51-21; Thunderous OT win in OKC
Two – Clutch: Pascal Siakam was the best player on the floor for the Raptors as he finished with 33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, two steals and block to keep pace with D’Angelo Russell in the Most Improve Player race. Not only did Siakam score on just about every forward the Thunder threw at him, but he also delivered timely baskets in response to momentum-shifting shots by OKC. Nick Nurse even called Siakam’s number with the game tied and the shot clock turned off in the fourth, but Siakam was ultimately thwarted by Dennis Schroder who slid in for a charge while Siakam was airborne.
Wednesday showed that they should still be valuing those reps, even in coming away with a 123-114 overtime victory.
The Raptors played an excellent first half and started the third quarter on fire, opening up a 20-point lead. Whether it was the cliched foot coming off the gas or the Thunder being more desperate after losing three straight or the Raptors just losing some composure as Oklahoma City started pushing, things went off the rails enough that overtime was required. How, exactly? Part of it was Paul George, who was monstrous in the comeback before fouling out late in the fourth. Part of it was Russell Westbrook doing what he does and breaking down an opponent in transition, making their entire defence vulnerable from its centre out. Part of it was Steven Adams going haywire on the offensive glass.
These are not new issues for the Raptors against the Thunder, nor are they unique to this matchup. They do, however, offer the opportunity for quick improvement. While Nick Nurse hasn’t wanted to show too many cards in specific matchups this year, two games against the Thunder allows for the rare late-season opportunity to simulate what a playoff series will be like. Play a game Wednesday where there are some clear areas that need improvement, go over the film and the game plan Thursday, then try again Friday back in Toronto.
On top of which, the Raptors pulled the game out after blowing the lead. That’s not exactly how you want to get your positive from a game, but it’s more experience executing in crunch-time, and their defence in the overtime period was strong enough to allow a sputtering offence to pull out the victory. In fact, the Raptors’ overtime defence held the Thunder scoreless for over four minutes, which is pretty incredible even with George out for the extra period. For the game, the Thunder managed just 102.5 points per 100 possessions.
It’s always a little tough to evaluate what looks like a quality victory in the final score but contained a large chunk of troublesome play. This one came through a whistle both teams grew frustrated with and in a game without one of their primary playmakers in Kyle Lowry, which caused an otherwise solid rotation pattern to have a few rough patches. You wouldn’t be blamed for coming away frustrated or encouraged, really, given the uneven performance.
The fourth-year Raptors forward is a leading Most Improved Player candidate and already a borderline all-star, but he had cooled a bit heading into this game. Over his previous four games, Siakam’s averages were down to 15 points per game and 42.9 per cent shooting. He was due for a breakout.
Siakam’s lethal combination of speed, size, handles, agility, hops, and power was on full display, rendering him flat-out unstoppable during stretches of Thursday’s game. The 24 year-old continues to establish himself as a clear third star for the Raptors and the way he disrupts opponents’ game plans has been invaluable this season.
It’s games like this, with one of Lowry or Leonard sidelined, that Siakam’s importance to the club and ability to take on a starring role are amplified, and in those situations he seems to step up time and time again.
He wasn’t perfect — Siakam committed an offensive foul on a game-winning layup attempt in regulation, a good call amidst a wild finish that featured some questionable ones — but he was the Raptors’ biggest difference-maker on the floor.
The defensive gameplay put in by Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse, was tremendous. It appeared that the Raptors wanted to force George to become the Thunder’s primary playmaker, rather than Westbrook.
In addition, they placed their best defender in Kawhi Leonard on George. The end results was George leading the Thunder in assist, but only scoring 19 points on 3-10 shooting from three, and fouling out in the end.
How Oklahoma City Fell Short:
First and foremost the Thunder started off terribly on defense, allowing 39 points in the first quarter. This forced them to play from behind the rest of the game, a common theme over the past month.
Toronto had great ball movement all night and it showed by shooting over 50 percent from the floor, and 39 percent from three as a team.
Secondly, Oklahoma City was poorest from the free throw line, shooting 15-29 at the line. In a comeback win that fell short in OT, such carelessness was a deciding factor.
Despite controlling the boards for much of the game, they were unable to capitalize kick out threes after ORBs. Oklahoma City shot 13-43 from distance, which is a pedestrian 30 percent.
A win on Friday is desperately need for this Thunder team, but in facing the Raptors a 2nd time, they may find themselves soon alone at the bottom of the West.
Toronto used a pair of careless Thunder turnovers to catapult a 15-3 run to start the third quarter. The Raptors scored six points off those turnovers with the Thunder’s nonchalant effort getting back in transition. To make matters worse, Westbrook airballed a point-blank baseline finger-roll that resulted in yet another three by Danny Green. In the blink of an eye, the Thunder trailed by 18 points with just over two minutes passed in the third quarter. The Raptors led 92-78 after three.
The Thunder were down and out, trailing by double-digits for most of the fourth before finding themselves trailing by just eight with two minutes to go. A George three cut the Thunder’s deficit to five with a minute left, and Fred VanVleet’s miss gave the Thunder yet another chance. PG hit another hail-mary three over Kawhi Leonard, bringing the Thunder to within two with 40 seconds remaining. VanVleet missed another three on Toronto’s next trip down, but George picked up his sixth and final foul on a looseball call on Siakam with 19.9 on the clock.
Trailing by two, the Thunder needed yet another stop — VanVleet’s missed layup gave Westbrook a running start with the clock in single-digits. Westbrook drove left over Green and finished the layup, tying the game at 110 with 4.8 seconds left. Siakam was then called for an offensive foul with 1.1 seconds remaining, but Westbrook missed a difficult turnaround three at the end of regulation. Somehow, someway the Thunder had forced overtime.
On the eve of March Madness, the clock struck midnight (almost literally) on Oklahoma City’s Cinderella comeback. With George watching from the sidelines, Leonard matched up on Westbrook and the Raptors forced someone/anyone else to beat them. The Thunder started 0-of-7 from the field in overtime before Westbrook’s dunk with 31.5 seconds left and the Thunder trailing by nine. A valiant effort late, just not enough to steal it.
In support, Fred VanVleet continued his hot stretch of play since returning from injury, dropping 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting. Kawhi Leonard had 22 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists while shooting 8-for-19. As a team, Toronto was fiery from the field, shooting 51.7% from the field and 38.9% from three.
Even without Lowry, we also saw Raptors coach Nick Nurse go to a tighter rotation in this one, which resulted in a lot of quality play. Patrick McCaw, the tenth man tonight, played just five minutes in the first half. Jeremy Lin, the ninth man up, was solid with six points in 15 minutes. The starters did get a lot of run in this one, but it finally set up the type of basketball you expect the Raptors will play in the post-season — utilizing Marc Gasol in the high post, making quick decision passes, and finding open looks. They were great in their execution of this against the Thunder.
Oklahoma City was led by 42 points (16-for-29) from Russell Westbrook, who dragged his team back after Paul George (19 points) fouled out late in the fourth quarter. Without George’s support, though, Westbrook and the Thunder didn’t score in overtime until the game was already out of reach; the Raptors opened the extra frame on a prolonged 9-0 run.
The Thunder also didn’t get much help outside their big two. Dennis Schroeder was the only other player in double-figures, chipping in 12 on 16 shots off the bench. Not ideal when the Raptors are hanging passes on you left and right. The Raptors were bailed out, though, by the Thunder’s struggles at the line — they missed 14 of their 29 attempts.
Stopping Paul George… for 46 minutes
Kawhi Leonard had absolutely locked up Paul George for the majority of this game.
Through the first 46 minutes of the game, George had 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting from the field and 1-for-7 shooting from 3-point land. Leonard had him flustered and it seemed like PG just did not have it tonight.
With 2:04 on the clock, George drew a foul on a 3-point attempt. He went to the free throw line and sank all three attempts, breathing life into the MVP candidate’s night.
With 1:05 on the clock down by eight he put up a heat check and made it. Now trailing by five with 45 seconds on the clock, George threw up another heat check – and made it.
Scoring nine straight points to bring his team back into the game in under two minutes, George made up for his early struggles. Unfortunately, his foul trouble came back to haunt him – on the very next possession a loose ball foul was called on PG, his sixth of the night.
The Thunder sent the game into overtime without their star forward but ultimately fell short in the extra period.
George finished with 19 points shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 30.0 percent from three.
The Oklahoma City Thunder won the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, outscoring the Raptors 32-18 over that span.
And they dominated the final phases of regulation, going on a 13-2 run to tie the game late and push the contest into overtime.
But they also lost star guard Paul George, who fouled out late in regulation and gave the Raptors the opening they needed to pull away to a 123-114 win. The victory improves the Raptors’ overall record to 51-21, and keeps them within hollering distance of the franchise-record 59 wins they achieved last season.
More importantly, Wednesday’s win brings the Raptors to within two games of the Milwaukee Bucks for first place in the eastern conference as the post-season approaches.
It won’t always be pretty. The fits and starts of Toronto’s lineup have led to some disconnects, the most glaring of which tend to coincide with Leonard’s control of the offense. His style does not necessarily facilitate democratic, movement-driven play. Leonard is an endpoint—an incredible one-on-one scorer at every level and across every dimension who, by the nature of the way he operates, can feel slightly intrusive. Some of the best work he does on the floor is a change of course. It might not elevate those around him, though it does elevate their chances of winning. The virtue of the Raptors is their lack of exploitable weakness. Toronto isn’t really bad at anything; this is a team that concedes little, contests well, and meets every opponent on solid ground. There’s a reason they’ve won three-fourths of their games this season essentially with or without Leonard. Having him in the lineup on a full-time basis, however, could be the difference in the Raptors thriving in spring and surviving through summer.
Enduring the playoffs so often comes down to a team’s capacity to grind out possessions against the grain. If Leonard has a specialty, it’s this. One of his drives can barrel through several layers of defense. A timely hit-ahead pass his way can turn a borderline opportunity into a transition basket. There’s a track record with Leonard, but also a physical profile. He is exactly the kind of big, immutable wing who might push a team playing smart, system basketball into a different space. Kyle Lowry can run the show and Marc Gasol can help facilitate. Pascal Siakam can exploit lapses in attention and Danny Green will keep defenses honest. Then, when needed, the Raptors can call upon one of the best isolation scorers of his generation to change the very tenor of their offense. Sometimes the answer to busting a switch or breaking a scheme will be as simple as giving the ball to Kawhi. For as reductive as that approach might seem, its clarity of purpose is very much the point.
Yeah, he’s been really good.
But even more than those gaudy numbers — all being posted while he shares the Raptors’ on-floor leadership with another all-star in Kyle Lowry and emerging star in Pascal Siakam — Leonard is healthy and happy and very much looking forward to the true proving ground of an NBA season: the playoffs.
The 27-year-old has had 14 nights off as prescribed rest and has missed only six games due to any injury, never more than two at a time. His minutes have been managed nearly perfectly, right about where he was in his heyday with the Spurs and he is as fresh going into the last 10 games of the season and the playoffs as anyone could have hoped for.
For all the hand-wringing there has been with his “load management,” there is no denying its effectiveness.
“We’ve been doing a great job of making sure nothing flares up or gets out of control,” Leonard said last week. “And this has been great, I’m just happy that I’m able to play.
“Said this before, played only nine games last year, so (to be) able to get up to the games I’ve played now is amazing. I feel good, and we have something to look forward to.”
The way Leonard has meshed with new teammates, a new franchise and a new personal reality has been as seamless as his transition on the court from nine games to, likely, 58 or 60.
He has been fine with the media — never blowing off a request, even if the chats are short — and it’s not like he has been some loner in the locker room or within the framework of the team.
Leonard isn’t chatty but he’s not deadly silent, and he seems to be enjoying every aspect of his life in Toronto. Of all the times people are warned to get to know a guy before making pronouncements about him, this would be a case to study.
In all facets, he’s been fine and the worries of last summer seem so inconsequential right now. Especially the on-court stuff.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Paul George is my pick for Defensive Player of the Year. He also might finish second in the NBA in scoring behind James Harden.
I’m still taking Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard has put the screws on marquee players in the biggest spots, something George has yet to do. Positionally, Leonard has also shown a willingness and penchant for punching up a weight class when asked, something that George has not. The two-time defensive player of the year is capable of completely changing the outcome of a game by unleashing sequences of startling play on both ends at a level that I’m not sure George can quite get to.
When it comes to strictly this season, there’s certainly an argument to be made for George. But in the grand scheme of things and when the pressure is at its highest, I trust Leonard more to deliver on both ends.
Raptors’ Balanced Attack Will Make Them Tough Playoff Out
Leonard has the ability to take over any game, but it’s the team’s depth that will make Toronto a tough out come playoff time.
The Raptors’ balanced attack was on full display on Wednesday night. They managed to put 39 points on the Thunder in the first quarter as seven different players got on the board. Their team effort was best exemplified by the fact that they recorded assists on 15 of their first 21 baskets.
Toronto continued to pull away as it showed off its depth. As four players recorded 15-plus points through the first 36 minutes, the lead swelled to 12.
And all of this was done without point guard Kyle Lowry, who was out with an ankle injury.
Siakam led the way all night, but Leonard, Danny Green (17 points) and Fred VanVleet (21) also provided plenty of support. In fact, all five starters reached double figures, with Marc Gasol adding 10. That’s not even mentioning contributions from Jeremy Lin (six), Serge Ibaka (six) and OG Anunoby (six).
On this night, the Raptors shot 51.7 percent from the floor as a team while knocking down 14 shots from three-point range.
That type of balance is tough for any team to slow down, even a playoff-caliber team like the Thunder.
The scariest part? This team becomes even deeper with a healthy Lowry.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) March 21, 2019
2) The Pistons swept the Raptors in the regular season. A first-round series between the two remains possible. Does this sweep matter?
Sully Akbari: Yes and no. Yes, because it proves that a Raps-Pistons playoff series would be an ugly, grind-it-out series in which I can see the Pistons taking a couple of contests. Although the Raptors weren’t fully healthy for two of the games played in March, given how much it took to try to pull out a win, it does concern a tad bit.
That said, in a potential playoff series, the Raptors would still have the overall higher level and deeper pool of talent and would likely not play some of the lineups we saw in the recent losses. For example, in the team’s most recent contest from last Sunday, the Raptors played without Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka, and spent chunks of the game with Eric Moreland logging minutes with combinations of Jeremy Lin, Patrick McCaw, and Norman Powell. These last four names will likely not see the floor much in the post-season. Through that lens, the three-game regular-season series sweep will mean absolutely nothing.
Josh Kern: I really, really want to say no, because the Raptors were not at full strength in any of the matchups; Serge Ibaka missed the first (and that was pre-Gasol trade) and third, Kawhi Leonard missed the second, and Kyle Lowry missed the third.
But, I think it does, because the Pistons are a hungry team. They haven’t tasted much playoff success recently, and Dwane Casey has a lot to prove, as do his players; a season sweep gives them confidence. And besides, given Toronto’s health issues, can we assume a full roster in the playoffs?
Either way I don’t think the Pistons can beat the Raptors in a seven-game series. But it will be closer than it otherwise should be. And my stress levels will be higher than doctor-recommended levels.
(I do think it’s worth pointing out: In 2014-15 the Raptors went 3-0 against the Wizards in the regular season… and the Wizards swept the Raptors in the first round. So if you’re on the “the regular-season sweep means nothing” train, there’s your evidence!)
Conor McCreery: Only in the sense that it gives Detroit confidence. I suppose that’s not completely insignificant, but the fact of the matter is the Pistons are a solid team. If they’d lost the three games by a total of ten points, I wouldn’t sit here and say the Raps would roll. Dwane Casey has a very good idea of what the Raps want to do on both sides of the court, because it’s not too fundamentally different than what he had them doing. Blake Griffin is playing at an All-NBA level — and we’ve seen in the past two years that when Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond are right, the Pistons are more than solidly in the league’s middle-class.
Having said that, the Raps only played with Kawhi and Kyle together once – and it took a bizarre fourth-quarter collapse to lose that one. The Pistons will also need a full series of Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway hitting their shots to make it a series.
Could Detroit beat Toronto? Sure. But the odds and results still rightly point to Toronto being a significant favourite. (For what it’s worth, I think the Pistons going to end up in the sixth seed, where I hope they do all the good stuff they need to do against Philly.)
JEREMY LIN (Raptors): Finally got to see him on Monday against the Knicks in the Delon Wright role, playing off of and with a Kyle Lowry and/or Fred VanVleet. He scored 20 points and looked more comfortable. He has struggled in his time in Toronto, but Monday was encouraging and consistent with what I’ve been saying. With Lowry and VanVleet in the mix, he’s able to play off the ball a lot more, which opens his game up. Nice development. Tough break with Lowry unavailable Wednesday on the road in OKC, but these three lead guards will create a sound chemistry.
Did I miss something? Send me any Raptors-related article/video to [email protected]