
Suddenly, Siakam was the Raptors' No. 1 option and when he inked a four-year contract extension worth $130 million, he officially became their franchise player.
To whom much is given, much is expected, and plenty of questions arose.
MORE: Will Siakam start the All-Star Game?
Will he live up to the deal? Is he capable of being the guy? Can he still thrive when teams scheme to slow him down?
You could answer each question with a resounding yes.
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The 25-year-old is averaging 24.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists through the first half of the season - all career bests. Perhaps the most encouraging prospect of it all is that he seems to be improving and adding to his game on a nightly basis.
This can only mean great things moving forward.
- Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21)
Kyle Lowry and Mike Lowrey, Bad Boys For Life
Bad Boys For Life just came out, the third installment of the franchise featuring Will Smith (Mike Lowrey) and Martin Lawrence (Marcus Burnett) and they're up to the same old tricks.
They're still getting the job done.
They're doing it with a sense of humour.
They're doing it with the same level of swag albeit a bit seasoned.
They're doing it with the occasional limp, a nod to getting older and picking their spots.
They're doing it with a finely tuned balancing act of confidence and cockines, a blurred line that only those who have won at the highest levels can successfully traverse.
The same could be said of Kyle Lowry who is in his 14th season and just might be playing better than ever. Fresh off winning an NBA title, Lowry has come back to help lead a Raptors team that's battled the injury bug and somehow stayed afloat to the point that they very well could end up finishing with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
He's leading the entire league in minutes per game and has done whatever necessary, whenever necessary. Pascal Siakam might be the team's best player and Nick Nurse might be the genius behind the schemes, but Lowry remains the heart and soul of a team that oozes championship DNA.
- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)
Serge Ibaka is the NBA's most underappreciated player
In 2018-19, the Raptors don't win the NBA title without Serge Ibaka.
In 2019-20, the Raptors don't stay afloat without Serge Ibaka.
All season long, the defending champs have been a MASH unit of sorts with seemingly every rotation player missing extended time at some point. Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and even Ibaka himself.
MORE: Why Ibaka shares company with The Greek Freak
During this most recent stretch without Gasol and Siakam, it's been the unheralded Ibaka who has come through for Toronto, averaging 19.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game during a career-high streak of eight straight games with a double-double which ended in the game that Gasol returned to the lineup. (For what it's worth, Ibaka started THAT game a perfect 6-6 from the floor).
That streak began on December 28 in an emphatic 16-point win on the road against Boston mere days after getting blown out by that same Celtics team at home on Christmas. While the timing doesn't exactly sync up with the absences of Gasol and Siakam, Ibaka has proved to be as reliable and steady as they come, offering up take-it-to-the-bank production during a stretch in which Toronto easily could have slid back down in a tight Eastern Conference.
Instead, the Raptors are right there in the thick of the race for the 2-seed in large part due to the consistent play of the NBA's most underappreciated player.
- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)
Fred VanVleet is a starting NBA guard
Through a quick scan, I counted five-and-a-half teams in the NBA that Fred VanVleet wouldn't start on.
The Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings with the Utah Jazz being the half, as you could make the case that with the way Mike Conley has played this season when healthy, that VanVleet would be a better option alongside Donovan Mitchell.
Following a ridiculously impressive showing in the second half of the Raptors 2019 NBA Championship run, the question became "can Fred VanVleet take the next step as a full-time starting guard?"
Set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the time was now for VanVleet to prove his true worth to the entire league. Prior to his injury, he showcased he's more than capable to be an everyday starting guard, or, if necessary, one of the best sixth men in the NBA.
VanVleet is averaging career-highs across the board in all the counting stats with 18.0 points, 7.0 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. His uptick in playing time and opportunity has led to a decreased field goal percentage, but there's no denying his ability as a scorer or playmaker. He gives you 110% effort at all times on the defensive end and he's a proven floor general.
VanVleet played a huge role in keeping the Raptors afloat while Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka missed time with injuries earlier this season, further showing his value to this team.
He's missed the last handful of games due to a groin injury, but a 31-game sample size was enough to show he's more than capable of being a starting guard in the league.
- Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_)
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.