Raptors weather Russell’s early storm, win 50th of the season

It’s always a little different, but it ends up just the same.

Raptors 116, Nets 102 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

The Toronto Raptors knew what the Brooklyn Nets were capable of. The last time the two team’s met was one of the last times the Raptors could be accused of taking an opponent lightly for a full game, and they paid for it – they won in overtime but lost Kyle Lowry and lost the second game of a back-to-back in part due to fatigue. The Raptors have become the league’s kings of beating up on lesser teams, and armed with that success and the memory of their last visit to Barclays, they should have been prepared.

There was no way to prepare for what D’Angelo Russell did in the first quarter, and it had the Raptors playing catch up the bulk of the game. They’d get there, ultimately storming back in the third quarter and pulling away in the fourth to win their 50th game of the season, 116-102. It wasn’t the Raptors’ best game of the year. It seemed fitting to win their 50th so early – on March 13, before they’ve lost 20 – in a fashion emblematic of their growth, able to calmly take care of their business without ever getting rattled or losing the plot. That’s not easy when a mediocre shooter rains hellfire early.

The Nets opted to start very small without Jarrett Allen, eschewing the chance to start Jahlil Okafor to match size in favor of speed and an even higher-variance long-range approach than they usually employ. It worked well early, though how much of that would be repeatable was a major question. Russell hit his first four threes, all within the first four minutes of the game, and DeMarre Carroll added one to create a 17-6 lead early. There were trade-off opportunities available for the Raptors the other way – the Nets were openly inviting easier twos in this lineup, but only Kyle Lowry seemed interested in attacking early on. DeMar DeRozan did try once and took a scary fall and Norman Powell delivered an awkward bank-shot, but it was mostly early jumpers.

Out of a quick timeout, the Raptors found the plot a bit more. That include touches inside for Jonas Valanciunas against nobody close to his size and drives against no rim protection. The Nets just kept hitting, though, with Russell moving to  6-of-6 after he was also fouled on a three. Then he hit another, giving him an obscene 24 points on just seven shots in under seven minutes for a player shooting 30.8 percent on five attempts per-game. Russell would finally miss a bit of a heat-check with Valanciunas on him, which was curiously cause to pull him from the game (I’m all for set rotations, but when a guy is this hot? And you have nothing to tank for?). The 24 points was the most by a Raptor opponent in a quarter since LeBron James in 2007-08. It was remarkable, a number of the threes coming off the dribble and against reasonable defense. Tip your hat, and all that.

The mercy from Russell proved momentarily important, allowing the Raptors to catch their breath. The offense had done well enough to keep within a healthy range, and while Russell soon re-entered, Atkinson had potentially iced his own shooter and the DeRozan-and-bench group was far less willing to concede open threes (particularly the Fred VanVleet-Jakob Poeltl combination in the two-man game). They did, however, allow Russell to get free for a back-cut, which had the visitors down 40-32 after a quarter. Considering the Nets hit more threes in the quarter (nine) than any Raptors opponent in a quarter ever, and that the Raptors hit just one (even if they shot 72 percent inside the arc), an eight-point deficit was almost a positive, in some twisted way.

The all-bench unit would seem a good answer for the Nets’ style on paper, able to match speed and scramble outside. Defensive rebounding initially proved a problem, and not even the usual Pascal Siakam-Poeltl connection on offense could close the gap against second-chance threes. At least not until Delon Wright hit consecutive threes and the defense dialed in first – a driving Siakam dump-off to Poeltl exploited Brooklyn’s need to send help at drivers, and VanVleet erased the last of the lead with a drive against a lightly protected rim.

It looked as if the Raptors had it figured out, only for the bulk of the starters to re-enter and get beat, first by a driving Carroll and then for another offensive rebound that lead to a three. A timeout did little, and an 11-0 Nets run put the Raptors into their biggest hold of the game. By the end of the half, the Raptors were down 67-57, and it’s not a reach to call it one of their worst defensive halves of the season. The first quarter had plenty to do with hot shooting. There was no such crutch in the second, sloppiness and inattention being much bigger culprits than the Nets shooting above their heads. Toronto’s 4-of-15 mark from outside wasn’t exactly helping and they probably could have been attacking inside even more (Valanciunas had his highest usage in a half this year, scoring 15 points on 12 possessions), but the real issues here were almost entirely on the defensive end.

The Raptors looked to establish Valanciunas again early out of the break. Unfortunately, the Nets went back to the well, too, with threes and Russell in the pick-and-roll and offensive rebounds and all of the other earlier frustrations leading Dwane Casey to go to his bench very early. That decision proved to be the right one, with VanVleet helping change the game from there. The message seemed to be received by the other starters, and Valanciunas did his best to tilt his part of the matchup with a smooth short-roll jumper, a floater. good transition seals, and a few good contests as defenders sent drivers his way without conceding the line. Valanciunas was really great in the quarter considering the matchup, and he’d eventually hit the bench with 24 points and 10 rebounds through three quarters. The Raptors did a great job using him against a smaller team without just dumping it inside and making him susceptible to double-teams, instead involving him in a variety of ways the defense couldn’t sit on.

Or maybe it’s just that VanVleet net rating effect – the Raptors railed off a 15-0 run over two-and-a-half minutes with him joining the starters, and the Nets were scrambling to a timeout with their lead extinguished entirely (VanVleet somehow ended up with a plus-31, 20 points higher than anyone else, one of the 10 highest plus-minuses by a Raptor this year). Lowry hit his first thee of the game to put the team ahead, and the Nets counter-punched. The all-bench group had a frantic close to the half, both sides making a number of turnovers and the Raptors surviving on the strength of their defense enough to take a two-point lead into the fourth.

The bench kept things in hand at the top of the fourth, even with a terrific Siakam dunk being waved off (Wright’s follow-up dunk was far less emphatic). The offense couldn’t get much going for stretches until C.J. Miles finally found the mark and hit consecutive threes, then got fouled on a three to give the Raptors their largest lead of the night at five points. Poeltl came up with a big block at the other end, and Miles hit what was probably a bit of a heat-check three, giving him 12 points in 130 seconds and the Raptors a brief modicum of control.

If there was a concern, it was the Raptors being in the penalty early, exacerbated quickly by Poeltl picking up his fifth. That meant Valanciunas down the stretch, and he immediately showed the Nets couldn’t handle him, drawing a foul barreling for an offensive rebound. A Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offensive foul posting Lowry up but Toronto in the bonus for the clutch portion of the game, too, leveling the field. Casey opted to close with VanVleet and the starters, the same group that was so good in the third, and it wasn’t “clutch” time for long. DeRozan hit a big three to continue trimming the 3-point gap, Carroll missed from outside, and DeRozan scored trailing hard in transition, promptly putting the Raptors ahead 10. A thunderous Valanciunas dunk capped a 9-0 run after that, effectively ending the game and opening a window both for the bench to empty and for a handful of teammates to interrupt his post-game interview.

The second half was really good work, and it highlights a few things the Raptors really have going for them other than just the casualness with which they turn these games around. The defense was excellent in the second half, giving up just 71.4 points per-100 possessions after a horrendous first half. Casey coached a heck of a game, mixing and matching to find groups that worked, leveraging the matchup advantages, and . The starters played well for long stretches with someone other than OG Anunoby as their fifth and pulled away late. VanVleet remains the plus-minus god. And Valanciunas continued to prove that, if used intelligently and engaged defensively, there are fewer and fewer matchups he can’t be on the floor for.

It was a somewhat unlucky and scattered first quarter, a sloppy and imprecise second, and the type of second half that somehow makes a 50-17 record seem like it should have been expected all along.

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