There are a lot of sports cliches about the next man up, about being a team of 15 (or however many), about the need for everyone to keep ready because opportunity will inevitably knock. Cliches aren’t always particularly insightful or interesting, but they are cliches for a reason, borne out of collective experience and a need to communicate that experience succinctly. In other words, when Kyle Lowry warns in the first two games of the season that the Toronto Raptors will eventually need everyone, and they should stay ready, he knows of what he speaks, even if he does so in the usual cliches.
He was correct, and so soon. The Raptors were down two starters in Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas as they visited the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday, putting an immense spotlight on the team’s young depth and a premium on defense, out two of their more reliable offensive options. Consider the call answered on both fronts, with great contributions from a number of promising prospects and a terrific team-wide defensive effort.
The game started out with one very specific story that didn’t at all pertain to the defensive side of the ball: DeMar DeRozan, given the obvious Nike power-up boost from a day at the Nike employee store in Portland, going wild out of the gate. DeRozan was getting everything he wanted against Portland early on, roasting defenders on post-ups, tripping guards up with his phenomenal footwork, and draining any mid-range shot he set his eyes on. It was the type of stretch where any talk of DeRozan’s need to distribute more or share touches for the sake of sharing touches ran completely quiet, because it’s difficult to argue with eviscerated mismatch after eviscerated mismatch.
By the time the first break in play came around halfway through the first quarter, DeRozan had 13 of the Raptors’ 15 points, and he’d finish the half with 21 points on just 11 attempts. Better yet, though, DeRozan used that hot start to tilt the defensive attention and changed his approach in the back half of the first, looking to get teammates involved. He helped set up a Lowry triple and a Jakob Poeltl dunk while continuing his early-season run of strong defensive effort, and his play in general helped an eventual DeRozan-and-bench group play more good minutes.
It was Delon Wright, though, who set the tone for a shift from a back-and-forth game to something a little more one-sided at the end of the quarter, changing speeds on Pat Connaughton like Pat Connaughton used to do in the Baltimore Orioles system.
Slide to the left. Slide to right. pic.twitter.com/qtRbwRDfSt
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 31, 2017
The Raptors’ shut the Blazers out over the final 100 seconds of the first to come back and tie the game at 29, and the story went in a direction far away from DeRozan’s dominance from there. It is not overstating things to say that the second quarter was perhaps the best defensive quarter in franchise history. In fact, the six points they would allow were the fewest a Raptors team has ever surrendered in a second quarter, and the Blazers nearly went the entire frame without a field goal, being saved from that odd bit of history only by an Evan Turner put-back…with five seconds left on the clock.
All told, Portland went 0-for-20 from the field over a 14:09 stretch, one that allowed the Raptors to shake off some unsightly shooting at the rim early on and go on a 10-0 run with the all-bench unit, then continue that momentum through to halftime, where they took a 19-point lead. Poeltl and OG Anunoby showed flashes of brilliance on the defensive end, Lucas Nogueira contributed really strong minutes in his return, staying within himself and getting his hands on every pass through or floater in the lane, and the Raptors made a very good offense look completely pedestrian. They really didn’t have to do much offensively to pull away, but just for good measure, Anunoby drove with a nifty spinning left-handed bucket and Nogueira hit a three.
— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) October 31, 2017
Things continued rolling along mostly smoothly in the third, punctuated early on by a couple of difficult lob finishes for Nogueira and a nifty high-low pass to a cutting Pascal Siakam late on the clock in a 4-on-3 situation. Norman Powell hit a pair of threes in the frame as well, throwing up prayer hands after the first, as it ended an extended shooting slump inside and out for him that included some poor decisions on the offensive end. To his credit, his defense all night on the Blazer guards had remained solid, containing the requisite effort to fight through C.J. McCollum’s never-ending forest of screens and keeping a good head about him. DeRozan and Lowry combined for just four points in the quarter as DeRozan cooled off and Lowry worked as a distributor, and the youth, especially the frontcourt pieces, really thrived, score effects be damned.
And since everything else as going swimmingly, Wright hit a three early in the fourth, too, ending his own frigid stretch. Armed with a 20-point lead in the fourth, the foot came off the gas defensively a little bit, and Damian Lillard’s singular offensive dominance posed a major threat. Casey needed to call a timeout three minutes in, as Lillard had led the Blazers on a quick 10-5 run against the all-bench group to cut the lead to 15, firmly in striking distance for Lillard and McCollum.
Lowry’s return didn’t quite settle things, with Lillard buckets not quite being matched by a Nogueira put-back and trip to the line. DeRozan returned next, but it was the defensive efforts of Nogueira and Anunoby helping stem the tide, with Anunoby digging in for a steal, switching onto Lillard, and scoring off of an offensive rebound, and Nogueira turning away a pair of shots at the rim. That little bit of back-and-forth slowed Portland’s momentum a beat, but it still set up a close-out that was far more tense than it seemed it would be a quarter earlier. That DeRozan had his pocket picked by a late-in-transition Lillard (not entirely DeRozan’s fault, with communication to blame) and the team committed a shot-clock violation exacerbated that feeling, and an Anunoby-Wright collaboration steal only produced a turnover, so Casey tried to settle things down with one more timeout, up 14 with three minutes to play.
Even through the unnecessary threat was allowed to present itself, the endgame provided positives, largely in the form of more good Anunoby and Nogueira moments. Nogueira turned away another shot to finish with five blocks on the night and Anunoby continued to be everywhere on defense, swallowing a Turner pass to force a jump ball. (That Siakam came in for Anunoby in the closing minutes may be due to an ongoing minutes limit or the fact that Anunoby had played a long stretch without a breather.) If there’s a complaint late, it’s that the offense once again gummed up a bit, but with a double-digit lead in the final minutes, the explanation will likely be that there was a greater value on chewing up clock and shrinking the game. Which they did, and wound up safely winning and emptying out the bench in the final minute.
And really, if you’re looking for negatives in this one, godspeed. There was just too much to be encouraged by here, most of it in the form of young frontcourt players. Nogueira played maybe the game of his life, asked to start after two games off and maybe sensing his window of opportunity closing quickly. He scored a career-high 17 points, grabbed nine rebounds against one of the league’s best rebounding teams (the Raptors won the rebounding battle cleanly), blocked five shots, dished two times, and had two blocks, shooting 7-of-8, earning the closing minutes, and posting a team-best plus-13 mark. Siakam continued his solid stretch as a starter, too, playing good, switchy defense and scoring where he fit, even against Portland’s transition-stifling approach. Poeltl was solid, too, and it speaks volumes that a six-point, five-rebound, one-block effort in 18 minutes was his quietest night since Jonas Valanciunas went down. Anunoby is legitimately special, already showing signs he can be the defensive force that was teased on draft night.
Mix in quality nights from the stars on top of that (Lowry and DeRozan combined for 44 points on 34 shots, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists), and wins are going to come. The defense has looked smothering for long stretches, and the Raptors rank third in defensive efficiency so far (against only slightly below-average opponent offenses). If the threes start falling – and they will, at some point, a little bit more – there’s some real upside here.
There have been so many small victories on the player development front already this season, it’s difficult not to feel good about Toronto’s floor now, too, which was a question a few weeks back. Down two starting frontcourt players against a team that should, on paper, punish that, the Raptors had four young, inexperienced bigs step up and make a huge difference against a borderline playoff opponent. All of the normal caveats apply early on and in small samples, and not all of the nights will be like this. Youth comes with inconsistency, and the other warnings you’ve heard before. The sample is growing, though, and it pretty strongly suggests the Raptors’ increased emphasis on player development is going to prove more than worthwhile.
This was an early signature win, at least as far as the young players are concerned.