Pistons race ahead of Raptors in overtime

Final Score: Raptors 107, Pistons 112

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The last time the Raptors played the Detroit Pistons, Kawhi Leonard dribbled the ball off his foot in the closing seconds of the game, and Dwane Casey was able to draw up some last second magic for the Pistons to steal a game against the Raptors in Toronto; so coming into last night’s rematch in Detroit, it felt like the Raps had to get even.  Not many teams have beat the Raptors multiple times this season, but with no Kawhi Leonard in the lineup, they were once again playing on the fly and without their scoring leader, while continuing to acclimate Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin into the lineup.

The Pistons had been playing awesome coming into this one, winning 4 of their past 5 games, while boasting the best net rating in the league over that stretch. And last night, the Raptors saw first hand why – Detroit had a balanced offensive attack, focused around Blake Griffin as the playmaker, supplemented by the interior presence of Andre Drummond, as well as the streaky shooting of guys like Luke Kennard and Reggie Jackson, who were torching the nets from outside. It wasn’t exactly beautiful all the time, but it kept the Raptors at bay for most of the first 3 quarters, as Toronto struggled early to establish any sort of offensive rhythm.

As we’ve seen in recent years in Detroit, Raptors fans, by the busload, once again made the trip down the 401 to make this a virtual home game for Toronto; and by mid-way through the third, the “let’s go Raptors” chants were audible on the broadcast. Just when it seemed like the Raptors really began to clamp down and would finally take over after a slow start in the first half, the Pistons stormed back and went on a 15-0 run to close the 3rd quarter and open the fourth. The Raptors bench went ice cold for nearly 4 minutes over this stretch, forcing Nick Nurse to bring Kyle Lowry back into the game … and Lowry did Lowry things.

Last night was the signature KLOE performance we were used to seeing in the 2015-2016 season; clutch shot making, and pure basketball brilliance all over the court. Lowry finished the game with 35 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds, and 6 made 3-pointers. It’s that kind of stat line that, despite the game’s result, should make every Raptor fan happy; if Kyle’s still capable of games like this, that’s amazing news for the Raptors.

Other than Lowry though, the Raptors’ offense was mostly terrible. They labored through most possessions, and even when an action generated an open shot, cold shooting would let them down. It just wasn’t a pretty night – especially for Jeremy Lin, who made a spot start tonight in place of Kawhi. Lin couldn’t get any sort of rhythm going, going 0-8 from the field. While Lin’s timing and place within the offense still appears unsettled, he’s definitely capable of being the solid backup playmaker and scorer that this team will need going forward (and he’s already shown some glimpses of this so far). To get there though, the Raptors will have to find ways to get consistent chemistry with Lin and Serge Ibaka in those bench pick-and-roll sets, in a way that allows Serge to continue to be successful in the mid-range (as he was earlier in the year when Kyle was feeding him those passes in the starting lineup). Ibaka has been a big factor in the Raptors’ success this season, so seeing his shot come back as he adjusts to a bench role will be good to see.

Despite all of their offensive struggles as a team throughout the night, the Raptors got just enough late in the game from Kyle Lowry and Danny Green, who both hit two huge 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to close the gap and tie the game in the final minutes. Toronto went on to regain possession with 1.6 seconds left in the tie game, at which point Nick Nurse called a timeout and drew up an interesting play: it called for Lowry to inbound the ball on the sideline with Green to act as a decoy on the near side logo, while Siakam and Anunoby set screens to wall-off space for the true option (Marc Gasol) to get a wide open shot on the far side corner (Lowry seemed to look off Green, then zip the pass cross court to Gasol). Interestingly, similar to Casey’s effective late game play-calling in Toronto, the play actually worked to perfection for Nurse this time in Detroit – only that for the Raptors, Gasol just missed the shot; and to overtime we went.

The extra session was more of the same back-and-forth from both teams, as the Raptors jumped ahead 107-102, all fueled by the 7 overtime points of Kyle Lowry. But the Pistons responded with a 9-0 run that the Raptors had no answer to, and that was the game.Blake Griffin finished with 27 points to lead the Pistons in scoring, but it was the 3-point shooting of Luke Kennard that really opened things up for the Pistons, as his 5 shots from the outside (all off the dribble) added a defensive complexity for the Raptors that they clearly didn’t seemed prepared for. Andre Drummond was also an absolute beast on the glass, feasting on 12 defensive and 5 offensive rebounds that gave the Pistons some key second chance opportunities and free throws that Drummond was actually able to capitalize on late in the game.

While the absence of Kawhi and the Pistons’ recent hot play make this loss somewhat predictable (and maybe not as concerning as some other losses this season), there are some still some pressing questions for Toronto. Whether or not Kawhi’s recurring absences in recent weeks relates to any sort of physical discomfort he’s feeling (while that hasn’t been indicated), and whether or not his absence will affect the team’s rhythm going into the postseason have to be recognized as overarching issues. But even besides all of that, the Raptors’ offense just seems sputtery and disjointed. The individual offensive talent of Leonard is undeniable when he’s playing, and on nights like last night, where Lowry goes off for 35 points, it can certainly mask deficiencies. But at other times, the Raptors can become over-reliant on their guards to create (usually Lowry and VanVleet), and it has created problems for the team, even when Leonard is on the floor.

The hope of course is that Marc Gasol can help some of those problems by being a playmaker out of the post, and hopefully Leonard can become a more consistent and integrated part of the offense going forward; but time is running out in the regular season, and as we’ve seen in some of these contests, it can get ugly at times. While the third quarter last night was a decent offensive showing, the Raptors struggled mightily shooting the ball for the rest of the night – going on to shoot just over 38% from the field for the game. Marc Gasol wasn’t effective as a scorer, and Serge’s offensive impact off the bench just wasn’t felt in 20 minutes of action (the bigs combined to go 4-17).

Detroit’s win secured the first season series win for the Pistons over the Raptors since the 2011-2012 season (Casey’s first season with Toronto), and brought them into the 6th position in the Eastern Conference in front of the recently slumping Brooklyn Nets. With the possibility of dropping to the 7th  seed still open though, Detroit remains a possible first-round matchup for the Raptors, as Toronto is essentially locked into the 2-seed. So despite what the seeding looks like this morning, it’s interesting to think about what these closely-battled regular season matchups would mean for a potential playoff series between these two teams.

In the meantime, the Raptors will have to brush this loss off quickly and focus their attention to James Harden and the Houston Rockets, who make their way to Toronto on Tuesday evening for a marquee matchup against the Raptors, scheduled to be on US national TV. It’ll be an interesting one to the say the least, as the Raptors will be looking to bounce back and rack up another statement win this season, while the Rockets will be looking to follow up their win against the Celtics yesterday with another win against an Eastern Conference elite team. Tip-off on Tuesday is schedule for 8 pm.

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