Raptors shake off slow start in L.A., take care of Lakers

Half a game was still enough.

Raptors 101, Lakers 92 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

It looked like it was going to be another one of those nights. A different kind than the last two but one of those nights still, one that would be cause for head-scratching or hand-wringing or second-guessing. All’s well that ends well is an oversimplification, and a woeful lack of first-half energy and continued shaky shooting are reasonable causes for concern. On Friday, though, the Toronto Raptors righted the ship early and well enough to take care of their business against the Los Angeles Lakers, moving to 1-2 on a road trip that has included roughly equal amounts of positives and warning signs.

The game started out well, with the Raptors hitting six of their first nine attempts from the floor, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry passing willingly, and Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam carrying the scoring load. That dissipated quickly, though, with fatigue setting in early – a league-wide Los Angeles road game special – and the team hitting just one of their next 10 attempts. The starters quickly looked fell into disarray – Ibaka is still adjusting some to defending bigger centers – with sloppy passes eating up clock, and as the bench staggered in, some exceptionally wayward shots failed to settle things like that group has in recent games. Dwane Casey risked the all-bench unit that’s been moderately successful but at times feels tenuous, and that unit once again struggled to find someone to create shots.

The defense wasn’t much better, either, despite some occasional flashes, and the Raptors were down seven after a quarter, hardly the way they wanted to get going after dropping two close games. The second quarter didn’t start much better, with a Josh Hart in-and-out dunk and a Jordan Clarkson three sandwiching a second Delon Wright missed pull-up three and forcing Casey to burn an early timeout in hopes of stemming a bigger run. A nice Wright bucket was met with Julius Randle bullying his way to the free-throw line, and it was only when Wright and Jakob Poeltl converged for a backcourt steal off of a miss, leading to a Poeltl and-one, that the team seemed to find some constitution. The bench mob still couldn’t get much going – Fred VanVleet was at some points doing all he could to barrel to the rim but just couldn’t convert – leading to Lowry replacing Wright, and Casey was quick to return to the bulk of his starters from there in hopes of a pre-halftime comeback.

Nothing worked. The Raptors were low on defensive energy, gummed up on offense outside of some nice Lowry passing, careless with the ball, and getting hammered on the glass. Midway through the second, they were down 16. At one point, it hit 17, emblematic of what games might look like when the young bench group, still likely beholden to some inconsistencies of inexperience, isn’t lifting the team’s floor while the starters ease in. They eased in, finally, with Lowry sinking a three and a few nice Norman Powell steals feeding the team some energy that’d been missing all half (DeRozan’s defensive activity warrants noting again here, a pattern so far this year). A strong OG Anunoby and-one sent the Raptors into the half down just six despite an 11-rebound disadvantage and a 2-of-16 mark from long-range. They probably didn’t want to enter halftime against the Lakers in a “thank goodness we’re only stuck six” position, but considering they only played four or five good minutes, they had no quarrel with it.

The second half started out pretty ugly, with both teams playing a sloppy style and squandering some good opportunities in transition. That speed played a little better for Toronto thanks in part to Pascal Siakam’s ability to get out and run, as he fed Powell for a tough blowns layup (it was a rough night on offense for him) and Lowry on a cut. Two DeRozan buckets for five points later and what was once a 17-point lead was gone altogether. Lowry, still shaky around the rim, continued his strong work as a playmaker, even through some blood, and he helped get Siakam going as a scorer for a second game in a row. The Raptors were at 22 assists by the end of the third despite 19-percent 3-point shooting and had took a one-point lead into the fourth, buoyed again by solid defense from DeRozan, playmaking from Lowry, and strong contributions from their sophomore bigs.

Casey went all-bench again to start the fourth and nearly had to pull the plug quickly after a 5-0 Lakers run. Some really strong Poeltl play helped keep their heads above water, securing  two-point lead as the bulk of the starters returned. DeRozan quickly hit a pair of mid-range jumpers and a floater out of a pet zipper pick-and-roll, and Lowry ate an elbow to the chops to draw a Larry Nance charge and hit Siakam on a leak-out, vintage Raptors play to open up some breathing room for the final minutes.

The team went to their slow-it-down, DeRozan-heavy closing offense a little early and allowed the Lakers one last chance to threaten, which probably won’t appease anxieties about how they lost the last two games. A Lowry three not only put an end to that but also gave him a triple-double, his franchise-leading eighth as a Raptor (he has 40 percent of the franchise’s all-time triple-doubles).

Toronto closed things out from there for the 101-92 victory, a quality win on the opposite coast on a night they shot 7-of-29 on thees. DeRozan mixed his scoring and passing well for the most part (he finished with 24-5-5), Lowry’s playmaking was excellent (11-10-12), and both players brought it on defense. That’s a fair formula most nights, so when a third cog like Ibaka or role players like Siakam and Poeltl contribute as they did, too, things can fall into place quickly. The Raptors from the mid-way point of the second quarter on looked nothing like the team from earlier in the game. The energy changed completely, and while it would obviously be nice if the energy didn’t need a change in the first place, they at least responded well and played two-thirds of a good game. Which, sure.

Bigger picture, concerns loom about shooting, with a sub-100 offensive rating against the Lakers hardly anything to be excited about, about rebounding until Jonas Valanciunas returns, and about staying within the new paradigm consistently, even on uglier nights like this. Valanciunas should be back soon, shots theoretically have to start dropping at some point (right?), and the defense has been a little better than expected out of the gate (a 97.4 defensive rating, fifth in the NBA). Casey has some rotation choices to make when Valanciunas returns, too, as it probably can’t expand to 11 and there are more frontcourt players earning minutes right now than there are spots for them. So, the same questions that have hung around a while already, which makes sense since it’s five games in.

They’ve got two days off to continue to figure those things out and try to take another step forward in their growth Monday in Portland. Have a wonderful weekend.

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