Two teams do not have to engage in a perfect exhibition of basketball for a game to be a lot of fun. As it turns out, and as the Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans apparently had an edict to prove at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday, was that it can sometimes be more entertaining if they don’t. That’s particularly the case if it’s defense that gets left at home for the bulk of the night, the type of handshake agreement that saw the Raptors edge out a 122-118 victory.
The question heading into the game was how the Raptors’ frontcourt would handle the immense task of limiting Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, truly one of the most gifted and challenging pairings in the NBA. From the sounds of shootaround, the Raptors’ gameplan focused heavily on limiting Cousins, which is a matchup Jonas Valanciunas has always seemed to get up for, at least in terms of effort and energy. How Serge Ibaka, struggling on the defensive end to start the year, would fare against Anthony Davis was worrisome, and the Raptors’ carousel of young bigs would be tested.
It’s hard to call a defensive gameplan a success when an opponent hangs 118 points, but if the goal was to give Cousins plenty of attention, play Davis tight individually, and dare the rest of the Pelicans to beat them, the game went as the Raptors hoped. Cousins spent the bulk of the game annoyed, picked up a technical foul, and later complimented Valanciunas’ ability to flop, something Valanciunas says he’s never done in his life. Cousins still put up some numbers – 20 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists – because Cousins can do so in his sleep, and Valanciunas wasn’t exactly a neutralizing factor in that sense. He was a point of frustration, though, and the Raptors sent ample help toward Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl, betting the Pelicans couldn’t “beat them on the backside,” as Cooper Smither inappropriately phrased it before the game.
To be blunt, this was Valanciunas’ best performance of the season, continuing a run of play that’s often looked like an ill fit but has produced consistently strong results at the team-level since he returned from injury. Valanciunas was physical in the post, worked to get back in transition, and was a big factor in the Raptors winning the rebounding battle significantly and holding New Orleans to just four offensive boards. Poeltl is a little overmatched physically with a guy like Cousins and Lucas Nogueira somehow picked up three fouls in 87 seconds (with a plus-4!), and even still, the centerss grade out mostly well as group, thanks in part to two nice assists and the usual savvy work on the offensive glass for Poeltl. Poeltl was really good at both ends despite giving up strength.
“Our job was to make it harder for him and I think we did it,” Valanciunas said.
Davis was able to get into a more efficient comfort zone but was neutralized some in terms of volume. Ibaka mostly made that matchup work by hitting a few shots early and doing a better job on the boards than he’s done of late, adding some highlight-reel blocks for good measure, and Pascal Siakam brought the usual energy burst off the bench. Most encouraging among everything was that the four traditional bigs combined for 10 assists, a great nod to the team’s deft ball movement on a night they dished 27 assists as a team and hit a season-high 16 threes. Without much of a rotation to speak of, the Pelicans unexpectedly lost the game when they had both Davis and Cousins out together, the minus-13 mark the duo posted a grand reversal of their early season trend.
“They did a great job,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Those two guys over there in New Orleans are definitely a handful, our bigs did a great job. Every big that went in there tonight tried to make everything difficult for them guys, they didn’t put up a monster game like they’re accustomed to doing.
The job the Raptors did on the two stars had consequences, though, namely in the form of Jrue Holiday. Holiday came in with a bit of a scoring slump to his name and promptly erased it, scoring 34 points on 14-of-20 shooting and dishing 11 assists. Holiday is a very nice player, a borderline All-Star were he still in the Eastern Conference, but the Raptors’ guards made him look like the second coming of Allen Iverson. Part of that was the strategic trade-off for the additional attention on the bigs, and a lot of it was just inattention in general. The Pelicans shot 54 percent as a team and feasted on open transition threes, leaving head coach Dwane Casey displeased with a large part of the effort despite the victory.
That Toronto could score with New Orleans was encouraging, particularly for a starting lineup that hasn’t meshed well together just yet. They were still outscored by a point in their 18 minutes, though that’s a fine mark against the Pelicans’ starters. Ibaka shot quickly and often to set a tone, Kyle Lowry seemed to slowly ease into his rhythm on offense after he looked frustrated early thanks to a pair of DeRozan dishes in a row in the second quarter, and DeRozan opened the game with a pair of corner threes and continued his run of efficient scoring, dropping 33 points on 23 field-goal attempts and dishing eight assists.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 10, 2017
Casey stuck with a 12-man rotation around his starters, save for Nogueira after foul trouble, which continues to be understandable and difficult at the same time. Nogueira and Fred VanVleet had a tough go here and would seem to be the odd names out if and when the rotation does shorten, and C.J. Miles had an uncharacteristically cold shooting night from outside, not that he should ever stop gunning. The all-bench units continue to hold their own but feel tenuous every time, and Casey needed to go back to his starters a little earlier in the fourth thanks to an offensive dry spell that gave the Pelicans a short modicum of control.
A back-and-forth game the bulk of the night with neither team leading by more than 10, the game fittingly entered the fourth quarter tied. That followed some sloppy third-quarter play both ways and a nice moment when Lowry won the crowd three chicken fingers at Popeyes with the team’s 10th three of the night. Cousins had settled in a bit after seven first-half turnovers, and at the end of the third, Pelicans not named Davis or Cousins had shot 26-of-36. With Holiday still proving a problem, Casey tasked rookie OG Anunoby, who had spent time on Davis for a stretch earlier, with guarding the speedy point guard.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 10, 2017
The fourth was a hectic trading of blows, highlighted by some big moments for Anunoby. There were some negatives, like a travel attacking out of the corner, but he hit a corner three, too, and attacked from there to dunk on…err, around…an unwilling Davis. He was terrific in one-on-one defense most of the night, allowing the Raptors to switch some pet Pelicans sets more freely, and the fact that he guarded Davis and Holiday in the same night, regardless of how well, is special. Casey’s late-game trust in him speaks volumes, and the offense the rest of the starting lineup can provide – plus Anunoby being ahead of expectations on that end – makes him a fairly seamless fit (and maybe a good long-term one with that group down the line).
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 10, 2017
That dunk put the Raptors back ahead, and after DeRozan fell but still found Lowry for a three, they’d mostly have control from there. There will be quibbles with some of the play choices, given that DeRozan had the ball in his hands plenty late, and the team’s been clear that the late-game offense will probably still involve a lot of their stars trying to do what they do. (A DeRozan turnaround 3-point attempt was particularly bad, though Anunoby cut to the wrong space on the floor and the Raptors ran out of clock to make something happen.)
“It’s everything. As a competitor, you want to be in the situation where you just indulge in the moment in the crowd on their feet, close game, start getting loud, whether it’s home or on the road,” DeRozan said. “It’s one of them feelings that you dream about and you try and react when you’re a kid, watching all your favourite players. It’s always big for me to just be in that moment.”
Cousins hit a step-back three late to threaten, but Valanciunas contested his next attempt well, and the intentional foul game produced little traction for the Pelicans.
Games that run tight and exciting for 48 minutes tend to feel like bigger victories, and the Raptors would be justified in calling this just that. The Pelicans are a good team and entered hot, and despite some obvious struggles on defense, the Raptors pulled it out. They shared the ball, the effort level from the bigs was high, Ibaka and Valanciunas and their backups answered a tough challenge, Anunoby was a big spark, and they started to get Lowry going without taking away from DeRozan or the ball movement.
“We can’t survive playing defense like that,” Casey said. “The game is changing, it’s three-pointers, it’s a scoring game, you’ve got to be able to score. But also too you have to have some semblance of defense, and we didn’t. We’ve got to get better, we know that. ”
Things stay tough a while longer with a three-game road-trip that begins Sunday, and the Raptors will need those positives in concert with improved defense to post a winning record on it. Thursday was a step in the right direction for the offense and the team’s confidence in their starting frontcourt, two pretty important details to come from a very fun game.