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Raptors squander early lead, have to beat Pistons ‘the ugly way’

Raptors 96, Pistons 91 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

Some games just aren’t meant to be pretty. The Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons have gotten to know each other well the last few years, and given the preferred style of play for each team, a modest distaste for each other, and a number of physical players on each side, Wednesday’s meeting between the two had all the makings of another throwback game, similar to the one the Raptors just played against the Miami Heat. While the matchup is a fun one on paper and in the post, Toronto’s 96-91 victory probably isn’t leaving viewers aching for a seven-game series between the sides come April.

Neither team would manage to crack a point per-possession in the slog, with the Pistons doing a nice job jamming up DeMar DeRozan outside of the first quarter, both teams hitting at only an average mark from outside, and the officials letting the teams play aggressively on the ball and in the paint.

“It was the ugly way,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “That team is a very aggressive team. We kind of made things difficult for ourselves instead of making the easy play. I thought in that stretch where we built the big lead, we did do that. We moved the ball, the ball was humming and zipping, we were passing before the traps got there. We made it complicated on ourselves, but we’ve got to give Detroit credit – they were really getting into us, getting after us and doing something a little different defensively that threw our rhythm off a bit with their traps. Hats off to them.”

It was evident things might be unattractive from the jump. Detroit opened up with a defensive three-second violation on their first possession, then sent DeRozan to the line again. They were so stuck in mud, in fact, that Stan Van Gundy called a timeout after the Raptors opened up a 6-2 lead, clearly not willing to risk his team’s rough first quarters building here. They got some help settling down thanks to a missed goaltending call but continued making curious defensive mistakes, like losing DeRozan on cuts twice, later losing C.J. Miles on an inbound play, forgetting about Jakob Poeltl entirely, and fouling two 3-point shooters. The Raptors didn’t shoot particularly well, leaving Jonas Valanciunas to do work on the glass and around the rim to take an early edge in his usual battle with Andre Drummond.

At the other end, the Raptors had two clear edicts: Switch everything, even off the ball when a switch didn’t seem necessary, and drop way under pick-and-rolls against Ish Smith, even low on the floor. The former is a risk, one that at least gives Kyle Lowry an opportunity to guard in the post, and the latter was a success as Smith opened with a scoreless quarter. The activity level was high all over, with a lot of tipped passes and strong work sending extra bodies to the defensive glass. As a team, the Pistons shot 30 percent and committed five turnovers, and only grabbed one offensive rebound. Add in a strong DeRozan quarter and a bucket through contact at the buzzer for Poeltl, and Toronto had a 13-point lead after one, a nice turnaround from their recent slow starts.

The second didn’t start quite as well at first, with Lucas Nogueira slotting in for a foul-sidelined Poeltl and the Pistons going to Boban Marjanovic inside. The Raptors’ all-bench unit, with a little different look here with Fred VanVleet sidelined, realized the key to their offensive struggles, getting red-hot from outside. Miles hit a couple more to give him 13 points in the half, Norman Powell got in on the act, and by the time any starters filtered back in, the bench had only lost three points from the lead.

It was the Valanciunas and Drummond show again from there, with a Drummond bucket inside being sandwiched by a Valanciunas three – a call-back to Drummond dismissively waving an arm at him spotting up in the preseason – and a trip to the line. There were some encouraging signs in the middle of the quarter. The Raptors’ ball movement was solid all half and was notably effective here, scrambling Detroit with the extra pass and establishing Valanciunas, and the once-struggling Powell had his best run in some time. Those signs dissipated very quickly, as Lowry continued struggling working his way back into form, the Pistons got right up on DeRozan as a result, the ball grew sticky, and the defensive energy seemed sapped entirely. What was one a 15-point lead shrunk as low as two and entered the break at three, a wholly disappointing turn after a strong start.

“A  little bit of both,” DeRozan said of which team was to blame for the Raptors’ 21 turnovers. “They play really aggressive. You have to give them credit. They were in the right spot at the right times, got their hands on the ball when they needed to. We have to do a better job of understanding that especially playing against a tough playing team like Detroit. They were just extremely physical. We have to be able to read that ahead of time and feel physicality and try to make an adjustment and make our decisions quicker.”

Despite Lowry coming out hot in the third, the Pistons finished their push to square the game up, taking an early lead. Toronto continued to sputter, and it looked as if Casey might be ready to go bench-heavy early for a spark until OG Anunoby sparked a turnaround with his defense and a good feed to Valanciunas. The Raptors got a few minutes of Poeltl against Drummond as they looked to conserve Valanciunas for the fourth, an interesting choice on the part of Van Gundy that paid off with a lob and a put-back for Drummond.

The offense hit another cold front with the DeRozan-and-bench unit on the floor, and a sloppy night with the ball continued to preclude the Raptors from pulling back away. Delon Wright tried his damndest to make it happen, at least, blocking old friend Dwight Buycks twice with emphasis, the latter of which got Poeltl an easy dunk the other way. That kept things tied entering the fourth, where the all-bench group would turn in some strong minutes on the shoulders of the Wright-Poeltl duo. Wright hit Marjanovic with a nifty up-and-under in tight space, then found Poeltl for a bucket and-foul (his second missed and-one opportunity). Their minutes closed with a Pascal Siakam steal keying a Wright-to-Miles transition bucket. Wright was genuinely terrific in the second half, a regular occurrence lately.

That put the Raptors up one as the stars re-entered. Valanciunas soon followed to match up with Drummond, handing off to Miles for his fifth three of the night shortly after a Lowry three, putting the Raptors up seven and back in control with five minutes to play. Detroit began overloading on the Raptors’ ball-handlers, which forced Valanciunas to make plays in the four-on-three underneath, something he’s improving with. This wasn’t the best few possessions in that regard, as Valanciunas passed up a look at the rim for an errant corner kick and committed another turnover. He did draw a foul attacking and looking to kick, and it’s important teams know he’ll try to make these passes, so it was a net positive overall, especially since he was getting back hard on defense and the Pistons were struggling on offense.

“I think we knew they were going to double-team, so getting the ball in the middle and having the bigs make the plays, coming off screens a little bit more aggressive, and just playing with pace,” Lowry said of the shift.

Wright and Miles played out the entire quarter with the other starters, and the close-out looked seamless at first, then grew tighter. A  possession low on passing saw Miles come up with a huge offensive rebound late that chewed up some precious clock, only for DeRozan to commit an ill-advised turnover. Wright got called for a foul in the penalty on Smith in transition, and Smith missed both, only for the Pistons to secure the offensive rebound and hit a three. Eventually, Wright would seal it with free throws, the Pistons running out of time.

It took the Raptors a bit of time to get out of their own way after the hot start, but eventually, they got there. They held Detroit to 94.3 points per-100 possessions, won the rebounding battle slightly, and survived a massive night from a much-improved Drummond. To do that against a decent, if wholly unspectacular opponent isn’t cause for celebration, and while the Raptors weren’t willing to take anything away from a gritty Detroit effort, that’s a team the Raptors would have handled more emphatically if they’d stuck to the script in the second and third quarters. As it was, they had to grind it out to get through.

“It wasn’t a pretty win at all,” DeRozan said. “But we try to understand we don’t even want to lose two games in a row and tonight was one of them games where we could have made it three. We had to buckle down on this thing, get back to protecting home court and not lose multiple games in a row.”

Another tough test comes to the Air Canada Centre on Friday when the San Antonio Spurs visit, down Kawhi Leonard but always dangerous. It should be a good litmus for Toronto’s growth since the two sides met in San Antonio earlier in the year and whether they can get back to sustaining the energy that has them 16-3 at home so far.

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