When the biggest complaint about a game is “Well, Bismack Biyombo probably shouldn’t have been back in the game so quickly after taking a flagrant elbow to the head,” it was probably a good night.
Not that the Toronto Raptors went gangbusters or played their best ball against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, because they didn’t. What they did was go into the house of a fresh opponent on a five-game winning streak and exorcise a demon that extends back to December of 2006, the last time the Raptors won in Rip City. The Moda Center is a tough place to play, a spry Blazers team had won nine of their last 11, and the Raptors entered without their starting small forward and their backup small forward, playing their third west coast road game in four nights.
It wasn’t the prettiest of 48 minutes. It wasn’t clinical or methodical or decisive. But it was, in the well-chosen words of Sportsnet’s Michael Grange, professional. That may be an obvious descriptor for a professional basketball team’s performance, but it’s a tidy way of saying the Raptors handled their business.
They didn’t let the Blazers dictate the pace on their own floor, with head coach Dwane Casey smartly using a couple of timeouts to stem potential runs built off of transition opportunities. Portland isn’t an up-tempo team by nature – they’re middle of the pack – but they were doing a good job of coercing turnovers and turning those into points. The Blazers still managed 16 points off of 15 turnovers, in part because the Raptors got a little careless and predictable late in the game. The smaller-look Blazers are quick and athletic enough to force that issue, and Toronto did well to get back the other way for the most part, slowing the counter-attack down. The game was played at an estimated 96-possession pace, right in line with Toronto’s preferred style
They also didn’t like the inconsistent officiating get to them. There were times where a technical foul for Casey, Kyle Lowry, or DeMare DeRozan would have been justified, and the team did well to stay calm. That’s the expectation, of course, but it’s a mark of maturity for a team that relies so heavily on the whistle to work around it rather than complain about it. And in the defense of anyone who wants to complain about the referees, by all means – the line for acceptable contact, particularly in the paint, was a perpetually moving goalpost. It reached a crescendo with Meyers Leonard’s late flagrant on Biyombo and the officials are lucky cooler heads prevailed all game, save for a Damian Lillard technical. Neither side really benefited from the calls either way by the end, because it was bad both ways, but it’s difficult to defend – and attack – when the game’s being called differently minute to minute.
On that note, the Raptors managed to figure their way through a bizarre first quarter that saw Biyombo and Jonas Valanciunas each pick up a pair of fouls quickly. A Lucas Nogueira sighting was eschewed in favor of a smaller lineup and Luis Scola settled in a little better at the five than he looked early at the four. It was still an iffy night for him overall, but the flexibility to shift him over is nice and was especially useful with Portland going four- and sometimes five-out.
That first quarter saw the Raptors score a season-high 37 points, opening up an early 12-point lead almost entirely on the backs of Lowry and DeRozan. Lowry was terrific all night, finishing with 30 points, six rebounds, and eight assists in 40 minutes while shooting 10-of-19 from the floor and 7-of-10 from outside, a peak-KLOE performance that makes one wonder if he got up a little extra for a game against Lillard. DeRozan, too, was up, though his 29 points came on 25 field-goal attempts. Still, he distributed well (four assists), continuing to impress in that regard, and he chipped in on the boards with five rebounds. The pair combined for 59 points, outscoring the Blazers’ own young, dynamic backcourt by 11. Also, Lowry hit a three from Pok Pok.
Credit is due to Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, and T.J. Ross for the jobs they did on Lillard and McCollum, two players who have grown into difficult checks. Lowry played the ball-hawk role well, too, while DeRozan experienced his bi-annual torching at the hands of Gerald “Literally Kawhi Leonard Against the Raptors” Henderson for a few minutes. Between Lillard, McCollum, and Allen Crabbe, the Blazers are in pretty good shape at the guard positions. Crabbe defended well and continues to show more and more offensively, while Lillard’s long been an All-Star in waiting and McCollum is the likely (and predicted) Most Improved Player this season. Ross would fit right in there, turning in another strong two-way game.
Given the quality of these young, rested Portland legs and how well the whole team’s been gelling of late, it’s an impressive victory. The Raptors moved the ball around much better than they have of late, finding new ways of scoring when their usual barrage of free throws didn’t present themselves. Their 25 free-throw attempts were their lowest since Jan. 22, and they made up for that with their highest assist total, 23, since the game prior to that. They were aided by an unseasonably warm 12-of-19 night from outside, sure, but they also pushed their own transition game incredibly well for easy points (19 off of 14 turnovers), hammered the offensive glass (12, or 28.6 percent), and got into the paint despite the heavy contact.
At the other end, things were shaky, with Portland shooting 46.9 percent overall and 10-of-25 on threes. The Raptors didn’t do their best job chasing off the 3-point line, but they continued to do well sealing off the restricted area, something both Valanciunas and Biyombo did a good job with. Patrick Patterson deserves credit, too, for yet another solid night on the defensive side of the ball, showing he can handle the four against small-ish looks. Again, defense wasn’t a strength Thursday, with the Raptors doing just enough to let their offense get them the win.
And it did, because Lowry and DeRozan are very good, Joseph and Ross brought some secondary punch, and Valanciunas dominated a portion of the game across the first and second quarter when the two stars took their rests.
Not every night is going to be played perfectly. Road games are tough. Young, hungry, fresh opponents rarely lie down. Starting your third-string shooting guard because of injuries (and oddly just accepting his current offensive limitations instead of trying to leverage his strengths), no matter how encouraging the defense, isn’t ideal. The Raptors have played a lot, particularly their All-Star duo, and they continue to win whether they’re at their best or they’re not.
Thursday marks the team’s 13th win in 14 games, their first in Portland in nearly a decade, and their 34th through 50 games, the best mark in franchise history. They’re two games back of Cleveland in the East, 5.5 up on the next best team, and have three days off for a quick trip home before heading out for two more and then getting an extended rest. This team is on a serious roll, and there’s not a lot to suggest they’re going to slow down any time soon.