Maybe it’s fitting that the 11th victory in the Toronto Raptors’ franchise record-tying winning streak was a near carbon copy of several of the wins that came before it. The Dallas Mavericks provided different wrinkles, sure, and the Raptors have chosen different areas to struggle in during the run, so each game’s been at least a little different. The end result of a 122-115 overtime victory on Friday, though, was the same: The Raptors are good enough to beat a lot of teams even when they don’t play their best.
That they keep proving so is at least a mild concern. Gone, apparently, are the halcyon days of picking everyone apart by 20 or 30, replaced with imprecise first halves that beget second-half comebacks. This hasn’t been uniform – only five of the past seven – and it’s hard to win night in, night out. In the big-picture, these nights are understood. In the moment, as a snapshot that feels like the specter of an impending punishment for flirting with disaster, you can forgive those who have had enough of the Groundhog Day act.
“I don’t know. We kinda play good in the fourth quarter but the start of the game was kind of funky, like four games in a row right now,” Jonas Valanciunas said. “We’re starting games flat. We gotta stop that. We’re getting lucky, I mean, not lucky, but we gotta start better. It’s been hard, I don’t know. You can blame anything. The schedule, this and that, I don’t know, we just gotta change it.”
The Raptors matched the energy of a sparse Air Canada Centre crowd early – there was a security issue that slowed fans from getting in – taking some time to gear up, as they often do. Some of that was two new starters working in, though Delon Wright (filling in for a resting Kyle Lowry) and OG Anunoby (returning from injury) both looked good out of the gate. Anunoby had a great cut to the basket to finish a Wright feed, one of Wright’s three assists in the first, and Wright added a triple of his own to keep the offense humming. Valanciunas had a nice moment, too, pump-faking a three that Nerlens Noel closed out on and then driving by him for a bucket.
Around those contributions, DeMar DeRozan had his way, scoring 11 points and getting to the line and the rim a few times early to give the false impression he could take over in a hurry if the situation called for it later. The offense managed, in other words, despite some cramped spacing with a lack of perceived shooters in the starting lineup and a clear Dallas edict to pack the paint. It was on the defensive end where the Raptors weren’t initially sharp, with Dallas shooting 55 percent in the quarter and Harrison Barnes in particular getting rolling with nine points. They held Dirk Nowitzki to one tough long jumper over an outstretched Jakob Poeltl, at least. Timeless.
The bench minutes looked a little different with Malcolm Miller in Wright’s place, and Miller had a bit of a rough go with a pair of fouls and a pair of missed threes quickly. It was a tumultuous stretch. First, a Nowitzki-led Mavericks group turned a two-point Raptors lead into a two-point hole. Dwane Casey stuck with that group out of a timeout, and they responded with an 8-2 run capped by a Miller three to get him back on the right foot and highlighted by a pair of Poeltl blocks on J.J. Barea and Yogi Ferrell. Naturally, Barea and Doug McDermott sparked a 10-2 Dallas counterpunch, because it’s Barea and McDermott against the Raptors, and because the Mavericks all of a sudden couldn’t miss from outside. All told, the bench played to a minus-nine in their seven minutes, an uncharacteristic loss.
Casey went with the full line change at that point, and while the starters scored mostly well thanks to Valanciunas feasting on the offensive glass and on dump-offs, they couldn’t stop Dallas, either. The Mavericks finished the half shooting 57 percent, which felt about 20 percentage points higher, and just two turnovers. The Raptors’ near-elite defense just hadn’t made itself felt yet, and they entered the break in a six-point hole despite scoring fairly well (an offensive rating of 114.9) as a result. Sound familiar? It marked the fifth time in seven games the Raptors were down at half, and they’d won all of the earlier instances. You know the drill from here.
“He’s been yelling a lot lately,” DeRozan said of Casey. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to stop him from yelling. It’s a lot.”
Four fouls in the opening minute of the third quarter was surely not the response Casey was looking for. DeRozan continued getting to the line, an important factor as he wasn’t shooting particularly well from the floor or facilitating quite up to the new standard he’s set for himself. Taking a knee to the unmentionables probably didn’t help. Valanciunas did his best to be a factor around both rims, though he couldn’t drive on Noel a second time, and Casey went to Miles earlier than usual trying to find a spark. It did not have the desired effect, the Raptors falling behind 10 before more of the bench began filtering in. That helped little until the very closing seconds, when Fred VanVleet and DeRozan hit back-to-back jumpers to close the gap to six entering the fourth.
There was once again left some pressure on an all-bench group at the top of the fourth, and Casey got a little creative, re-inserting Wright to reform the usual bench group. The gamble made some sense, as that group has had success all year long, and it wouldn’t matter much if the point guards were tired late in the fourth if the Raptors were down big. Wright answered with five straight points and Pascal Siakam began attacking aggressively, but the team still had no answer for Barea or McDermott, even with hands in their faces. VanVleet balked when Dallas threatened to pull away proper midway through the quarter, hitting a corner three to stay within six heading into the stretch.
For the second game in a row, the Raptors took a look at a Siakam-Ibaka frontcourt (along with both point guards and DeRozan). That didn’t have the desired effect on defense initially, instead playing even because the Raptors made a couple of shots. Eventually, that turned, with the league’s best fourth-quarter defense showing up. Siakam was a one-man perma-switch, Wright is a magnet for sloppy skip passes, VanVleet doubles the post excellently, and while Dallas still made some shots, they were of the more difficult variety. Sending extra attention at Barnes came with a trade-off in the form of Dwight Powell cutting behind it, but the Raptors aggression paid off – Ibaka stole an entry pass for Noel, Wright forced a Dennis Smith Jr. travel, and DeRozan tied the game with a baited mid-range foul and then a long two. Results over process, and all, though the long two was exceptionally wide open.
“It’s great,” VanVleet said of the smaller look. “Serge is very vocal, I think he’s great on the perimeter and moving his feet but if can just stand down there and quarterback things and wait for people at the rim, he’s really good at that. That’s what he was doing. He was moving guys around, he was positioning himself to be the low man and be able to help.”
The Raptors forced another turnover out of a Mavericks’ timeout (Siakam’s second half on Barnes is not safe to watch at work), giving them the possession advantage in a tie with 47 seconds to play. Out of their own timeout, Miles turned the inbound pass over, and it took an Ibaka block at the rim to get Toronto the advantage back, ball-in-hand with 21 seconds left. They called a timeout – a debatable call against a scrambled defense since the substitution (Valanciunas) just sat in the dunker slot, likely chosen because they were going to let the defense set to eat clock, anyway – and a decent Ibaka floater against an advantageous switch missed to send the game to overtime (his fourth-quarter shooting numbers are something).
Overtime began a mess. The Raptors turned it over immediately, let Smith Jr. get free for a dunk, saw DeRozan hoist an ill-advised mid-range shot, and got an unlucky bounce on their own rim to quickly fall behind. They’d pull back even with threes from Wright and DeRozan, then go ahead when a pair of offensive rebounds led to a VanVleet triple that nearly brought a now-full ACC down. (It was almost in spite of themselves, as they kept trying to goad Noel switches to attack even though he was the best defender on the floor.) Powell brought Dallas back to even with a three but DeRozan responded with a drive to the rim and a big defensive rebound at the other end. That gave the Raptors a chance to put it away – after using a pair of timeouts – and Valanciunas drew the intentional foul from Noel (fouling him out), then grabbed the offensive rebound when he missed the second (thanks, Siakam), putting the Raptors up five. His plan all along.
“Those end of game situations are great for us,” Casey said. “I haven’t seeen a perfect one yet, but I think our guys did a good job of being physical, coming to meet the ball. At the end, it’s a free throw game and JV did a good job of that.”
One five-second violation on Dallas later and the Raptors had once again pulled out a victory in a game where they didn’t seem particularly worried about it for the bulk of the night. That it’s a trend is becoming a little worrisome, though they have reasonable caveats here in that they were playing their seventh game in 11 nights (not a great time to go to overtime), were down Lowry, and need the sharpening that late-game scenarios provide.
“We make it hard on ourselves,” Casey said. “Every team is coming in and giving their best shot. We’re learning to be the hunted instead of the hunter, it’s a different mindset and if you want to get the best shots you have to be focused and mental mistakes can’t happen. I understand back-to-back, travel, get in late, all those are excuses but I thought our guy battled in the second half, made winning plays down the stretch to get ourselves back in it. We’re going to see that from here on out until the playoffs then in the playoffs.”
“I think we’re all looking at it like we get a bigger goal at hand,” DeRozan added. “As long as we’re playing well and we’re figuring out how to pull through adversity. Every game is not going to be pretty. As long as we’re figuring out how to win, and we’re doing it in the right way, that’s all that matters.”
Said differently, the Raptors are fine winning ugly, but they know there’s underlying progress that still needs to be made. The schedule won’t relent any time soon, as they’ll complete a 10-in-15 stretch with tough games against Oklahoma City and in Cleveland on a back-to-back. The margin for this style of win is going to get slimmer, and the Raptors are only going to be more fatigued over the next few.