There are signs to look for over the course of a long season, potential indicators of how a team will respond when things don’t go their way. The fatigue of a six-game west-coast road-trip is a breeding ground for such litmus tests, and the Toronto Raptors took a handful over the course of the last 13 days. Whether responding to injury or elite opponent or their own ineffectiveness or lethargy, the Raptors have shown a few things.
Friday presented the last in that unseemly early two-week exam period, with the final game of the trip coming in tough environs against the Utah Jazz, without the services of C.J. Miles, one of the team’s key offensive and second-unit weapons. Adding to the drama of how they may come out was Wednesday’s game against the Denver Nuggets, an embarrassing loss that had coaches and players alike calling out the team’s effort and fortitude. They’re all just one game, but the Raptors showed well in bouncing back, closing out the trip strong, and adding an early signature road victory to their resume with a 109-100 victory.
In a game where the Raptors were missing Miles against one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, the offense standing out as a positive early on was unexpected. Non-Miles Raptors came in shooting 28.9 percent on threes and with the ball movement decreasing a little over the last few outings, but Lowry picked up the slack in both areas, hitting a pair of threes and dishing six assists in the first half. Alongside him, DeMar DeRozan did his customary work attacking a carousel of out-muscled or out-witted wing defenders, either drawing switches to use his size or using pristine footwork to negate a defender’s. He got to the line nearly at will, and while there are always arguments about the balance between his shooting and passing, he found a good balance early here.
The stars had support, too. Pascal Siakam slid into Miles’ role (or OG Anunoby’s, with Anunoby sliding into Miles’, if you prefer) and brought a nice offensive punch, scoring eight points in his first eight minutes. He flashed a nice spin move on the attack and some solid touch around the rim, and he found Anunoby on a cut with a nice high-low feed. Dwane Casey opted to keep the rotation at 11, using both Lucas Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl, and while that’s an arguable strategy, they both turned in good minutes at both ends of the floor. And while Serge Ibaka struggled consistently on defense, his quick trigger was finding the mark early on.
The offensive punch nearly up and down the lineup helped the Raptors to a strong start, and the opening five minutes or so was the best the starters have looked together defensively. Toronto shot 55.3 percent in the first half, good for 113.7 points per-100 possessions despite a 3-of-13 mark on threes and seven turnovers. Those turnovers produced nine points the other way, and it was Utah’s offense that helped keep things close, even with their own cold outside shooting. Toronto was foul-prone and couldn’t keep Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors off of the offensive glass, though they at least coaxed a steady diet of long, oft-errant twos from the Jazz. Things got a little sloppy late in the half, with the Raptors conceding an 8-2 run over the final 2:13 that flipped control back to Utah at the break in the form of a 54-53 lead, squandering the over-performance on offense out of the gate.
They bounced back out of the break, growing more aggressive switching along the perimeter on defense, railing off a 10-0 run at one point to wrestle a five-point lead back. It was Norman Powell shaking off a tough first half to set the tone here, sandwiching aggressive attacks around a steal and mixing in a three to help grow his confidence in it. Ibaka kept shooting, too, looking off Jonas Valanciunas to have a three blocked but then hitting a three shortly after. To have that man’s confidence. The defense wasn’t spectacular in the third, with Gobert still proving a major problem because he’s really quite good. Ricky Rubio continued an uncharacteristically poor night in terms of decision making, though, and while Valanciunas continued battling foul trouble, the Jazz were kept off the line.
And when Powell got whistled for the phantomest of phantom calls on Rodney Hood, DeRozan responded with a three, and-one, to settling things right back down. And then he hit another corner three to give the Raptors their biggest lead of the game at eight, because this is a brand new world we’re living in. DeRozan continued putting in work as he and Donovan Mitchell got in a little individual run battle, and DeRozan would ultimately score 17 in the frame and 10 straight Raptor points during the DeRozan-and-bench stint, punctuated by a falling three to send the Raptors into the final 12 minutes up seven.
The early fourth saw Casey go back to an all-bench group, and without Miles, that group lacked shooting but was fast and active defensively. Siakam continued his stretch of strong play with some terrific possessions, including a drive that produced a three on a subsequent three, a tough finish on a sprint off of a turnover, and a strip steal of Rubio after drawing the switch and declining to bite on a mid-range pump-fake. Anunoby and Poeltl had good minutes, too, and while the unit couldn’t score, they produced a 5-4 mini-run over nearly four minutes to hold serve until the starters began filtering back in.
At that point, both teams got a nice long breather as a dozen officials reviewed a play a dozen times and somehow came to the bizarre conclusion that Poeltl deserved a technical foul and Hood deserved a flagrant foul for a physical exchange. Poeltl did nothing wrong except for missing the ensuing free throws, but the break likely helped freshen everyone up for the close-out, and Poeltl made up for it with a sweet kick to the corner for Powell, who connected to put the team up 13 with six minutes to play. The Raptors then received a big scare when Lowry hit his chin on a fall to the floor, but he was able to stay in the game after getting bandaged up.
DeRozan got right back to work to try to close things out, scoring six straight on mid-range jumpers with free throws good rebounding position beneath him. An odd Ibaka decision that caused a turnover (and it was arguable that he got the close-out nod after Siakam’s strong outing) led to a Mitchell three, but Valanciunas responded with a big dunk on Gobert on the roll and Powell followed it up with a transition dunk. The starters put to rest any thoughts of a late double-digit comeback, with all five members finishing with a positive plus-minus and the group as a whole finishing plus-8 in 19 minutes.
It was as strong of a bounce-back performance as the Raptors could have hoped for coming off of their worst game of the young season. Facing an elite defense without their best shooter, they hung 118.7 points per-100 possessions and even hit 11-of-30 on their 3-point attempts. The defense wasn’t quite where it was at other points on the trip, but overall that’s been where a lot of encouraging signs have been coming from. It was another night where the contributions came from up and down the rotation, and 20 assists on 38 field goals was underscored by 38 potential assists, hardly elite a better indicator of their ball movement.
There were tough spots on the road trip, to be sure, and the Denver game will come to mind if and when they struggle again. Despite stumbles and some missed opportunities and despite a trio of injuries in the frontcourt at different times, the Raptors exit what will likely be their stiffest extended test of the season with a wholly respectable 3-3 mark. They’re 5-3 overall, ranking fifth in offensive rating and eighth in defensive rating, and they’ll play the easiest schedule from here (based on 2016-17 record) with the fewest miles traveled. With a number of things to continue to work on, the Raptors got themselves to a good place Friday with a strong, well-rounded effort, and they should be better for the minor adversities they’ve faced the last few weeks. If Friday’s a mark of the progress that could still be to come, they’re in a strong position to continue building.