In a series expected to be one of the most evenly matched and hotly contested of the NBA’s first round of playoffs, it’s very likely to be the little things, or at least the things we call the little things, that decide this Toronto Raptors/Philadelphia 76ers battle.
No one will deny that talent and athleticism and yes, even luck, will play a role but at this stage, those factors aren’t in anyone’s control.
The talent level is what it is right now. The 30 players, 15 on each team aren’t going to get any more or less athletic over the next two weeks and luck, well, luck, by its nature, isn’t in anyone’s control.
Which brings us back to the little things, which really aren’t so little.
It’s the stuff at the core of the player, the will to win, the willingness to sacrifice, the hunger to just compete at the highest level and let the chips fall where they may. The willingness to put in whatever effort possible to be the difference-maker.
It’s in those areas that this Raptors’ team is special.
It’s a given that any player who has his name on an NBA roster is super competitive. You don’t become one of the best 500 or so players in the world without a competitive DNA.
When the season began the Raptors were considered a fringe playoff team at best and a non-playoff team at worst by most prognosticators.
There was a window to a spot in the play-in tournament if all went well but the accepted finish was somewhere around 35 wins which would have placed the Raptors 12th in the East where Washington finished, a full eight games out of a playoff spot.
Instead Toronto’s roster of young vets at the top and super young rookies at the bottom finished with 48 wins and solidly in fifth in the conference.
Again you could attribute the 13 extra wins over expected finish to good coaching and you wouldn’t be wrong. Nick Nurse and his outstanding staff rightly deserve a ton of credit.
You can also probably give management – Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster, Dan Tolzman – their props. It was after all management that pulled the trigger on Scottie Barnes at the draft when the whole world thought they were going with Jalen Suggs.
But those aren’t really little things. A coaching staff and a draft eat up tons of a team’s budget because they are so pivotal to success.
As do the player’s themselves, but it’s the non-measurables inside those players that we are talking about here.
You can’t measure a player’s will to win. You can’t measure that player’s willingness to sacrifice his own statistics on a given night (statistics that will become the basis for how that player is paid in the future) for a team win.
Those are the so-called little things that turn losses into wins and seasons without promise into a season full of promise.
That is what this story is about.
Fred VanVleet’s confidence in himself has never been in question.
Not when he was an undrafted rookie – by choice we might add — and not now six years into his blossoming NBA career.
But he’s as good a place as any to start with explaining why this Raptors team has managed to outproduce their expected finish by some 13 wins.
And we start with him because that Raptors’ locker room takes their cue from their floor general.
Beyond any single skill he possesses from those deep three balls that have become a staple of his contributions to the quick hands that continually provide that steady stream of takeaways and turnovers, VanVleet’s biggest skill may be the simple fact that he can’t accept losing.
He won’t accept losing.
By his own admission, VanVleet is the worst loser in a locker room that stews on losses like few others we’ve encountered since we started covering this team 17 years ago.
“Yeah, it’s me,” VanVleet says smiling and obviously proud of the admission.
Asked if it would be him if Kyle Lowry were still in that room with him, VanVleet doesn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, I’m way worse than Kyle,” he said. “He’s way more seasoned than me. But he’s pretty bad too,” he adds not letting Lowry completely off the hook.
Losses bring out the worst side of VanVleet even today, though years of maturity have made even that worst side considerably better than it was in his earlier years.
“When I was a kid, I used to cuss my teammates out, tell them they sucked, tell them don’t deserve to play and they don’t work hard enough,” VanVleet said. “Now I throw things. I try to break mirrors. I’ll throw chairs in the locker room.”
These aren’t theatrics though for his teammates or anyone else who might happen to catch him in these moments. This is a much-needed release, normally away from prying eyes that is a much better alternative than tearing into lesser experienced and certainly more vulnerable teammates.
“I’ll usually do it when no one is looking,” he said. “ I’ll walk in all calm and quiet and sneak off to the bathroom and throw something in there and come back in like nothing happened.
“I do a good job,” VanVleet said. “I’m not doing it for the theatrics, but you just got to get that release out some way without taking it out on anybody else.”
VanVleet makes no apologies for these actions because he knows they are at the root of what drives him — and by extension his teammates — to be better than just good, to go beyond what people believe you are capable of doing.
“You have myself, you have (head coach) Nick (Nurse), you have Pascal, and you have Masai (Ujiri). “Guys who don’t take anything less than greatness and winning. I think we just set the standard so high it’s hard to be anything but that.
“And it’s growing,” VanVleet said. “ You can see it throughout the year. We played a lot of close games, we played a lot of tight games and we just never quit. That always gives you a chance. All these guys want to win and they want to be great and it just works.”
For as long as he can remember, it’s always been about winning for Pascal Siakam. It didn’t matter the sport, hell, it didn’t even have to be a sport, Siakam just wanted to win.
The youngest of six siblings growing up in Central Africa, Siakam learned very quickly the path to success was simply piling up wins.
“Growing up I have always been into sports and sports comes with being competitive,” Siakam said. “You have to win. I grew up with five siblings and it was always about winning. That’s just normal.”
Siakam honestly had trouble with this line of questioning. It has never occurred to him to even fathom a situation where he would accept losing.
Siakam is asked when winning became everything for him.
“When was the first time I ever (tried) something , like five years old,”he said. “I don’t know. I just always wanted to win. Literally I could start anything and I just wanted to win at it. That’s just normal.”
Siakam isn’t the kind of tell-them leader that VanVleet is. He’s more of the watch-me-and-learn type of leader and no moment this season sums up his desire to win more than that triple-overtime game in Miami on Jan. 29.
In a two-point game with the Heat with 2:28 to go in regulation, Siakam met a driving Jimmy Butler just in front of the rim and blocked him cleanly. The collision knocked Siakam back under the basket and out of bounds as the ball bounced right back into Butler’s hands.
Siakam then pushes forward again and with Fred VanVleet slapping at the ball from behind Butler, Siakam somehow recovers to block him cleanly a second time.
It was the epitome of never giving up on a play and spoke loudly to Siakam’s supreme desire to never get beat.
Raptors assistant GM and vice president of Player Development Dan Tolzman concedes there is always risk in a team losing its way when the face of that team moves on.
But from the moment the Raptors made the decision to part ways with Kyle Lowry and begin the next iteration of this franchise, there was never any real concern that what makes this team special would be lost.
“Being around those guys the last few years, I mean yes Kyle was the leader of the team, he was the face of that competitive nature, but behind the scenes, you knew those guys were wired exactly the same way in terms of the effort they expend on a nightly basis, especially come playoff time, what it takes and level of focus and intensity and competitiveness. “
‘Those guys’ that Tolzman refers to are VanVleet and Siakam.
“They knew just as well as Kyle what that requires,” he said. “To have those guys around after Kyle leaves, we felt comfortable with not missing a beat in terms of having the same voice, the same sort of mentoring of these young guys. It would be very similar to what Kyle had been to those guys when they were coming up.”
Lowry’s fingerprints remain all over this roster because it’s now VanVleet and Siakam, and yes OG Anunoby too, who are setting the example by which all Raptors present and future are judged. Those three are very much made in the Lowry mold.
What all of them have is a willingness to do whatever is needed to win. Often that can be as simply as giving a real effort.
“We don’t have the talent some of those other mega teams so the only way we are going to stick with them is if we give our all out and play hard and it’s working for teams and that is going to make these playoffs crazy intense and fun to watch,” Tolzman said.
“I think the level of effort and competitiveness balances the playing field,” he said. “We always talk about in scouting as motor, and it’s crazy to think but that is a talent nowadays. If you can just come in and give an effort and play hard, that can change a game. You don’t even need to be the most skilled guy out there. You just come in and play hard, that is an absolute talent in today’s NBA.”
Scottie Barnes is a rookie and as such he’s just expected to be shocked by the uptick in physicality and effort and play the NBA playoffs bring.
But Barnes isn’t like most rookies. That has been apparent for a while now.
Where other rookies hit the wall because they aren’t used to playing an 82-game schedule or they simply get blown away by the level of consistently high play they see on a nightly basis, Barnes actually elevates his play in these instances.
It’s why few outside the organization, the non-teammates and the coaches who have seen him steadily climb in this, his first year in the league, really aren’t expecting any dropoff.
“He has had a good mindset and I give our coaching staff a lot of credit for this,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “You get into a lot of games played and you get into what – what did you call it? The rookie wall? – he just kept getting stronger. We saw him getting stronger, more physical, more energetic … he just kept getting stronger as we went here. That is motivation, that is success, that is success leading to more motivation all those kind of things that he kind of embodies.”
Barnes, like VanVleet, like Siakam, hell, like Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. too, just has a desire to win at any cost.
And like VanVleet he had an older brother that pushed him. VanVleet finally bested his older brother in his freshman year of high school. Barnes didn’t wait that long. His brother was in the eighth grade and Barnes was in the fourth when he beat him on the court. Like VanVleet that was really the end of that particular competition.
Barnes loves the game and he loves to win. He fits in perfectly with this team.