Kyle Lowry needed this. The Toronto Raptors needed this.
Losers of three of four with a star player looking anything but and staring a four-game West coast trip against teams holding a combined 69-38 record heading into Monday night’s action, both team and player were challenged to level back up to the lofty standards they set when winning 20 of their first 24 games.
When you look from the outside at teams like the Golden State Warriors in recent times or Tim Duncan’s Spurs or Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers and when they went through a bit of a blip, you always got that sense that someone was going to feel their wrath soon enough and suffer a beat down of epic proportions. That they’d find a way to refuel, dot the i’s and cross the t’s again, and you’d be coming out on the other side of a bar fight wishing you never got there in the first place.
If the Raptors are going to be that type of team this season, that’s the type of message they need to send in pockets of adversity. This was a game that carried considerably more important luggage than losses and poor play with head coach Nick Nurse having lost his 94-year-old mother on Monday and spending time back in his hometown of Iowa before getting back to the Staples Center in Los Angeles about an hour-and-a-half before tip-off. He said she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Judging by how his team came out, they were pretty determined to get one for their coach.
Right off the bat, you wanted to see if Lowry would take the game by the scruff in the absence of Kawhi Leonard, who didn’t play due to a bruised right hip. Nurse made the move to insert Fred VanVleet into the lineup, one that appeared a bit curious with the length presented by Toronto native Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari. Personally, I thought the move would be to get OG Anunoby in for Leonard but, in retrospect, it was clearly done in an effort to get Lowry going by taking away some of his ball handling responsibilities and allowing him to seek his shot.
The Raptors had Lowry running off pindowns and stagger screens alike, and the 32-year-old responded in kind by consistently being aggressive in either attacking off the bounce or catching and shooting without hesitation.
It really was a terrific opening quarter for Lowry, and the defense from the starting lineup stood out as well. Going small against a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back (the Clippers were coming off an overtime victory in Phoenix) clearly reaped dividends as the Raptors were able to get out in transition with great success not just off steals, but live rebounds as well.
For context, Toronto adds two points per 100 transition plays off live rebounds — good for third in the league — and gets out on the break off live rebounds 35.2 percent of the time, good for fourth in the league. Against the Clippers, they were able to add 10.3 points per 100 transition plays while getting out in the open court off live rebounds 37.5 percent of the time. It played a big factor in a 36-23 advantage after a quarter, one the Raptors never relinquished.
As you can imagine, Pascal Siakam had a considerable role to play in this (he had 13 points on nine shots and threw in five dimes) but VanVleet was crucial, too. He had 10 assists in the first half alone and finished the game with a career-high 14. For all the criticism he has received as a primary ball handler for the second unit, especially in running the pick-and-roll with Jonas Valanciunas, VanVleet’s job was made that much easier by the weapons available to him in the starting unit. After making some shots in the tight loss to Milwaukee, it had to be encouraging to get some of those playmaking chops going again.
Speaking of the Lithuanian, he too was in fine fettle and thrived in being matched up against Most Improved Player / Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrell. The Raptors consistently attacked the fourth-year player with strength and he had no answer. Valanciunas made six of seven shots in a seven minute stretch between the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second quarter, and was feeling himself so much that he taunted Harrell after a put-back off a missed OG Anunoby free-throw with what I can only hope was a, “This is your MIP candidate?!”
Delon Wright and Anunoby excelled off the bench as well. Wright looked like he had a little extra juice playing at home and gave you his classic drives, but what was most encouraging was seeing him shoot the three so willingly and make them in the third quarter. Naturally, leverage was hardly a factor in the situation with the Raptors never really letting go of the rope, but nonetheless, it’s what you want to see.
Anunoby, who’s also had personal tragedy affect him this season with the loss of his father, came out and showcased great decision making throughout. When he had a small like Milos Teodosic switched on to him he was able to get into the post and score right over him, when he got Harrell up top off a screen he attacked him off the bounce even if he was given ample room to settle for a three, and then he was consistently in a set position when catch-and-shoot opportunities presented themselves on the perimeter as well.
One man who has been ready-set-go all season has been Serge Ibaka. It is still absurd that this man is shooting 72.7 percent from 16 feet to the three-point on the season, per Basketball Reference, which is only outdone by his 79.1 percent shooting within three feet of the basket. He, too, had a pep to his step in this one, and it was good to see him be so proactive on the offensive glass after a bit of a dip in those numbers of late.
The original man from the motherland averaged 2.5 offensive rebounds per game over the first 20 games, but that number was down to 1.1 over his last seven contests heading into Monday night. He finished the game with two but he was actively looking to get in the mix and actually had a third that didn’t count only because Danny Green was fouled while pursuing the ball, too. The Clippers rank 22nd in defensive rebounding on the season, so it’s quite possible this was a point of emphasis before the game.
Los Angeles seemed content to let Ibaka be a scorer, a strategy that has worked for the Bucks thus far, but it may also just have been a case of Marcin Gortat just not being able to live with him. Ibaka was consistently left wide open with what’s been his pet shot this season, and made them pay on several occasions. He wasn’t afraid to attack off the bounce either, and with such little resistance offered at the rim, he cashed in on the dunk opportunities. Ibaka finished with 25 points, nine rebounds and three blocks on the night in what continues to look a lot like an all-star season.
Of course, on a night like this, it seems only fitting to start and end with Lowry. He put on a three-point shooting clinic to put this one to bed late in the third quarter, and was flexing for the courtside fans after a couple of these makes as well. 21 points on the night on 13 shots, four 3-pointers, and a crushing 123-99 win for the team that improves to an impressive 6-1 in Leonard’s absence.
The game was over at that point with a 32-point advantage, allowing for some Lorenzo Brown and Malachi Richardson minutes in the fourth quarter. It’s always nice when you can get your heavy hitters some rest ahead of a second game of a back-to-back, even more so when it’s the Warriors who await in their own building. Most of all, it was nice for the Raptors to get a win on a night when their coach probably could have used it more than most.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 12, 2018
P.S. I went a bit more player focused in this one but I get that more people than usual may have missed the game due to the West coast start time. If you’d prefer something a bit more recap-y for these late games, feel free to let me know in the comments.