Kyle Lowry had seen enough.
The Toronto Raptors had once again been plagued by a bit of a malaise through two-and-a-half quarters and inexplicably found themselves trialing the Brooklyn Nets by six, on their own home court. This was the first game of a six-game stretch that’s supposed to turn the schedule easier for the Raptors, to allow for some rest for their more over-worked players, and to get their defense right. The Nets torching the twine from long-range at an embarrassingly unsustainable rate – they love themselves a high-variance David strategy this year – was contributing a great deal, erasing some nice work the Raptors were doing on their own glass and in terms of protecting the ball, but this was mostly a frustrating 30 minutes where the Raptors couldn’t, or wouldn’t, remind the Nets who is who in this matchup.
So after Brook Lopez made it a 77-71 game with a pair of free throws, Lowry decided it was time to change course. Lopez worked on the block and set to release his plodding, trebuchet of a jumper, and Lowry swooped in to send the offering into the stands. A six-foot-on-seven-foot assault, one that resulted in a Raptors ball after the ensuing shot-clock violation on the inbound.
The Raptors have played out this exact game – I’ve written this exact recap – enough times this year that it was patently obvious that this was the point in the game where things turn. DeMar DeRozan continued his night of ruthless offensive production, carving to the rim at will on his way to 28 points, and hit a floater and then a layup sandwiched around the block. When Lowry followed it up by knocking down a 27-footer in transition just two possessions later, the Raptors not only quickly had a lead, but it was plain that they weren’t going to be giving it back.
And then a PU3iT. There was your "yeah they're the Nets, we're the Raptors" moment of the game.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 14, 2017
Perhaps there is some hubris in saying that, or thinking that way. There is definitely some hubris in the way the Raptors have occasionally gone about beating lesser opponents. In seasons past, the book on Toronto was that they couldn’t blows teams out, always engaging in more difficult battles than the quality of the two teams would suggest. That hasn’t been the case this season, as the Raptors have routinely run opponents off the floor. But they occasionally take a while to get there, gearing down for quarters or halves and waiting to find that certain switch.
“That’s human nature, a phenomenon I’ve never figured out,” head coach Dwane Casey said after the game. “We had this team shooting in the high 40s the whole game and we decided to play. I commend our guys for finding a way, that’s what our league is all about but you can’t play with fire like that and let a team hang around, hang around, hang around. We found a way and that’s great. I commend our guys. I’ll never take a win for granted, we’re not in a position to do that, so we’ll take it.”
It is at the same time a little frustrating that it occurs and amazing that they have the ability to do so, deciding at a late juncture they’re done toying with their meal, and then turning the Air Canada Centre up to 500 degrees.
The 11 minutes or so that followed Lowry’s block were just that. From the 5:15 mark of the third to the 6:26 mark of the fourth, the Raptors went on a ludicrous 42-16 run, shooting 68 percent from the field, knocking down six threes, and holding Brooklyn to a so-bad-it’s-almost-funny-if-you-didn’t-feel-a-little-guilty 4-of-19. The Nets could muster little, turning the ball over frequently to key Toronto’s attack the other way, failing to do much on the offensive glass, and subsisting only on the few free throws that came their way.
Toronto began their ascent with rookie Pascal Siakam on the floor, a nice sign, then slowed some as a funky DeRozan-led bench unit figured things out. When head coach Dwane Casey turned things over to an altered version of the Jurassic Five lineup with DeMarre Carroll at the four in place of Patrick Patterson, the Nets were more or less extinct. That group tore of a 25-4 sub-run of their own (they now own a plus-45.5 net rating in 28 minutes together), with Carroll and Terrence Ross knocking down threes, Cory Joseph continuing a phenomenal offensive night, and Lowry quarterbacking things with a series of heady, annoying plays. Lucas Nogueira, under the weather most of the week, chipped in around the rim and with a pair of nice assists, too.
“I think we didn’t play our best throughout the first three quarters,” Lowry said. “I think we had a scrappy unit – me, DeMarre, Lucas, Cory, and T – we had a unit in there that just kinda went in there flying all around the court, got out in transition, got some threes to fall.”
The lead was extended quickly and emphatically enough that DeRozan never needed to check back in, a somewhat regular occurrence in fourth quarters this year. The Raptors turned things over to the bench from there – Fred VanVleet and Bruno Caboclo must love seeing Brooklyn on the schedule ahead of time – and the end-game went more or less to script. This looked like an actual game, then Brooklyn blinked, and it was over. If you hadn’t watched and only looked at the final, including the highest point total in a non-overtime game in franchise history, this might seem like a thorough beating. The Raptors even covered a sizable 15-point spread. It wasn’t a tidy, 48-minute drudging, but it got where it needed to go eventually.
It might be unreasonable to expect a team to destroy lesser teams out of the gate every night – look around the league and you’ll see several teams lamenting playing games much tougher than should be necessary. There is only so much in the tank, both physically and mentally, and the Raptors are still figuring things out at power forward while waiting for Patterson and Jared Sullinger to solidify the position. Friday saw Siakam get a frenetic but high-energy look after Lucas Nogueira started, and the team ultimately put the Nets away with a very game Carroll sliding up a position. Lowry, himself, kind of laid in the weeds until he was necessary, his 35 minutes probably not as arduous as they would suggest (though his leading the league in minutes per-game continues to trouble).
“Not to take nothing away form them, but we understand how to win if we’re down,” DeRozan said. “Whether it’s against a good team or against a team that doesn’t have so great of a record. We understand that. It’s tough when you’re playing teams like that because they’re going to play even harder and do things you don’t expect. We’ve just got to be ready for it and tonight we were.”
And again, the Nets were just shooting at a ridiculous clip for most of the game. Had Brooklyn shot a normal rate from outside instead of their torrid 17-of-36 mark, the Raptors probably would have had a small, comfortable lead earlier. They didn’t, and that’s not the ideal way for the game to play out. The Raptors, though, they know they have that switch, that extra gear, that NOS button on the dash, and Lowry and DeRozan have learned quite well when to hit it.
On Friday, all it took was a few lethal minutes.