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Raptors 905 drop finals rematch to Vipers in front of record ACC crowd

Raptors 905 109, Rio Grande Valley Vipers 117 | Box Score
Assignees: Bruno Caboclo, Alfonzo McKinnie (905), Chinanu Onuaku, Tyler Lydon [via Nuggets] (Vipers)
Two-ways: Malcolm Miller [inj], Lorenzo Brown (905), Monte Morris [via Nuggets] (Vipers)

When a team finds itself sliding a little bit, there are opponents and circumstances that can be a welcome change. The chance for Raptors 905 to play in front of a record crowd at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday morning provided half of that, and the visiting Rio Grande Valley Vipers, winners of 10 straight coming in, made sure the slump-busting formula came up a little short.

The Vipers proved too tall a task for the 905 in this one, pulling ahead big early on and then staying just far enough away to prevent a spirited comeback attempt in the second half. While a loss to a streaking opponent isn’t exactly what the 905 were looking for here, there were decidedly some positives for them to move forward pushing off from.

It looked more dire than that at first. Head coach Jerry Stackhouse didn’t want to let anything build early on, calling a quick timeout after a few shaky offensive possessions saw the 905 behind 4-0.

“I think just our effort to start the game. Focus, attention,” he said. “Come right out, had to call a timeout early because we got a straight-line drive to the basket, just watching them play.”

That’s obviously a quick talking over, but it seemed to help. Alfonzo McKinnie shook off a poor start with a put-back to get Toronto on the board, Lorenzo Brown was able to get into the defense, and a spicy high-low feed from Bruno Caboclo to Shevon Thompson pulled the 905 even halfway through the quarter. The home side continued looking to the post to try to take advantage of a four-around-one Vipers approach, feeding Kennedy Meeks and grabbing a few early offensive rebounds, though Rio Grande Valley’s floor spacing proved challenging at the other end.

Even with middling outside shooting for Rio, the league’s top offense managed 27 points in the quarter against the league’s No. 3 defense. Stackhouse knew the task was tall coming in, and he probably wasn’t happy with a Vipers run against his bench and first-quarter production roughly to the tune of 117 points per-100 possessions. Meeks had a terrific tip-in of an air-ball to beat the shot clock late to help keep the gap in single-digits, and if the crowd was ever going to be able to provide the 905 with a boost, their noise level for free t-shirts between quarters would have done it.

Davion Berry came out with a three to try to set a tone, only for Isaiah Hartenstein to hit right back with one, and then block Meeks. A Kethan Savage turnover produced a high-flying Tyler Lydon dunk in transition right after, and R.J. Hunter followed it up with a late-clock three he had little business making, pushing Rio ahead by 14. There was no sense of panic for the 905, which is encouraging, and the starters filtering back in helped get a bit of an offensive rhythm going. McKinnie had a couple of nice takes sprinkled around Brown and Thompson baskets, most of the work coming in semi-transition after producing stops, always a key for this team’s scoring potential.

The push-back was short-lived. The energetic response was there, but the Vipers’ offense can be dispiriting, and they pushed to 55-percent shooting by halftime. That was the major factor in their 66-45 lead at the break, led by 16 from Danuel House and 15 from Hunter. The 905 shot 44 percent in the half, which is fine by their standards, and it would finish at 49 percent. The 2-of-13 mark from outside wasn’t nearly enough, though, even with Brown and McKinnie playing well offensively.

“We did some good things offensively today,” Stackhouse said “Good to see our field-goal percentage get up to a really respectable number. We’re making shots. Still would like to get the 3-ball going a little better. With a team like that, that thrives on shooting threes, you’ve gotta find a way to make a few.

Caboclo and McKinnie helped the 3-point mark out of the tunnel in the third, Brown continued to use his smooth dribble-penetration to strong effect, and a few forced turnovers conspired to make sure it would be a game for the second half rather than a pull-away blowout. All told, it was a 15-4 run that could have been even wider had Caboclo not truck-sticked Lydon on a drive (this is a positive, even with an offensive foul call). Things became more of a standard back-and-forth from there, the 905 fighting to cut further into the deficit and fueled in large part by Caboclo, McKinnie, and Brown, who combined for 33 in the quarter.

“Obviously, our talent pool was high today,” Stackhouse said. “I thought the effort in the second half was great. Everybody came in, really played hard, worked their minutes hard. Some real positives from the second half.”

That set up a fourth with the 905 down 13 heading in, the Vipers having given themselves a little extra cushion late in the third. As with most of the third, the fourth saw the 905 chip away and look as if they were getting over a hump, only for the Vipers to score in a hurry and put them back at arm’s length. If there was a primary edge for the 905, it came on the offensive glass, which combined with Meeks and Thompson gave the 905 a major advantage in the paint while Rio shot jumpers. Brown’s slicing to the rim helped there, too. Twos are less than three, became the issue, and the Vipers seemed okay with conceding some space in the paint if it means keeping the 905 off the free-throw line and keeping Brown from spraying to shooters.

The 905 finally cut through to single-digits midway through the fourth on a Brown drive, and it was Brown pulling them within seven shortly after. Strong interior collapsing forced a House miss, and a McKinnie triple the other way – securing a triple-double for Brown – forced the Vipers to try to calm themselves with a timeout, what was once a 22-point lead down to just four with four-and-a-half minutes to play. The comeback stalled out there, though, with Hunter hitting a three and then drawing a goaltending call. Caboclo couldn’t answer with a triple and McKinnie was whistled for an offensive foul on the put-back attempt, and there was simply too much ground to make up in the final 90 seconds at that point.

“The fans are great here all the time. Whenever we’re in this building, it’s a real home-court advantage for us,” Stackhouse said. “We gotta find a way to send ’em home happy. We’ll get better.”

The 905 have low dropped three in a row and six of their last seven. It’s been a tough stretch, and Tuesday’s loss at least brought the encouraging signs of progress on the offensive end and a close, hard-fought game against one of the best teams in the G League (the Vipers are now 11-3). This also drops the 905 to 2-3 at the ACC, so expect a bounce back to .500 on Feb. 25. There are a lot of positive signs lying beneath a tough stretch in terms of results.

Notes