If there’s anyone growing tired of superlatives about the Toronto Raptors bench, they are yet to speak up.
The Second Unit Saints were at it once again on Tuesday, helping finish a season series sweep of the Atlanta Hawks with an emphatic fourth-quarter pull-away that helped erase a lethargic-yet-even first three quarters. On a night where the decision making from at least one starter was curious and everyone outside of C.J. Miles struggled at times with their shot, the Raptors once again did their work on the defensive end, leveraging your own youth to match the speed and exuberance of an eventually overmatched Hawks outfit.
“If you don’t play, hustle is going to beat talent,” head coach Dwane Casey iterated, upset with the effort outside of the fourth. “Hard work and physicality is going to beat talent every time if you don’t come out with your high beams on. It shouldn’t take us three quarters to figure that out, but it did. I liked the way we responded in the fourth quarter.
That the Raptors started out sluggish and it was no cause for concern whatsoever highlights how far the team has come in terms of cleaning up against lesser teams. They still haven’t lost at home to a team below .500 this year, and so an early 11-4 deficit highlighted by open Atlanta threes and uncovered cuts into the paint barely moved the tension meter at the Air Canada Centre. An early timeout settled things seamlessly, and a nice two-way boost from Malcolm Miller – he had a terrific defensive possession, hit a three, then grabbed an offensive rebound – helped paper over some lethargy from the holdover starters and some frigid early shooting from Serge Ibaka.
Things went more to form from there outside of Miles Plumlee still trying to make Miles Plumlee happen. DeMar DeRozan got going with a pair of takes at the center after getting blocked, getting to the line once and delivering a beautiful floater the next time down to send the Hawks scrambling to a timeout. Atlanta seemed completely incapable of defending the middle without overloading it, which let the Raptors go to work with pin-downs, one freeing C.J. Miles for a three. The Hawks managed a counter-push thanks for the Raptors turning the ball over nearly as much as they were and having no answer for Plumlee – no, seriously – but an early turn to the all-bench look put an end to that and had the Raptors safely within one after a quarter despite five or six bad minutes to start.
“We talk about ball movement and taking more threes and having 30 assists, but when the shots don’t go in, that’s what it looks like,” Fred VanVleet said. “You have to find other ways to win and I thought we did a good job of working the game, grinding the game and eventually it broke for us there in the fourth quarter. Just keep growing and building and get ready for this last stretch.”
The second started a little spicier, with VanVleet and Pascal Siakam connecting for an alley-oop on a broken play and the bench defense forcing a pair of late-clock turnovers. The offense sputtered as it sometimes does in these spots, and so the customary winning stretch for the mob came primarily from the defensive end. When a starter finally returned after a lengthy break, the bench had played to a plus-five over seven minutes. That’s not as dramatic as usual. It helps, though, and it was necessary since the starters promptly began digging themselves back into a small hole, surrendering a 10-2 Atlanta run.
Norman Powell once again got the nod in Miller’s spot to end the half and was used as lightly as you’d expect initially. The Hawks were aggressive denying some of Toronto’s motion-based off-ball action, leaving DeRozan to create through traffic. Powell eventually got going with a great defensive effort contesting from behind and then a corner three that took forever to rattle in. He heat-checked a bit with a tough missed layup afterward, then made up for it with an offensive rebound that set up a DeRozan three to put the Raptors back ahead. They squandered the short-lived lead with technical fouls on Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, instead entering the break frustrated, shooting 35.4 percent, and down a point.
“We can’t get in the mindset of ‘OK, tonight they are going to let us come out and do our thing.’ No,” Casey said. “There is nobody in this league who is going to come out and allow you play your game the way you want especially when you are on the top of the heap. We have to adapt to that playing personality. ”
They redirected that energy in the third, opening on a 7-0 run that took 57 seconds, included a great pass from Jonas Valanciunas out of the post to a cutting Lowry, and led to the elusive under-a-minute timeout from Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer flexed some nice play design out of the breather; less credit is given when Dennis Schroder hits threes. The stars really lost the plot here for a bit offensively, letting Atlanta hang around as they argued with officials and, in Lowry’s case, picked up an unnecessary frustration flagrant foul. Lowry got an early hook with four fouls and a really shaky performance, which also had the benefit of keeping his minutes low on the first night of a back-to-back, though not for the right reasons.
Everyone remaining pretty cold from all over the floor didn’t exactly help, either, and the Raptors wound up going five minutes without a field goal, subsisting entirely on free throws and aided by a pair of Valanciunas blocks at the other end. DeRozan finally broke through with a basket instead of a foul to cap his own personal 7-0 run and Valanciunas continued getting to the free-throw line, and yet the Raptors still couldn’t gain any separation. The rest of the bench filtered in later than usual – early enough for Siakam to induce swoons with a switch and contain of quick-twitch point guard Isaiah Taylor – and didn’t find their footing, an 8-of-31 mark from outside keeping the Raptors behind one entering the fourth.
That quarter started no prettier, with the two sides trading steals and missed transition opportunities off of them. Or, if you prefer, that quarter started much prettier for fans of smart defensive basketball and frenetic up-and-down play. And whatever we’re going to call Siakam’s tough pseudo-hook shot from beyond the elbow, a shot Wright followed up with a tough three-and-foul and a tip-in on a Jakob Poeltl miss to give the Raptors a modicum of control for the stretch run. The bench saw their leash extended for that strong push, and Poeltl continued erasing just about everything Atlanta tried near the rim. One emphatic block of Mike Muscala lead to a Miles three the other way, and when VanVleet came up with a steal at half-court and found Wright inside, the Raptors had their first double-digit lead of the game with four minutes to go.
“It’s big. The athleticism, the speed that Jak has, and you know, he’s got great timing,” DeRozan said. “So it’s not surprising that he’s our leading shot-blocker on the team. It’s fun to see him out there. You would think Serge would be the best shot-blocker, but it’s Jak.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the stars checked back in to close it out, in one case possibly owing to Wright spraining a toe. It didn’t change the plot of the fourth, as it was all Poeltl even with Lowry and DeRozan – Lowry fed him for a dunk, he came up with a clean steal on the baseline, and he finished the play at the other end to effectively end the game. DeRozan did the honors of satiating a “Pizza” chant, clearing enough breathing room for Alfonzo McKinnie and Lucas Nogueira to receive an 82-second cameo.
It was somewhat of an odd night overall, with the Raptors offense actually hanging a pretty decent number on the Hawks despite a 38.6-percent mark from the floor and a 10-of-36 mark from outside. The Raptors, DeRozan in particular, lived at the line all night and hauled in 17 offensive rebounds. The Hawks shot nearly as poorly, saw far fewer opportunities at the line, and turned the ball over at a fervent rate. This pretty closely mirrored the Orlando game in spirit, the Raptors doing enough for three quarters to where they could pull away when they needed to.
In this case, it was a solid DeRozan night with big contributions from Miles and Poeltl getting it done. The next it could be Lowry and Siakam, or Ibaka and VanVleet. This is what the Raptors have tended to do against lesser teams, and while Casey continues to warn about the precedent they set – “If we play that way tomorrow night it’s going to be a TKO in the second quarter,” he suggested – the Raptors continue to get by just fine in those games. Stiffer tests are coming soon.
This is unrelated to the game but I felt these DeRozan post-game comments are worth sharing and didn’t know where else to put them.
Here's DeMar DeRozan on the response to him speaking up about mental health pic.twitter.com/f9N9lyPSzY
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 7, 2018