It’s a strange thing, for a game to be taken over by a player who scores just four points and grabs a lone rebound. That was the case on Sunday afternoon in the arena that Vince Carter built, the returning 40-year-old playing out what felt at times like a living funeral for the league’s oldest player and the city’s most important basketball figure. Earlier in the weekend, several Raptors spoke highly of Carter’s influence on the sport in the city and country, and the most telling sign yet of his influence is that the Raptors fanbase has, not to a person but for the most part, let go, ready once again to appreciate Half Man, Half Amazing for everything he meant before things went south.
That Carter himself has not conceded that this will be his last visit to the ACC as a player mattered little, with his Sacramento Kings team clearly recognizing the day by giving him the starting nod and a cameo for an ovation late.
Proper applause for the Vintroduction pic.twitter.com/84dC6CE7KI
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 17, 2017
“It’s always a great feeling to come out and be in the starting lineup and hear that introduction here, Herbie, you know, it’s fun,” Carter said. “It’s a great place to play. And for me, it’s just always great to hear that. It never gets old.”
Buoyed by the strong response, Carter got out to a quick start with a long two in the short corner, then missed an elbow fade-away that made me feel 15 again. The Raptors’ offense came out humming pretty well with the four-around-one approach, with that one – Jonas Valanciunas – picking up a nice assist on a 4-on-3 short-roll in the opening minutes, setting up one of two early OG Anunoby threes, and new starter C.J. Miles opening the game with a triple of his own. Miles took it to Carter for a drive, too, but Carter got his revenge by blocking DeMar DeRozan in transition shortly after.
The sides settled into a back-and-forth that had fun moments but skewed sloppy and plodding, the Raptors hot from outside and the Kings working through their bigs to create cutting lanes and get to the free-throw line. Anunoby and Miles both picked up two early fouls to help fuel Sacramento’s offense and force some early substitutions, and the Garrett Temple-Kosta Koufos duo, clearly bound for the All-Star Game together, did the rest. Koufos’ exit gave way to a tete-a-tete between Georgios Papagiannis and Jakob Poeltl, and DeRozan found Poeltl on a great dive to close the quarter. The unfamiliarity that seemed to bother Toronto for small stretches hadn’t slowed their offense much, and both teams shot scorching percentages (60 and 68 percent, respectively, for the hosts and visitors) for a 35-30 score after one.
Dwane Casey rolled with the same all-bench unit as Friday since Miles was with the starters, and they didn’t quite carry over the progress they’d made in the blowout scenario. The defense was there outside of one Buddy Hield transition three, the unit just really couldn’t create offense for themselves once again. Pascal Siakam was emblematic of the entire unit, with a tough few minutes at the offensive end amidst great defense, including him and Skal Labissiere blocking each other on very similar drive attempts. The bench conceded three points off of the lead before starters began returning, and as the lone holdover, Delon Wright got things back on track with a dunk off of a turnover that elicited a bit of a smile from the returning point guard.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 17, 2017
The starting five ratcheted things up from there, with a Kyle Lowry pull-up three in transition being followed by an aggressive Anunoby attack and free throws off of an offensive rebound for Valanciunas. That success came without some of the team’s new-found signature ball movement, and while it was effective, those spurts never seem particularly sustainable. Carter got his vengeance after the Anunoby drive with his second bucket of the game (should have dunked it) and a tremendous block on Valanciunas, and a 50-foot George Hill heave at the buzzer gave Sacramento a two-point lead entering the break. For as much as the sticky offense was a concern, the Raptors still managed 13 assists in the half, and it was their defense that was a more glaring issue that needed halftime correction.
“When you let a team shoot 61 per cent in the first half, whatever game it is, it is dangerous,” Casey said. “Any team in this league, you let them shoot 61 percent it’s way too high. We held them to 31 per cent in the second half, which is admirable but we can’t play with fire.”
The Raptors tried to get back to swinging the ball in the third, giving Miles the first two touches from long-range to no avail before he put it on the floor to get them on the board. The sloppiness you’ve come to expect from afternoon starts (and Raptors-Kings games) set in, with Valanciunas’ energy at both ends providing the bulk of the life in a sleepy Air Canada Centre and improved defensive activity from the home team forcing low-quality looks. It all made for a not-quite-lively 7-5 Raptors run over more than seven minutes.
Miles eventually found his stroke with a rare corner three after drawing a charge, and the bench continued to bring that same defensive energy. Anunoby saw time with his hold bench crew and had a tremendous defensive play, denying Carter and inbound and then getting to the other side of the key for a steal, capping it off with a corner three shortly after. Norman Powell continued as the key scorer for that group, with a 14-point night on perfect shooting A closing 12-4 run gave the Raptors a six-point lead entering the fourth, a quick two or three minutes of increased intensity putting them in some degree of control.
That kept rolling into the fourth, with a pair of forced turnovers producing threes for good pals Powell and Wright, the latter of whom flashed the 3-point hand gestures back down the court to stunt with the sudden 12-point lead a little bit. Sacramento ran for a timeout to try to salvage the game. It…did not. The defense from Toronto’s second unit was suffocating enough that the Kings struggled to even get the ball into the hands of their play-makers, consistently eating up clock. When they were able to attack in the half-court or in transition, Poeltl or Siakam would be there at the rim.
“I was really excited to see the second unit play well, they played as well as they’ve played in a while,” Casey said. “Home is different, we’ve got to continue to get that play. I thought Norm came in and gave us a boost with his shooting, but the second unit really was on time, on target defensively.”
Toronto’s bench held up so well that Casey rode them until the six-minute mark before bringing Lowry back in for Wright, the lead still at a dozen when he did. The bench had played a pretty long stretch uninterrupted, and so the Raptors went with the starters and Fred VanVleet (in place of Miles) to close. Even with some hiccups turning the ball over, that close-out went without much drama. Valanciunas closed out another good game with a big block and a pair of tough offensive rebounds, VanVleet drilled a dagger three, and Carter checked back in for one last ovation and a dunk during a timeout, perhaps a goodbye to the ACC.
After the game, Carter was open about the fact that he’ll return at some point, even if it’s a one-day thing. That’s obviously a story for a different day. Carter got a glimpse of a team that’s now reached heights even he couldn’t bring them to (at least for as long a stretch) in his immense prime, and he walked away impressed.
“A very, very good basketball team.,” he said. “One thing is it’s great to see the young guys accept their roles and playing hard and doing what it takes for their team to win. That’s what it is for them. We had a chance in the game and they stepped up their defensive pressure. They never got out of character. That’s a playoff basketball team. That’s what good playoff basketball teams do. You stay close but if you can kick it into second gear that’s what you do and that’s how you get your separation and that’s what happened tonight.”
That playoff basketball team has once again won three in a row, now, good for nine of their last 10, and they’ve turned the arena Carter put on the map into a tough place to play with an 11-1 mark at home. As has regularly been the case lately, quality of competition caveats apply, and the Raptors don’t want to consistently be letting teams hang around for three quarters, but there was plenty of good to come out of another decisive home victory: The bench was back to form, the starters performed well enough without Serge Ibaka, Anunoby continues to be a treasure, and a defense that ranks No. 1 in the NBA over the last month found itself when it mattered.
A pretty good Sunday.