Well, that’s certainly one way to end a franchise-best winning streak and what, for 46 minutes, was yet another installment in the extended series of incredibly fun basketball games the Toronto Raptors have played this year. The Oklahoma City Thunder visited the Air Canada Centre on Sunday, the two sides engaged in one hell of a display of shot-making, traded runs and buckets nearly from bell to bell, and unfortunately had any post-game buzz taken away from them by a bit of a late-game sideshow.
The Thunder won, 132-125, to snap the Raptors’ 11-game winning streak and extend their own streak to six. They were lifted by a tremendous Russell Westbrook performance, a great game from Steven Adams, a steady dose of free throws, and the Raptors fueling their transition attack with turnovers. And still, the Raptors were close, once again getting deep contributions, getting an abbreviated KLOE performance from Kyle Lowry, a beautiful Delon Wright game in Fred VanVleet’s absence, and a terrific shooting night up and down the rotation. It was truly a heck of a game, and the Thunder were just a little better than a Raptors team showing some signs of fatigue in the middle of a really tough, condensed stretch of schedule and down one of their biggest bench contributors.
The enjoyment of the game was sullied a bit. All-Stars in Lowry and Paul George were taken out of the game at times, frustrations for both teams were allowed to boil up on multiple occasions, and both sides (and fanbases on Twitter, of course) played the bulk of the second half angry with the whistle. The officials did not decide the game, and anyone who reads here regularly knows how loathe I am to make the officials the focus, but they, and the lack of composure in response to them, put a damper on it.
“I’m not going to stay up here and criticize officials because we made enough mistakes down the stretch also,” Dwane Casey said. “We shot ourselves in the foot, missed easy shots, layups, free throws, turnovers and that’s a good team.”
It’s a little frustrating. Otherwise, this was a really nice test for the Raptors that should be a good building block as they look to peak in a few weeks’ time.
Both sides looked like teams on lengthy winning streaks early, and it made for one of the most entertaining first quarters in some time. Defense was at a premium, especially in the transition game. That played to the Thunder’s advantage over the course of the quarter, as they not only shot 75 percent overall but scored after literally every live defensive rebound. Despite that fact, it was inside that proved the biggest problem, as none of Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, or Jakob Poeltl could slow Steven Adams down. Adams went a perfect 7-of-7 in the first, feasting on dives, dump-offs, and one terrific reverse along the baseline. Dunks were pretty common, in general, for the road side, with Westbrook throwing down a big one off of a steal and Paul George driving for an emphatic one-hander late in the quarter.
The only thing keeping the Raptors anywhere close was their own offense, which was firing well outside of the six turnovers that helped feed the Thunder attack. Toronto hit six of their nine threes, getting at least one from five different players, and Lowry asserted himself with four early dimes. It says a lot about the defense that eight Raptors scored and the team put up a 137.4 offensive rating and was still down six.
Casey mixed things up to try to find a spark. Norman Powell was the first man off the bench when OG Anunoby picked up two early fouls, and he responded with a nice offensive stretch, hitting a three, driving baseline for a layup, and setting up a C.J. Miles triple. The juggling also meant a Lucas Nogueira appearance early in the second, and that new-look bench group tore off a 12-3 run. Most of that was fueled by Delon Wright, who did a full halftime show’s worth of magic in a three-minute window, and Nogueira’s presence was felt around the rim in forcing a couple of misses and a Patrick Patterson travel (Patterson did hit the lone three in that stretch, though). It was a spirited counter-punch and a nice gamble from Casey that helped keep the game from getting away from them.
Somewhat curiously, Billy Donovan continued (and continues, in general) to run with lineups that don’t contain Westbrook, George, or Carmelo Anthony. The tail end of bench-against-bench got pretty weird, including a Nogueira post possession and a passed-up layup for a kick-out and an inbound pass thrown by OKC out of bounds across the court near nobody. Even as the Thunder starters returned, though, the Raptors kept rolling, the defense ratcheted up, Nogueira connecting on a few dives to the rim, and Pascal Siakam generally being a monster on defense and in the open court.
The Raptors would pull ahead by as many as 10, but the Thunder are as well-equipped as anyone to fire back and the Raptors had some trouble ending possessions with a defensive rebound. Adams’ screens and rebounding presented a big problem that Valanciunas couldn’t match with the Raptors insisting on chasing Westbrook over those screens, too – he was simply being asked too much against an elite offensive rebounding team, and Valanciunas would pick up a third foul, wearing his frustration as he walked back to the bench. The offense became a little gummed up late, too, and the Oklahoma City push put them back ahead two at the break thanks to a late George jumper (that was actually a three but the officials waited too long to review). It was a bit of a squandered opportunity, and the defense would obviously need to sharpen up from allowing 58-percent shooting and 1.27 points per-possessions.
“We didn’t handle the pick and roll with Adams,” Casey said. “We didn’t rotate properly quick enough, get back in front, we’ve done it all year, it’s nothing new. The speed and the conviction you’ve got to do it with wasn’t there for us tonight.”
The starters got the halftime message, coming out with a 9-2 run to start the third. Lowry continued his excellent play, setting up Valanciunas, then finishing a Valanciunas pass and, later, hitting a three. In between was a great possession from OG Anunoby that ended in a step-through layup and some solid defensive possessions, including a tweak to the pick-and-roll approach. That progress was threatened with Lowry and Valanciunas picking up their fourth fouls and a few defensive miscues popping up.
That put heavy pressure on DeRozan and the bench, particularly Poeltl, who isn’t a bad Adams matchup except for on the glass. The pick-and-roll defense continued to be a huge issue, and while the Raptors were hanging close, the Thunder were scoring largely at will. An Adams injury loomed large at that point, with the center getting called for a foul on Ibaka (about Ibaka’s only offensive contribution) while also appearing to take a stiff shot to the unmentionables, requiring a trip to the locker room. It didn’t slow the Thunder initially, as George shook DeRozan and Anthony hit a pair of contested jumpers while jawing with a fan. The DeRozan-and-bench group bounced right back, drawing a fifth foul on George and grabbing a one-point lead entering the fourth on a late DeRozan jumper.
For whatever reason, Donovan went back to his all-bench unit that got rolled earlier, while Casey countered with a playoff-style Lowry-and-bench unit made possible by his foul-related rest in the third. At first it looked like it may work fine, because this game was weird. Miles tried to put that idea to rest by dunking all over Patterson, and Siakam soon followed with a dunk of his own, but the Thunder still managed to play to an unexpected plus-2 with that group before Westbrook and Adams returned. Lowry responded by staying ludicrously hot, hitting a big three to pull back ahead.
The degree of shot-making in this game was unbelievable, and that didn’t change down the stretch. Westbrook began going off, drawing a fifth foul on Valanciunas and hitting a pair of tough jumpers. Miles answered with a corner three and Lowry drew a three-shot foul. Donovan went back to his full contingent of starters, and Casey answered by going smaller with a Siakam-Ibaka frontcourt and Miles in place of the usual extra guard. Westbrook continued dominating, grabbing his own miss for the triple-double and then drawing a fifth foul on Lowry in the post. Lowry then fouled out on an illegal screen call, an enormous swing given he had 22 points on 15 used possessions and 10 assists to that point and VanVleet was unavailable.
“Took one of our best players out of the game,” Casey said. “They’re a good team, we competed well, it was a close game, nip-and-tuck. Again, you want consistency is what you want. Fairness and consistency. Fairness. Our home record is what it is, we’re top of the conference. Fairness.”
Still, the Raptors were right there, even with Westbrook barrelling to the rim ad nauseam. A missed Wright put-back loomed large heading into the final few minutes, though he bounced back by drawing a foul – and a technical – on Anthony the next time down. DeRozan followed by drawing a foul on Brewer, pulling the Raptors back to even with 90 seconds to go. The Raptors had a window to take a lead when Wright poked a George attack loose and DeRozan came up with it, only for Brewer to steal the ball back at half, setting George up for free throws. DeRozan helped tie it back up with a beautiful dump-off for Wright, and Westbrook came right back with a drive, then banked in a mid-range jumper to go ahead four with 12 seconds to go after DeRozan didn’t get the whistle on a drive of his own.
“He smacked the shit out of me,” DeRozan said. “He smacked me. He tried to smack me because I had a layup. Period. I got fouled…They need to do something. It’s not just us. It’s every game. But tonight, come on man, that can’t happen.”
This is where things went off the rails. Still protesting what he felt was a missed call, DeRozan picked up a technical. The Raptors then turned the ball over on an inbound and DeRozan picked up a second technical. Ibaka then got ejected on top of that, and Casey soon joined him. This is most of what people seem to be taking away from it (and most of what was being discussed post-game). It was a little embarrassing to see a terrific game between two very good, red-hot teams called inconsistently (in both directions) and turned into a late-game sideshow. I’m aware that it’s probably all anyone will want to talk about in the comments, and I can’t begrudge anyone that, though I would like to install a large, flashing HANLON’S RAZOR sign on the main page.
“This is the intensity that the playoffs are going to be,” Casey said. “We’ve got to make sure we keep our composure. It’s one game, it doesn’t make or break our season, we knew we wasn’t going to run the table hg rest of the season. We’ll learn from it, watch the film, we’ll complain to the league in the proper way.”
Step away from the officiating, and there was some real substance here. Westbrook and Adams were incredibly problematic in the pick-and-roll, and the Raptors defense, while very good on the whole, still has some fine-tuning to do. Offensively, this was a strong example of what the Raptors can look like (against a top-10 defense, no less) with the ball zipping around and 3-point shots falling. It was a fatigued game down a key piece against a really good team who hit a lot of tough shots, and so the loss itself is not all that concerning. It will be interesting to see, however, how the Raptors respond with seven of their next nine games also coming against winning teams. They’re good, there’s just work to be done still.