Some game plans write themselves and this one was about having their bigs shoot till their heart’s content, and minimize the amount of free points we give up. Part A of that plan was working from the outset with JV – thrilled to see Cousins again – keeping the big man outside, but it’s Part B where things were sputtering. New Orleans jumped out to an early lead because of unforced (read lazy) Raptors turnovers and our guards (read Lowry and DeRozan) shooting from distance and the speedy Pelicans duo of Holiday and Rondo running it back as we casually jogged back. We had 5 TOs in the first 3:39 leading to 9 points and were only down 7. That is actually a good sign.
Amidst the dreariness of the early season back-to-back, it wasn’t until DeRozan found a moment of brilliance in hitting a three, picking off a lazy pass and driving it back for a dunk that the Raptors showed signs of waking up. That seemed to be the spark that the second unit took into their shift, and Poeltl, Miles, Wright and Van Vleet out-energy’d, out-shot, and out-played a Pelicans unit led by Jameer Nelson, who every time I look at think of his battle with Forderon way back when. I can’t believe he’s still around, credit it to the old bastard.
C.J Miles curling shots, Pascal Siakam’s drives (no idea why they were playing him so tight), and Delon Wright’s nifty and mature point-guard play was what brought the Raptors back and into a slim lead at halftime. The Raptors second-unit has been a bit of a pillar of consistency for a little while, at least in terms of the energy and speed they bring off the bench. Watching Siakam and Wright operate in the open floor with Miles in the corner is an athletic combo that you could deploy in an up-and-down game to good effect.
It should be noted that the lack of defense on either side in the first half had more to do with the high point total than a great offense (64-63 Raps). Let’s call the half a wash, and a notable outcome being DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis both picking up three fouls apiece, and sitting out the last few minutes, in a stretch where the Raptors were unable to get a foothold on the game, going only +1.
The Pelicans plan in the third to stop the Raptors offense which was steadily picking up steam was to trap. You wouldn’t blame them for trying because given how the starting unit had handled even moderate pressure earlier, it would be reasonable to think it might work again. It didn’t. Mostly because, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were far more sharper on and off the ball on both ends. They picked apart the Pelicans trap and the rest of the crew controlled the defensive glass just enough for the Raptors to create a dozen points of breathing room heading into the fourth. Big credit to the Raptors defense, especially Siakam, to help contest the drives and make both shots and passing difficult. He’s lanky and smart, and often times you don’t find that combination. Usually those kind of players top out at Jamario Moon, but Siakam’s several steps above. He also doesn’t have a shit-eating grin which is a huge bonus.
The sour point was Delon Wright leaving the game with an injury after what seemed an innocuous bump, especially because he was quarterbacking the second unit in a very responsible manner. Almost expected to see Lowry leave the game too when he took a knee to the chest from Cousins followed soon by a slap in the face, only because Cousins is a half-child, half-psychopath, who can’t compute the world when the slightest thing goes against him.
Best part of that fourth quarter for me was Poeltl, Siakam, and Ibaka playing sound defense against their two bigs and force them into turnovers or bad shots, with the ensuing body language proving just how frustrated they were at the Raptors aggressive but controlled tactics. I love that. Seeing young guys take on a challenge and succeed, that gives you confidence like nothing else. I remember taking on Brazil while being the Kansas City Wizards in a 2006 FIFA game with my cousin and beating him 2-1. He still can’t make eye contact with me.
It was a feel-good evening for JV as well, who had Cousins on a leash while doing pretty much what he wanted on offense. With the exception of situations where the Pelicans sent help forcing him to make decisions, he was playing with enough ease that Casey, while going deep into his bench, even had Ibaka and JV play together to good effect.
This game also shows you just how dangerous the Raptors can be when they have reliable outside shooting. With C.J Miles on the floor and firing with confidence, DeRozan will look to pass it and has no issue racking up the assists, especially in the open court. Even in the half-court, DeRozan had situations where he almost took the tough fade and then realized mid-release it wasn’t a good idea and had the wherewithal to resist and pass, leading to a good shot – case in point. Another encouraging sign was our big men’s ability to pass – Poeltl and Siakam are above-average willing passers, and JV is at least willing. If the Raptors guards are moving without the ball, which Wright, Lowry, Miles, and Van Vleet were, they will be found as we saw today. So, there isn’t a necessity that we start our sets from the guards, and we do have options to mix it up and use Lowry and DeRozan’s excellent cutting abilities, which we frankly don’t see enough of. It’s a byproduct of those two dominating the ball that you don’t see just how open and “slashy” they can get.
Overall, other than a slow start that could be attributed to the back-to-back, the Raptors bench injected energy and from there Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were on-point with our bigs shutting theirs down on their way to a relatively comfortable win. That’s two road wins on the trot after that gut-wrenching loss in Boston. I’d say the response has been sound.
Also, if I had to buy a Raptors jersey right now…yeah, Siakam. Invest now.