There’s something to be said for just taking care of business.
The Toronto Raptors did just that on Sunday, beating the visiting Los Angeles Lakers 123-111. The respectable final score doesn’t exactly lay clear the handle the Raptors had on the game throughout – the Lakers led exactly once, 3-0, and the Raptors spent the bulk of the second half comfortably ahead, leaning on their young bench, and doing the things that have made them a pretty successful team at both ends of the floor so far. They hit 12 threes at a 39-percent clip, tallied 23 assists, got contributions from up and down a 10-man rotation that saw everyone score and everyone finish with a positive plus-minus, and while the 111 the Lakers hung looks one way, it’s a defensive number inflated a bit by pace and a lot by a fatigued fourth-quarter close-out. It wasn’t emphatic or dramatic, the Raptors just did what they were supposed to do for the bulk of 48 minutes.
For all the publicity the Lakers’ young players have received – and understandably so – it was a young Raptor raising eyebrows early. The first quarter included a lot of OG Anunoby the kind of things offensively that have made him such a nice surprise so far this season, even with recent discussion that he may have hit a rookie wall, as could be reasonably expected. Anunoby missed a pair of threes, sure. He also scored on a sharp cut, made a rare appearance at the free-throw line, fed Jonas Valanciunas for a corner three on a terrific drive (and mini-Nash action!), and did a great job on Brandon Ingram defensively.
That Valanciunas hitting a corner three wasn’t the lede here says something about his play of late, and he kept that up with a strong start opposite Brook Lopez. Serge Ibaka had a high-event quarter in the post, too, with Julius Randle getting fed plenty to attack him. Where Randle was playing creator for teammates and drawing help when posting a switch, Ibaka was shoot-first. When Ibaka subbed out, they had played to something close to a draw, while the game played around them had decidedly gone the Raptors’ way. That, despite a cold shooting start for DeMar DeRozan, who looked to facilitate in response and was picked up by Kyle Lowry on the scoring front. It was a much better start than the team had Friday, a seven-point lead through a quarter with an underlying energy that matched that of their up-tempo opponent.
“I really liked the way the guys started the game,” Dwane Casey said. “We started the game with force. This team has really been playing really well and I thought we came out and matched their energy and maintained it. That’s the hardest thing to do in this league is maintain the consistency, the ball movement, man movement, defensive focus I thought was there.”
The second quarter started as a sort of Rising Stars game all its own, the Raptors bench going up against a Lakers unit where Jordan Clarkson was their most experience player on the floor. C.J. Miles must have felt 50. It was an entertaining stretch – Delon Wright broke down Alex Caruso and later had a put-back dunk, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam hit threes, Larry Nance did perfect, subtle, Larry Nance things, and Caruso got some revenge with a drive and a dunk of his own. Uncharacteristically for the Raptors’ bench, the five-minute showdown was of the high-scoring variety, the Raptors getting the edge 16-11 before any of their starters returned to the game.
After a Lowry-Valanciunas-bench look that warrants some deeper exploration (and has been getting some of late), VanVleet earned the nominal bench slot with the returning starters. He stayed hot, hitting another three and making a tough finish driving baseline to finish the half with a game-high 12 points.
DeRozan on VanVleet's aggression in paint: "He's got small man syndrome. He thinks he's 6-8 but he realizes when goes in there he’s 5-9."
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 29, 2018
That was paramount with DeRozan continuing to struggle from the floor and the offense as a whole gumming up late in the second. DeRozan finally broke through with a baseline drive to snap a 1-of-9 start and Lowry followed with a nice take. Between those buckets, though, Randle scored and got into a bit with Valanciunas, a skirmish that escalated after Lowry’s bucket and resulted in the players being pulled apart, Valanciunas bleeding, and both receiving a technical foul (because double techs are the only justice). The delay felt like an early start to halftime, and a sloppy final two minutes saw the Raptors lead trimmed from 15 to 10 heading into the break.
That slippage continued to start the third thanks in no small part to Brook Lopez hitting a pair of threes. Once their edge shrunk to five, the Raptors seemed to pick their focus back up. Lowry was a monster on the glass and pushing off of defensive rebounds, converted on a tough take late in the clock, and Valanciunas tipped in another. Some recklessness on both sides with the pace up benefited the better team, who were aided by a massive rebounding edge, and Toronto sent L.A. to a timeout with a 7-0 mini-run midway through the quarter.
A somewhat hesitant DeRozan continued to be buoyed by his fellow starters playing well, again buying him some time to find a groove, first as a playmaker – he had a great dump-off to Anunoby for a dunk – and then as a scorer. It was a nice example of how DeRozan can and should approach games where he doesn’t have his offense early, effectively looking to create for teammates while feeling out his own offensive game.
“You just figure it out,” DeRozan said. “The younger me would get discouraged, frustrated, let that dictate the game for me. Nowadays, it’s part of the game. Just because you start a certain way, you don’t got to end that way. You keep that confidence high and stay aggressive and don’t let that make you hesitant to do something else. That’s my mindset.”
He’d ultimately score 12 points and dish three assists in the quarter, helping the Raptors maintain control of the game without much issue. Or, to be fair, with two minor issues – a ridiculous Kyle Kuzma dunk on former teammate Jakob Poeltl and the Lakers having one of their end-of-quarter pet-plays well-scouted for the second time on the night – that didn’t preclude the Raptors from going back up 14 entering the fourth.
Miles picked a right time to heat up from there, breaking through with a pair of threes after four misses to start the game. Wright followed with one of his own on a nice transition feed from Siakam – the eighth Raptor of the night to hit one – and another Miles three gave the Raptors a 20-point edge to play with for the final seven minutes. The benefit there, of course, is not only potential minutes for the end of the bench but also keeping DeRozan and Lowry at 30 minutes or less again ahead of a four-game week.
The bench unit did their part. Or half of it. VanVleet picking up where he left off in the first half and hitting a number of tough finishes (a huge area of improvement for him of late), finishing with 25 points. Casey was able to get creative, too, by having Siakam initiate high with the point guards as cutter-spacers, because why not give that a shot? The Lakers made a late push, though, cutting the lead to 12 with two-and-a-half minutes left, and while that still allowed the stars to sit, it prevented Norman Powell, Lucas Nogueira, and Alfonzo McKinnie from getting a taste of the action. L.A. played to the buzzer, trying to inject shooting into their lineup late for a final comeback push. VanVleet had other ideas, banking in a three and making a pair of layups late to give him a career high and seal the game.
Good Lowry quote on VanVleet & the bench: pic.twitter.com/Mvqb6RCIh7
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 29, 2018
There wasn’t much more to it than that. The Raptors asserted themselves early, didn’t let off the gas for many, if any, sustained stretches, received contributions from everyone who saw the floor, and more or less cruised to an unremarkable double-digit victory against a team they should be beating by double-digits. It was workmanlike, which is a nice change of pace from how they’ve won – or lost – at times over the last couple of weeks.
“It was good. Obviously, you wanna get that bad taste, that bad feeling, make it go away,” VanVleet said. “I thought we coulda played a lot better against Utah. Obviously, we lost that game. Give them a lot of credit but you go home, and you never wanna go home with regret, and I thought I went home with a little bit of regret on the way I played. Tried to come back and turn it around tonight.”
The Raptors will get a chance to build off of this and get another bad taste out of their mouth on Tuesday when the Minnesota Timberwolves visit. That will be a stiffer turn-about challenge and a better test of their ability to sustain this kind of precise and focused play against a better opponent.