Well, that was a performance.
Coming off of a frustrating loss a day earlier, the Toronto Raptors decisively handled the second game of a back-to-back at the Air Canada Centre on Friday. The Portland Trail Blazers entered winners of seven of their last eight and boasting a strong defense, and they left with their worst loss of the season, a 130-105 drubbing that made the Raptors look like a team of sharpshooters.
“Make shots, everything’s easy. You make shots, it makes up for a multitude of sins,” Dwane Casey said.
It legitimately would have been more difficult for the Raptors to have a better start to the game. It’s easy to chalk it up to the energy home court provides, even in a back-to-back scenario, and it was that focus and precision that helped them build a big lead through the first quarter. Everything was clicking in a turnover-free quarter that saw the Raptors play very well on both ends of the floor – outside of Damian Lillard, who scored 12 in the frame, Portland could muster almost nothing offensively, shooting 2-of-13 outside of their All-Star. OG Anunoby did a nice job on C.J. McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas stopped both Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis in the post, and letting Evan Turner shoot proved to be a good strategy.
It was at the other end where the Raptors really impressed, though, scoring 37 points. It started with DeMar DeRozan, who cruised to 16 points on 10 possessions, including a pair of threes and a foul on another. DeRozan effectively hunted post-up opportunities, too, and while he took a few mid-range attempts, the groove he was in justified it. Valanciunas was a force, too, cleaning up the glass, hitting a corner three, tallying an assist, and drawing a foul on a hard dive to the rim. He finished the half with 11 points, five rebounds, and an assist, and he and DeRozan relegated Kyle Lowry to playmaker duty, a role he took on willingly. The bench sprinkled in some nice energy, highlighted by Pascal Siakam pushing off of a defensive rebound and helping create a Fred VanVleet corner three (Siakam also had a nice push-shot on a short-roll), and the Raptors were unfathomably up 19 after 12 minutes.
The second unit kept pushing from there, either looking to shake off a bad game Thursday or fostering a renewed anger at getting re-snubbed for the Rising Stars game. VanVleet continued cooking, the young Raptors were all over the offensive glass, and Portland was forced into a quick timeout, their deficit now 26. The timeout didn’t help, as Siakam and Delon Wright full-court pressed, forcing a turnover and producing a Wright triple.
“Yeah it’s big,” VanVleet said. “If you want to be a good team in this league, you can’t lose two in a row, especially you don’t want to drop two back-to-back. It happens from time to time, but we want to go in the right direction. Dropped a tough one on the road and just tried to come back home and get that right. Thought we did a good job of coming out from the jump of setting the tone and trying to bounce back and dig in from yesterday.”
The Blazers responded with their starters and a 7-0 run, the difference between Lillard and Shabazz Napier (all due respect) laying itself plain. Casey called a timeout and got Lowry and Valanciunas into the game but the run stretched to 12-0 before Norman Powell finally broke the drought with a floater. A Nurkic and-one was cause for two more starters to return, and still some defensive inattentiveness and the first bought of offensive carelessness of the night. Not even a second Valanciunas three could prevent what was once a 29-point edge from being cut to 13. That Portland push-back included 21 points over nine consecutive possessions with a score, an unfathomable amount.
Lowry responded with two big threes to settle the Raptors down and start an 11-0 run, DeRozan pushed to 26 points in the half, and the Raptors wound up pulling off the impossible task of winning a half by 22 and somehow doing it stressfully. They scored 74 points, or 158.3 per-100 possessions, against the league’s No. 6-ranked defense, shot 50 percent overall, 11-of-19 on threes, and had an edge on the glass and at the free-throw line. It was thorough, outside of six minutes of strong Portland offense.
The issue, of course, is that Portland is quite good, armed with two guards capable of going for 50 points on a given night (or three quarters). Toronto didn’t take their foot off the gas so much as a big of regression set in, and outside of Valanciunas work on the glass and a couple of early Ibaka jumpers, the offense cooled off. Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic, meanwhile, did their best to claw back to where this would be a game again. And they managed. When the lead was 27, it looked as if the Raptors might be able to buy their starters some extra downtime in the middle of a three-in-four stretch. Instead, Lillard scored 10 in the quarter, Portland cut it to 15, and Casey continued to roll with his regular rotation pattern. That proved effective, as a DeRozan-and-bench group pulled back ahead 21 on DeRozan’s sixth (!) three of the night, tying a career-best.
“Defensively I thought we dug in at the right time,” Casey said. “Lillard and McCollum are two of the most dynamic guards, along with our guys, in the league. You know they’re not going to stay cold all night, we knew that was coming and we just had to tighten up some things and make sure we dug in defensively.”
Portland really wasn’t willing to go quietly. Terry Stotts kept Lillard and Turner out to start the fourth, then called a timeout 91 seconds in after a Powell corner three. McCollum returned, and it didn’t really matter. The bench guards kept attacking, the bigs were active on the boards, and Powell notably continued a breakthrough week. Siakam even hit a three to make it eight Raptors with triples on a night that C.J. Miles sat. The Blazers conceded midway through the quarter and sat their stars down, allowing the Raptors to keep DeRozan (35 points in 30 minutes), Lowry (26 minutes), and Ibaka (23) at reasonable workloads in a compressed chunk of schedule.
“When you got guys that got the confidence to do that, it’s important. That’s what we wanna do. So we’re looking at long-term,” Lowry said.
The close-out was mostly rote from there – Alfonzo McKinnie and Lucas Nogueira got to play five minutes, and the Raptors finished with 12 players scoring, 19 threes (the second-most in franchise history), just six turnovers, a rebounding edge, and a 140.1 offensive rating against the league’s No. 6 defense, the highest mark the Blazers have given up all year. The only negative to come away with was the illegal screen Anunoby was hit with late in the fourth, which looked to cause him some pain and required him to head to the locker room early (he’s fine).
There’s little else the Raptors could have asked of themselves here. It was as strong a bounce-back as there is on the offensive end, it was a team-wide effort, and it put them in a better position to get another good win on Sunday afternoon. They don’t get much more emphatic than that.