Youth in Revolt: Defying the Odds Against the Lakers

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There’s no question what position the underdog holds in our culture. Watching an underdog achieve success calls out to the very depths of the human condition; a reminder that our potential is limitless, that one can punch above their weight. It’s deeply cathartic. Seeing the Raptors sans Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka go into Staples Center like a modern day Trojan Horse – smuggling in the likes of Chris Boucher and Terence Davis II – clawing their way to the finish line and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, was one of the finest regular season moments of the past couple years.

It didn’t come easy, and it certainly didn’t start that way. The Raptors offense has long relied on Lowry’s genius and with his presence gone the offense got out to a shaky start. The Lakers league best defense made life especially difficult for Pascal Siakam, who was guarded by Anthony Davis. The Raptors usually have Lowry to lean on at the start of games, so there was nothing particularly creative run for Siakam early, this led to one-on-one attempts vs. Davis which went horribly. Davis & co. pushed the Raptors offense out of the paint, coaxing the Raptors into long shots, that resulted in long rebounds and psuedo-transition for the Lakers. The early part of the Lakers offense was fuelled by LeBron James and Davis’ vertical play.

Once James exited play the Raptors recalibrated, switched to a zone defense, and incentivized Davis to get rid of the ball on offense. This gave the Raptors a shot in the arm, not only were they getting stops, but they were able to run out on offense after swarming the Lakers lacklustre supporting cast. The easy offense came and VanVleet settled in. Some shot-making wizardry from Matt Thomas closed out the first quarter with the Raptors within one which, all things considered was a great result.

In the second quarter VanVleet really showed off his leadership qualities, guiding the rag-tag group of Raptors (Boucher, Gasol, Hollis-Jefferson, Thomas) ahead of the Lakers for a short spurt of time. This was a glimpse of the special stuff that would later win the game for the Raptors. For now, though, VanVleet was sustaining the Raptors offense and keeping them in it. He was out-foxing the Lakers aggressive guards on offense and getting to the rim, sinking off of them on defense to help out on the glass and hunt down errant passes, and most importantly finding Boucher for an alley-oop.

Once James hit the floor the Lakers responded with a flurry of Troy Daniels triples as he played off of James’ gravity, giving them some breathing room. But even as the Raptors fell a little bit farther behind, VanVleet was dragging them into half-time, just within punching distance.

In the second half Siakam worked diligently to create switches for himself in order to avoid Davis’ smothering defense. Nick Nurse recognized that the Raptors were getting some unexpected contributions in this game, but they’d need Siakam to keep eating up offensive possessions to get them to the finish line. The turning point seemed to be when Nurse won his first coach’s challenge of the year, as Siakam was proved innocent of his foul on James. The defense had tightened up significantly and the Raptors started pushing Davis way outside of the paint, which afforded the Raptors the luxury of playing much tighter help-defense against the rest of the Lakers.

Once the Raptors had phased Davis’ inside game out of the contest, the Lakers had little recourse to score, hence the paltry 18 points in the third quarter. A lot of the credit should also go to Davis II and Norman Powell who were exquisite at the top of the defense. They hounded the Lakers guards, and worked tirelessly when in man defense, and even harder as a cohesive zone. Plus-minus isn’t a catch-all and shouldn’t be applied as one, but it makes sense that Davis II had the second best plus-minus on the team (+13), because the Raptors were winning the ball game when he was on the floor. His defense was tenacious, his shot-making was there for the first time, and he flashed some real playmaking chops. Loved his game.

At the start of this game the Lakers announcers couldn’t stop talking about how many threes the Raptors put up, and for good reason the Raptors were firing away early on. But once they walled off their own paint they developed an insatiable hungere for the Lakers’. The teams completely flip-flopped the ways in which they attacked, with the Raptors relentlessly sending Hollis-Jefferson, Boucher, and Siakam towards the rim with great success. And the Lakers watching Davis float farther and farther out, and sending in Kuzma to fire away from downtown. Fortune favours the bold, I suppose, as the Raptors rode the wave of Boucher and Hollis-Jefferson’s rim runs to a 13-3 run in the middle of the fourth quarter – not to mention Hollis-Jefferson’s superb one-on-one defense on James, more often than not corralling him into dead spots on the floor.

The lead had grown too large (111-100) and the NBA Champion Toronto Raptors weren’t going to let it slip away, even if the Lakers had Davis and James. Siakam and co. locked it down, made some shots, and stole an absolute thriller in LA.

Credit Nurse for sticking with his young guns, as they kept piling on made shots. Boucher hit a three, and blocked James and Davis on back-to-back possessions. It was a fever-dream, a shot of adrenaline, and a chance to start dreaming about what these players will become, finally.

In the wake of Lowry and Ibaka’s injuries the Raptors rolled their roster into an amorphous blob of hustle, heart, and more competence than they knew what to do with. And now, maybe some of that competence can be planned and accounted for, instead of discovered on a wild Sunday night at Staples Center.

What a game.

Have a blessed day.

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