There is light at the end of the NBA tunnel. A difficult regular season played out amid the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic is drawing towards a conclusion.

However, there is still plenty to play for in the closing weeks. For some teams it is about jostling for position as a play-off seed, while others are just frantically trying to make it into the postseason.

For those who have found the pace too tough, there comes the chance to give players opportunities to prove their worth. A strong finish can make all the difference to your career prospects.

Following a busy week that has seen some big names return to action, Stats Perform highlights those who have starred – as well as a few who have struggled – between April 19-25.


RUNNING HOT...

Paul George 

With team-mate Kawhi Leonard sidelined due to a foot injury, George has picked up the slack. The seven-time All-Star sat out a win for the Los Angeles Clippers over the Memphis Grizzlies, but scored 33 points against both the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets last week.

He also recorded double-digit rebound totals in those outings, helping the Clippers remain firmly in the hunt to finish as the top seeds in the Western Conference. For the season, George is averaging career highs in points per game (24.0), rebounds (6.5) and assists (5.4). He is also shooting 89.1 per cent from the free-throw line.

OG Anunoby

A see-saw season for the Toronto Raptors still may yet wind up with a postseason appearance, though the 2019 champions have some work to do if they are to get inside the top 10 in the East.

Anunoby looks to be set for a strong finish to his campaign, having scored 52 points in his previous two outings following a short spell out of action - the London-born forward had averaged 14.78ppg going into the week. His six three-pointers made against the New York Knicks was a career high, though the landmark came in a losing cause.

Oshae Brissett

Brissett has seized the opportunity to impress for the Indiana Pacers while making four consecutive starts. He reached double figures for points in all of them, including posting a career-high 23 against the Oklahoma City Thunder to celebrate signing a long-term deal with the franchise.

The second-year prospect out of Syracuse played a total of 135 minutes in his rookie season with the Raptors, but nearly matched that number in a week that saw the Pacers win three out of four. Brissett also contributed when it came to rebounds, averaging 9.25 per outing.

GOING COLD...

Anthony Davis

Davis admitted it felt like the Lakers were "starting from zero" after the second outing on his return from an Achilles issue. Prior to his two-month absence, he was averaging 22.5 points per game, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the season.

However, unsurprisingly considering the amount of time spent off the court, the eight-time All-Star has struggled upon his return (albeit on a minutes restriction). Having shot 2-for-10 from the floor in the first of back-to-back meetings with the Dallas Mavericks, Davis followed up by going 5-for-19 in the second game between the teams.

Gary Trent Jr.

After a ridiculously hot start to life with Toronto following his involvement in a deadline-day trade, Trent Jr. has cooled off in recent outings. That is in part due to a drop in his minutes following the return of some of the regular starters for the Raptors, including back-court duo Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.

The former Portland Trail Blazer still had 23 points against Oklahoma, but then dipped to a combined total of nine in limited action against the Brooklyn Nets and the Knicks. The three-point shooting is also a reason for a dip in points, as he made just one of his nine attempts from the beyond the arc during the past week.

Tobias Harris

Harris' drop in production in recent times has had less to do with him going cold and more to do with injury management. A bothersome right knee kept him out of games against the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns, both of which the Philadelphia 76ers lost.

His return in a double-header against the Milwaukee Bucks - one of Philadelphia's major rivals in the East - failed to help his team get back to winning ways. Harris had 18 points in the opening game but then just nine in the second, the first time he had recorded a single-digit outing in a game since February 25.

It was never going to be easy for the Toronto Raptors, not when you are living out of hotels and temporary residences more than 2,000 miles from your home city. Not when you dwell in by far the most top-heavy division in the Eastern Conference.

Still, the way the 2018-19 NBA champions have performed more like a bottom-feeding also-ran than a presumed title contender during the nascent stages of a challenging 2020-21 season is at least a cause for concern. And the difficult circumstances the Raptors find themselves under, playing their home games in Tampa, Florida, after being forced southward by travel restrictions by the Canadian government, does not reasonably explain all their early problems. 

It is not the sole reason Toronto has been among the league's most inept scoring teams thus far, ranking 26th in offensive rating and dead last in field goal percentage. It is not why the Raptors have been routinely steamrolled in the second half of games during their 1-6 start (their sixth loss of last season did not come until their 21st game, by the way).

No, there's a bit more to it than that. And while it is certainly not time to press the panic button just yet, there are a few areas the Raptors clearly need to improve on if they are to at least extend their current seven-year streak of playoff appearances. 

THE SHOTS ARE NOT FALLING, ESPECIALLY FROM LONG DISTANCE 

The 3-point shot has always been a big part of the Raptors' game since Nick Nurse took over as head coach, as they ranked sixth in the NBA in 3-point rate (the ratio of 3-pointers attempted to total field goal attempts) last season and 10th during their 2018-19 championship campaign. So far in 2020-21, nearly half (49.2 per cent) of Toronto's shots have come from behind the arc – the highest total in the league. 

The difference is this Raptors are not hitting those shots at nearly the same proficiency as before. Toronto's 34.2 success rate ranks 24th in the league. The Raptors finished no lower than sixth in either of the past two seasons. 

In 2019-20, the Raptors had six players with at least three 3-point attempts per game shoot 38 percent or better from long range, tied with Detroit for the most in the NBA. Only three current players (Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas) can make that claim so far this season. 

Two players who accomplished that feat in 2019-20, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, have moved on. Aron Baynes, a 35 percent 3-point shooter over the past two seasons, was signed with the intent to fill the void, but he is 3-of-16 on triple attempts thus far. Holdover OG Anunoby, just weeks removed from signing a four-year, $72million extension, is 12-of-41 (29.3 percent) after hitting at a 39 percent clip in 2019-20. 

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, PASCAL SIAKAM? 

Siakam's well-documented struggles in Toronto's seven-game loss to Boston in last season's Eastern Conference semi-finals may not have been a blip on the radar.

The Celtics masterfully neutralised the forward by deploying the smaller Jaylen Brown as his primary defender, and teams have been successfully following that blueprint during the early stages of this season. 

The plan is working so far, too. Often drawing defenders with the length and athleticism to give him problems (Philadelphia's Ben Simmons and San Antonio's Rudy Gay were particularly effective), Siakam is simply not getting to the rim with the same frequency as past years, and (see below) has been among the least efficient players of his size when doing so.

LOWEST FG PERCENTAGE AT THE RIM – PLAYERS 6'9" OR TALLER - IN 2020-21 SEASON (minimum 100 minutes played) 

Isaiah Stewart, Det .478 
Pascal Siakam, Tor .488 
LaMarcus Aldridge, SA .500 
Brook Lopez, Mil .500 
Jusuf Nurkic, Por .500 
Dwight Powell, Dal .500 

The Raptors have been outscored by an astonishing 63 points with Siakam on the court, an average of 10.5 per game that is eclipsed only by a pair of players from the likely lottery bound Timberwolves (D'Angelo Russell, Ed Davis) for the worst mark in the league. 

It has been a humbling start for the 2018-19 NBA Most Improved Player, and that frustration was no more evident than when he bolted straight to the locker room after fouling out late in a loss to the 76ers. Nurse benched him for the next game, which happens to be the only one the Raptors have won so far.

Siakam did look more like his old self in Wednesday's outing at Phoenix, when he put up 32 points and shot over 50 percent from the field for the first time this season. It goes without saying the Raptors need him to return to his All-Star form, as they were 19-1 when he scored 25 or more points in a game in 2019-20. 

LEADS ARE SLIPPING AWAY 

Six teams have lost multiple times when holding a double-digit lead in a game so far. The Rockets, Hawks, Wizards and Pistons have done so twice, the Grizzlies three times. The Raptors have five such losses through their first seven outings.

Starting well hasn't been a problem - Toronto is outscoring opponents by an average of 4.3 points in the first quarter, the second-best mark in the NBA behind only Milwaukee. Starting the second half well has been a real issue, however. The Raptors have been outscored by an average of 5.4 points in the third quarter, with only the Timberwolves and Cavaliers having been worse.

In contrast, the Raptors outscored foes by 4.3 points per game in the third quarter (fourth-best in the NBA) while going 53-19 last season. They ranked second in the league during their 2018-19 title run.  

So what's the reason for the dramatic drop-off? Is it because Toronto fields one of the league's older rosters? The Raptors are one of only three teams with two starters (Baynes and Kyle Lowry) aged 34 or older. One of the others is the Lakers, however, so there goes that theory. 

A lack of depth is the more plausible answer. The Raptors rank 27th in the NBA in bench scoring, though they also had one of the league's least productive second units last season. That was less of an issue in 2019-20 because the starting five was often so good. With Siakam, Anunoby and Baynes all underperforming thus far, it has quickly become a more pressing concern. 

THE BOTTOM LINE 

There's no cause for alarm yet for Toronto fans just yet regarding their snowbird team. If not for a few bad stretches, the Raptors could just as easily be 5-2 instead of 1-6, and a defense that is still among the NBA's better units has kept them in every game in spite of their inefficiencies on the other end. 

There is enough of a track record throughout the roster to suggest that the offense will come around. It needs to as well for a team that has been built on the premise of winning now and whose window may be closing soon.

Lowry, the Raptors' unquestioned heart and soul, is in the final year of his contract and turns 35 in March. Does team president Masai Ujiri consider moving him at the trade deadline if Toronto finds itself fighting for merely a playoff spot instead of a division title? 

The next two months should be very intriguing in Toronto. And Tampa as well.  

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