After a 3-1 road trip with a few much-too-tight games and an ugly loss that was quite a winnable game, the Toronto Raptors talked up a return to their home court as a chance to reassert themselves as a force. They want the Air Canada Centre to be known as a difficult place to play, and while they can’t control the quality of competition that enters, they can certainly send that message by winning games with a certain way.
That means when a short-handed Brooklyn Nets team visits on the second night of a back-to-back, down two starters in addition to D’Angelo Russell, leaving nothing to chance, Brooklyn’s feistiness and pace of play, or Clippers-like randomness. It took two mighty swings from the starters to drive the point home, one at the top of each half sandwiched around another shaky quarter from the bench, but the Raptors won Friday night’s game as emphatically as they possibly could, turning in a 120-87 decision that included a fourth quarter made up entirely of box score-padding clownery and bench-clearing garbage time.
“We want to make this a tough place to play,” head coach Dwane Casey said afterward. “We want people to talk about not wanting to come to Toronto and play. That’s what you want to develop and keep that personality. It helps in so many ways to have a good home-court advantage. We’ve got a great crowd, a great arena.”
Another banner night for the Lowry-DeRozan scrum interaction. DeRozan jokes Lowry said “if Westbrook can do it every night, I can do it” re: triple-double hunting.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 16, 2017
The Raptors opted to welcome DeMarre Carroll back by coming out old school, drilling the Nets with a trio of DeMar DeRozan jumpers pulling up at the elbows or posting up in the mid-range. Serge Ibaka nailed a long two, too, and a pair of clumsy turnovers and a pair of Jonas Valanciunas misses in close perhaps suggested the Nu-Raptors were in for an Old Raptors night. They shook that off quickly, with OG Anunoby driving and making a sweet dump-off pass to Valanciunas, and a good-in-any-era Kyle Lowry pull-up three in transition sent Brooklyn running to an early timeout.
It settled little for the visitors, and Kenny Atkinson began mixing and matching for an early spark, even busting out some zone defense. Ibaka drilled a three, then obliterated a Caris LeVert attempt with a chase-down block, and topped off a great few minutes with a floater attacking a closeout. Meanwhile, DeRozan took a steal coast-to-coast and threw down a nasty alley-oop from Lowry (their specialty), and by the time the Raptors brought in any subs, the starters had once again opened up a nine-point lead. That continues a very strong stretch of starting games for them, even with the opposition caveats.
Raptors starters were a +33 in 22 minutes. Plenty of QOC caveats apply, but now +20.9 net rating in 232min, 3rd among all NBA units with 100+ min.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 16, 2017
That opened up a window for Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas to make their Nets debuts. Okafor hit Jakob Poeltl with a fine EuroStep and Stauskas hit a three, so the return has already paid off for Brooklyn, even before factoring in the second-round pick they received in the swap. Poeltl answered with a bucket and a foul, pushing the Raptors to a 10-point lead entering the second. It was Toronto’s turn for a debut – or return, rather – with Delon Wright entering as part of an all-bench unit down C.J. Miles for the night. The Nets’ spark proved superior, as Stauskas hit three more triples in a row to pull Brooklyn within one, a personal 12-2 run.
Only Quincy Acy could disrupt Stauskas, who went right back to work after the former Raptor got in on the action, driving for an and-one through a pair of bodies. Casey opted to roll with the all-bench unit for five minutes before getting them some help, and a Norman Powell three (after a missed dunk earlier) was the only offense keeping the stretch from turning the double-digit lead into a deficit, the Nets packing the paint and daring a lineup with no shooters to work from outside. Some shaky defense on a baseline out-of-bounds with just one second on the clock saw Spencer Dinwiddie indefensibly score to take the lead after all, and the full contingent of Raptors starters returned.
The starters got the game right back to where they wanted it, quickly pulling off a 13-2 run capped by another Lowry transition pull-up. They’d keep rolling into the half, opening a 14-point lead back up, with DeRozan reaching 20 points in the half and Lowry putting everyone on triple-double watch with five rebounds and seven assists.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” DeRozan said of the unit’s improvement. “Understanding our mistakes, understanding what got us down and put us in that position. What we have to fight out of. Some of the things we apply to the experience that we have had and that we can take with us when we go out there and play. It’s kind of a combination of everything…Not trying to get yelled at by Casey.”
The Nets were out there biting on multiple Valanciunas pump-fakes to start the second half, which just about sums it up. Lowry took a turn going to work as a scorer (point guard hook shot!), Ibaka stayed hot, Anunoby drilled a three, and then Valanciunas put them up 20. Atkinson went to the bench early looking for another Sauce Castillo spark to no avail, and the Raptors got so comfortable with a 20-plus point lead that Valanciunas even took a step back into a wide-open three. He missed, but it didn’t stop the Raptors from building the lead to 26 as the bench began filtering back in.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 16, 2017
DeRozan pushed his scoring total for the night to an easy 31, including a bucket that mercifully gave Lowry his 10th assist after Ibaka missed a few would-be Lowry assists. Just before that, though, the score-keeper had taken away a Lowry rebound, leaving him one shy of his 11th career triple-double. Nonetheless, Poeltl ended the third with a jam, and the Raptors took a 27-point lead into the fourth. Lowry remained in the game until he collected the rebound he needed, then handed things over to the all-bench group.
“He had two minutes,” Casey said. “I told him in the timeout he had two minutes. I don’t believe in messing with the game, but I owe it to one of my veterans, if they have something like that to get done, I owe it to them to do it without getting hurt, but he had two minutes to do it. If he hadn’t gotten it in two minutes, he wasn’t going to. I don’t want to do anything to mess with the game or try to disrespect Brooklyn.”
Once the bench came in, Wright hit Pascal Siakam with a transition lob almost immediately to shake off any worry of another quick run against them. The next few minutes played out how most blowouts tend to, a back-and-forth of somewhat sloppy play but with enough moments from reserves on either side to still be fun. That included minutes for Alfonzo McKinnie when the lead pushed past 30, a steady dose of low-leverage minutes for Wright to shake off what little rust he had (his dunk and the play of this group suggest there was little), opportunity for Powell to put a strong game under his belt, and, eventually, some Lorenzo Brown time.
“It was a rough first stint, but the second stint they came through,” Casey said of the bench. “They relaxed and played. That’s when Norm got his confidence. It didn’t help that Stauskas came in and tattooed us with some quick buckets, but I thought Norm bounced back in the second half and slowed him down some. I was really happy to see how they played together.”
Outside of the early second hiccup, this went about as well to form as the Raptors could hope. Their stars played well, the starting frontcourt scored with ease, and that fivesome continued to roll against inferior units. The bench put better minutes underneath them, too, even if they came in a blowout scenario, and that might help with the confidence levels of the individuals involved. It was a three-quarter destruction and a seamless close-out, exactly the way these games should go on a home court they want to be dominant on. Now they try to do the same thing again when the Sacramento Kings visit Sunday afternoon, an opponent and tip-off time that always leave a window for weirdness.