If you can only get stops on the road for minuscule periods of a game, let it be the end of the game.
In need of a defensive stand after a putrid third quarter in which the Toronto Raptors were outscored 30-15 by the Dallas Mavericks, Nick Nurse turned to his wildcard zone option that has served him well over the course of the season. Trailing 106-101 after a Dwight Powell dunk with just under seven minutes remaining, the zone helped his team close the game with an 18-6 run before some inconsequential shots from the Mavs that included a wild three-point make from Luka Doncic over Kawhi Leonard to prop up the score to a thrilling 123-120.
The kid is special, no doubt. Doncic finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists to become the first teenager in NBA history with two triple-doubles to his name. He’s 19, looks like someone anyone would want to play with, and is showing wisdom beyond his years on a nightly basis. Defense on the road for the Raptors hasn’t really been a strong suit of late, though, so it should come as no surprise that the Slovenian was able to pick apart everything thrown his way.
Since that colossal win in Golden State against the Warriors on Dec. 12 and entering their matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, the Toronto Raptors had allowed 118 points per 100 possessions on the road (third-worst), an effective field goal percentage of 55.3 (23rd) and hadn’t been great at forcing turnovers, either with a rate of 12.6 percent (22nd), per Cleaning the Glass. They’d only won three of 11 road games during that stretch: two nail-biters in Miami and Washington sandwiching a statement win without Kyle Lowry in Milwaukee.
Part of the problem in winning tight games on the road has also been late-game execution on the offensive end, and Toronto can glean some encouragement from the manner in which they closed this game. There was a variability in attack that has been lacking late in games over the course of the season, something that should be more consistent with the multitude of options at the Raptors’ disposal. Kawhi Leonard is going to do be Kawhi Leonard on virtually every night, and he was once again with 33 points, 10 rebounds and three assists while getting to the foul line 11 times. Getting the full KLOE experience more consistently is what maximizes the ceiling.
Lowry has had his share of fourth quarter anonymity this season, and so the proclivity of the coaching staff to run more plays where he’s the Plan A combined with his own confidence to stay involved and shoot when the opportunity presents itself is vital.
The Raptors ran the same play for Lowry to tie the game at 106 with just under six minutes to play and they never looked back. There has been plenty going on of late with regards to discussions regarding Lowry’s assertiveness and the need for him to establish his own offense during games, and this was a game where you could see the difference he makes when he’s put in situations to think shot-first. Whether it was his own frustration with how the Rockets game went, his back feeling the best it’s felt in a while, or just looking to make a point against Doncic, Lowry brought his A-game right from the jump.
The 32-year-old has shown time and again how effective he can be going to his left and the emphasis from Nick Nurse in having him do so reaped dividends.
Early on, this is exactly what you want to see. Lowry building a head of steam going left, and then making a read based on whether the defender goes under or over on the screen up top. In this case, Dennis Smith Jr. was a bit lazy and allowed for the separation as he hesitated in going over the screen, allowing Lowry to get to the paint and put up a running floater. Even though the shot missed — arguably because of the DeAndre Jordan intimidation factor — those are the types of looks inside the arc that can help Lowry get going.
Any inkling of growing chemistry between Lowry and Leonard seems like a boon to the Raptors’ playoff chances, and little kick-outs like these with Leonard being able to attract attention so easily are a positive sign.
The Raptors carried a 38-32 lead into the second quarter and the energy that had been so sorely lacking in road losses to the other two Texas teams, San Antonio and Houston, was finally where it needed to be, at least on one end of the floor. The defense, meanwhile, was maintaining the recent pattern, keeping pressure on themselves to ensure their fireworks continued.
Doncic had the Raptors looking for answers all night long, especially after showing no hesitation when matched up with Leonard. Running floaters, jumpers and subtle hesitation moves to create openings were on display throughout the entire game.
What I love about this next move is the way he never allows Pascal Siakam to hit enough of a stride to get level with him after Jordan sets the screen. Doncic gets the sliver of space he needs, ensures he keeps Siakam in his right hip pocket and then shows no fear in going right at Serge Ibaka and finishing with the tear drop.
Ibaka was dropping deep into the paint on Jordan’s screens early, and while the expectation may have been to goad Doncic into some midrange jumpers while keeping Jordan from his monster finishes at the rim, Doncic took whatever space was given to him and finished with ease.
You kind of figured he was in for a special night when this fell in.
The second quarter saw Delon Wright get on the court after receiving a DNP-CD against Houston and he seemed determined to show that regardless of what transpired in terms of results while he was out there, the effort and intensity could not be questioned. After Norman Powell picked up a pair of quick fouls, Wright joined Lowry and Fred VanVleet alongside OG Anunoby and Siakam for a very small but fun lineup.
Wright made a three early, looked a step quicker on defense, and seemed to relish his matchup with Smith Jr. He had a nasty block on the sophomore who only recently rejoined the Mavs and used his speed to beat him off the bounce for a sweet lay-in before the end of the second quarter.
Wright, at his best, can be a key contributor with his ability to defend 1-3 and provide dribble penetration on the other end as well. Despite all the potential he’s flashed over the past few seasons but consistency has been the sticking point. If his up-and-down season continues, the playoff rotation is going to be purely matchup based — as it should — and he’s going to have more nights like Houston where he’s sitting and watching from the sidelines.
While Siakam struggled to find a rhythm in this one and Ibaka only got cooking late, having Norman Powell be productive once again and VanVleet stroke it from the outside show that the path to a clearer rotation picture once at full strength. That’s how you erupt for 70 points courtesy 11-of-20 shooting from beyond the arc and 19-of-22 shooting at the free-throw line.
A 15-point third quarter is a rarity and should be treated as an anomaly, but the Raptors’ ability to make defensive runs outside of playing some zone is going to be pivotal to its playoff chances. Leonard made an interesting comment post-game when asked about why the zone defense has been so effective, pointing out that there have been some players who seem to communicate better when playing zone than when the team is running their regular schemes.
Toronto’s hopes of legitimately contending hinge on its defense traveling. For the most part, they have done that. They ranked eighth in defensive rating both at home and on the road entering this game, but this particular stretch on the road has been a trying one. Jonas Valanciunas hasn’t played a single minute and Lowry’s missed five of the 12 road games.
It appears things are trending in the right direction with Lowry, and with Valanciunas now about a week or so away from a return, the Raptors should finally have a full roster to help find the best version of themselves over the unofficial second half of the season.