With 28 seconds remaining in a tie game between the Toronto Raptors and the Portland Trail Blazers, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson stood across from Hassan Whiteside for a jump ball. He had just driven into a triple team and was blocked so casually by Whiteside that a jump ball was called. Against all odds, and a six-inch height difference, Hollis-Jefferson out-leaped Whiteside and stole the ball for Toronto. It didn’t end up mattering. Pat McCaw threw the ball away seconds later while making an easy pass to Kyle Lowry, and Carmelo Anthony hit a mid-range jumper to win the game 101-99. Toronto led for 47 minutes, and outplayed the Blazers for 45, but it was all undone in the blink of an eye. That’s life when Toronto, so plagued by injury, fields the roster that it did against Portland.
For 45 minutes, the Trail Blazers were the black mirror of the Raptors, a dark reflection of what could be. Portland, too, is devastated by injury right now. But they have responded differently from Toronto. For much of the game against the Raptors, their defensive effort was non-existent, and no one even bothered to block out, as the Raptors collected 13 offensive rebounds in just the first half. CJ McCollum hoisted impossible shots as OG Anunoby and Oshae Brissett hounded him across the court. The Raptors were dominant, even if they played quirky and couldn’t build an insurmountable lead.
The Raptors were best personified by a bizarre lineup, powered exclusively by the sustainable energy source of power chaos, of Patrick McCaw, Matt Thomas, Oshae Brissett, Stanley Johnson, and Chris Boucher. That lineup closed the first quarter on an 8-0 run, playing stifling defense. The entire lineup took away open jumpers and funneled drivers to Boucher, who blocked shots with ease. Though the Blazers couldn’t score, the Raptors weren’t much better. They got a small helping of points in a Thomas triple, but most of the scoring came off of offensive rebounds and hustle. Despite shooting five-of-16 from the floor over the full game, that fivesome finished plus-eight in 7.6 minutes across both halves. It truly was defense-first for that group.
“I love my teammates. I love when these guys play like that,” said Lowry after the game. “They’re growing. You see the growth, it makes it exciting as a veteran guy.”
Boucher and Brissett personified that growth, finishing with 24 points and 15 rebounds between them. Boucher, as has become his custom, stroked triples, finished shots on the roll, and was a terror on the defensive end. He’s settling into a comfortable status as a spark-plug who can be relied upon at both ends. Brissett was even more of a revelation. He was active within the defensive scheme, rotating early, forcing missed shots and shot-clock violations. Even beyond that, he shot the ball well from deep, crashed the offensive glass, and stayed in his lane. Complimented by all of his teammates, as well as Nick Nurse, after the game, Brissett knows what’s keeping him on the floor.
“I can’t really mess up on the defensive end or I’ll be right back on the bench,” he said after the game.
That microcosmic lineup was generally reflective of Toronto’s performance for much of the night. One team wanted to be there, and played like it, and the other didn’t. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was at the rim trying to throw everything back into the cylinder. At one point, he ran an inverted pick-and-roll with Lowry as his screener, and he euro-stepped into the lane, missed his layup, and immediately tipped the ball back into the net. Hollis-Jefferson is always going to dominate against low-effort groups. For much of the night, it seemed like a laugher for the Raptors.
Then, with four minutes left in the game, it all fell apart. With the Raptors up seven points, though Damian Lillard was quiet to that point in the night, he stepped back and hit a deep 31-foot bomb. Carmelo Anthony hit one on the next possession from the corner as Brissett freelanced into the lane and was late on the close-out. Lillard made some free throws and then dropped in another triple, this one almost from half-court, after a questionable screen clipped Hollis-Jefferson and put him on the ground.
The tie game set the stage for Hollis-Jefferson’s missteps, heroics, and then McCaw’s untimely throwaway. That’s life right now for the Toronto Raptors. They played near-perfectly for 45 minutes, but when your most effective players outside of Kyle Lowry are undrafted Oshae Brissett and Chris Boucher, it’s hard to win games against superior talent. That’s life. The Raptors will be better. Matt Thomas returned to play and was rusty, though he did drill two triples. Lowry, most of all, could have shot better. Though he was masterful in the pick-and-roll, throwing 10 assists and scoring 24, he finished four-of-16 from deep.
“They parked Whiteside at the rim, so if you go up there and set a good screen and Kyle separates, he’s coming there with a look and that’s where a lot of them were coming from, right?” explained Nurse after the game. “[I] probably wanted him to take them. Surprising to me that he only hit four because it looked to me like had a really good stroke tonight… Just wasn’t to be tonight for him.”
It just wasn’t to be. That’s a fair assessment of the night, even beyond Lowry’s shooting. It just wasn’t to be when an uncharacteristic turnover from McCaw gave the Blazers the ball in a tie-game with 28 seconds left. It just wasn’t to be when Lillard started hitting bombs from near the logo. It just wasn’t to be when the Raptors had a chance to win, and Lowry’s fadeaway jumper rimmed out. However, the Raptors have reinforcements on the horizon, with Powell returning “soon,” as Nurse promised before the game. Even though they lost, it could have been worse for Toronto. They could have failed to show up at all, like the Blazers did for the first 45 minutes. The Raptors will have more talent on the floor in coming weeks, and when they do, we know they will show up with effort and resolve. Don’t worry. For the Raptors, at least, this is not the darkest timeline.