When the Toronto Raptors promised a new style of play this season, it sounded great on paper. More ball movement, more threes, and more players involved. The NBA’s move to pace-and-space can be aesthetically pleasing if done right, and after four years of a largely stagnant approach, the promise of change was enticing. Tuesday was another strong example of what that offense can look like in practice when things go well, with turnovers standing as the only impediment to a free-scoring, 126-113 victory over a tired but game Phoenix Suns team.
The Raptors came out with the right energy out of the gate, with OG Anunoby’s active defense setting the tone and the team getting out in transition for a few easy scores. The returning Jay Triano needed to call an early timeout to refocus his young team, and the game balanced out some from there, the two sides going back-and-forth without a ton of concern for defense. Valanciunas was fed steadily but was uncharacteristically shaky finishing, missing is his first five shots, while the rest of the starters were 11-of-17 in the quarter. (Valanciunas wouldn’t factor in much later; he did a nice job on Greg Monroe defensively.) That included a pair of Anunoby triples and some efficient scoring from the stars, who also combined for six assists in the frame, finding the right balance between attacking and facilitating against an overmatched defense.
The bench brought their customary spark, building a double-digitedge in an instant thanks to some great second-effort from Pascal Siakam and a pair of threes from Kyle Lowry. The chemistry between Siakam and Jakob Poeltl continues to be a lot of fun, and they worked a nifty post give-and-go for a Poeltl mid-range jumper. Lowry drew his league-leading 16th charge before the Raptors shifted to the full Bench Mob Or Whatever We’re Calling Them Today, and that group closed out the final two minutes of the quarter to a draw to open up a 36-23 lead after one.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) December 6, 2017
That unit had a bit of a tough time scoring out of the gate, maintaining the lead largely by forcing a number of Suns turnovers. One such turnover saw Siakam throw C.J. Miles an outlet pass far enough ahead that only Siakam could have gotten to it. No matter, as the final tally over their five-minute stretch was a raucous 10-8 deficit. It did give the Suns some juice, and back-to-back Alex Len rim-runs caused a mini-run the Raptors snuffed out fairly quickly with starters staggering back in.
Lowry continued his hot first half and Miles kicked in a pair of threes – those two are responsible for the Popeye’s promotion dying – and Poeltl briefly provided a stabilizing force on defense until his night went a little awry at that end. Toronto couldn’t quite pull away to a comfortable level, as Jared Dudley sparked the Suns’ offense with some heady quarterbacking. Serge Ibaka blocked Dudley to temporarily put an end to that and send DeMar DeRozan the other way, but 2015 OVO Bounce standout Mike James threw down a transition dunk in response, the Raptors ran into some foul and turnover trouble, and the Suns pulled within nine at the break. The Raptors losing a second quarter wasn’t believed to be possible prior to this, so at least it was a part of scientific discovery.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) December 6, 2017
Coming out of the half, Raptors assistant Rex Kalamian told the broadcast that the Raptors would stick to a strategy that turned Devin Booker into a playmaker to some degree (he was 0-of-7 with four assists), and Booker responded promptly with his first three of the night. Anunoby, meanwhile, had the full experience in the first two minutes, drawing an offensive foul on a Warren leg-kick, committing a travel, and then hitting his third three of the night. The defense settled in with Lowry’s 17th (!) drawn charge of the year and another big block from Ibaka, Anunoby hit another three, and frustration started to set in for the Suns, who picked up their second, third, and fourth technicals in short order (Warren was ejected).
“I thought he played excellent tonight,” head coach Dwane Casey said of Anunoby after the game. “Didn’t try to do too much. Games like tonight guys try to do too much. He didn’t. He took what the game gave him. He took the shots – what was he, four of five from three? – and the ball just seems to find guys like that.”
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 6, 2017
A rotation tweak offered a very brief look at Miles with the starters, just long enough for one Lowry step-back before Poeltl re-entered. The Poeltl Power Minute then took place, with the sophomore going foul-nice finish-foul, a tradition unlike any other. Toronto lost their edge a little as the quarter wore on, once again letting Phoenix hang around thanks to continued turnover issues and too many Suns trips to the line. Josh Jackson put Poeltl on skates for a dump-off to Len, and it seemed to wake Toronto back up – Poeltl responded with an offensive rebound for an and-one and then a filthy Euro-step, and the lead stretched to 18 entering the fourth. Booker would end up with 19 points
“We tried to mix it up. We tried to mix up the blitzes, we tried to mix up the switches, matchups,” Casey said. “You don’t stop a young man like that, I thought we just made him work for what he got.”
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) December 6, 2017
Phoenix tried to pick up full-court to introduce some chaos from there, and the frenetic play a near-20-point game introduces played to their favor for a bit. Some Raptors sloppiness saw the lead come down to 10, a rare stretch of ineffectiveness for the all-bench group. (And yes, that was a strong third to follow a bad second and then the bench giving up some of the lead. Bizarro Raptors, these.) The Raptors also found themselves in the penalty with eight minutes to go, the kind of board setup that lends itself to nonsensical comebacks.
Casey went back to some starters looking to reassert an early ending, and then shifted small with Ibaka at center and two point guards on the floor, Fred VanVleet essentially in Valanciunas’ spot. VanVleet scored a pair of quick buckets to make Casey look wise for the call, and a Lowry transition three felt like a dagger, back up 14 with five minutes to play.
The Lowry three also gave DeRozan eight assists for the third time this year, marking the first time he and Lowry each had eight or more in the same game this season. They finished with a combined 40 points, 13 rebounds, and 18 assists while taking just 29 field-goal attempts, a regular update in this space that continues to impress. The Raptors as a team assisted on 68 percent of their field goals, and while they committed 18 turnovers it’s encouraging that they’ve already reached 30 assists three times this year, something they accomplished just three times in total over the last four years.
“Just a willingness and spacing, most of all understanding,” Casey said. “That’s what we emphasized all through training camp and the guys have done a great job of buying into that. Looking for their teammates, trusting their teammates and now it’s on their teammates once they catch it to make good decisions.”
The rest of the game played out as most double-digit-but-not-quite-a-blowout games do, the Suns attempting to get it to a manageable margin and the Raptors keeping them at arm’s length. There was a scary moment late, with Booker falling to the ground looking frozen and ultimately needing to be carried off the court (carried, not supported) by teammates. That sapped most of the remaining energy from the crowd and the Suns, and Anunoby punctuated it with a put-back dunk late. That cleared the way for the bench to empty, and the Raptors closed out from there.
It wasn’t the most seamless of endings, to be sure. They could have finished things earlier, handed things over to the bench sooner. Still, Lowry and DeRozan played modest minutes, and there were plenty of positives to draw from. Controlling for pace, the defensive performance wasn’t nearly as bad as the 113 points suggests, working out to 103.7 per-100 possessions, and even that number is fueled heavily by the 24 points Phoenix scored off of turnovers. In the halfcourt, the Raptors locked things down, and they allowed zero second chances on the night. That’s a little random (and the box score stats had some disagreement on the exact number). It also speaks to an attention to detail that was present whenever the defense could get set.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 6, 2017
The areas to clean up can remain a focus over the coming four-game road-trip, each game coming against struggling opponents. Caveats will apply given the competition and dull stretches need to be ironed out, naturally. The Raptors have won four in a row and have a real chance to make some noise in the win column the next month, a positive goal so long as the wins keep coming in comfortable, sustainable fashion.