Despite a 24 point lead at half time, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had a feeling the game was going to get tight. Once the fouls, a failed attempt to challenge and some Phoenix floaters started to mount, the game had become so bogged down that the Raptors’ offence didn’t know what to do (Nurse’s words).
The stark contrast in flow between halves – the first featuring 25 points from Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry carving the Suns in transition for a variety of baskets and slick assists, and the team shooting 52%, versus the second half – a slowed down slugfest with countless off-ball fouls and stoppages – led to a close-ish finish that few expected. While it seemed the Raptors had succumbed to their championship-human nature – conceding a large lead knowing they could “flip the switch” in the fourth quarter – it wasn’t complacency that caused the Raptors’ lead to shrink to six with eight minutes to go. It was misery.
“The game lost its rhythm and every ounce of enjoyability there in the third quarter,” Nurse said. Getting outscored by nine in the frame probably didn’t help his mood either. “Nobody was having any fun out there and with about five minutes to go I said, ‘I’m having about as much fun as you guys and probably less the way I feel right now. But we have to dig in together here and go play.'”
Nurse’s fun nadir came after Serge Ibaka was whistled for his fifth foul – a 50-50 call where Ibaka may have held Suns centre Deandre Ayton on an entry pass. Nurse was assessed a technical foul for arguing, then Ibaka gave an artful finger wave indicating his desire to challenge. Nurse tried to oblige but no challenge was granted, instead Nurse was denied the right to challenge because the technical free throw had been taken.
It was confusing.
“How many challenges did I lose tonight, two?” Nurse said, tongue-in-cheek. Teams are only allowed one challenge per game. “They saw me jump up off the bench on the call but then they couldn’t see me call the timeout for a while. Selective vision.”
Questionable calls notwithstanding, the Raptors were in control for much of the game. Any concerns of a lethargic start out of the eight-day All Star break were allayed in the frenetic opening minutes. Ibaka rudely blocked a Kelly Oubre dunk attempt, then threw down a big dunk in transition off a Lowry steal. Early in the second quarter a Lowry/Anunoby-led bench lineup helped create further turnovers and extend the lead from eight to 16 with eight minutes left. The starters then trickled back in, and the lead ballooned to 24 by half time.
“We were really good tonight,” Nurse said in a post game presser that paralleled the emotional peaks and valleys of the game. “There were some great stretches of play out there. We came out with a pace, an aggressiveness and (we were) flying around, into the ball and challenging shots.”
Without Marc Gasol (hamstring), guarding the 6’11 Ayton, who’s averaging 18.7 points and 12.0 rebounds this season, fell on Ibaka and the 6’6 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Ayton only had five field goal attempts in the (essentially) deciding first half. And while the 2018 number one overall pick had a strong ending line of 17 points on 8-for-14 shooting, he only shot three free throws, and his fourth quarter baskets were often matched by a Hollis-Jefferson layup or a Lowry-led pick and roll that burned Ayton.
“We got soldiers out there,” Siakam, who finished with 37 points, said about Ibaka and Hollis-Jefferson defending the Suns’ seven footers of Ayton and Aron Baynes. “We got Rondae coming in at his natural position, the five (laughs). We got OG and he’s a bigger body and we got me. I can guard all those bigs and I think we’re just versatile. Obviously we need our bigs out there but if we don’t have them we can figure out a way.”
“It wasn’t very enjoyable. But as I sit here now and look back on it, I don’t mind that it got a little tough and tight,” Nurse said. “(I don’t mind that) we had to bounce back and respond and guard and execute great down the stretch. It’s a nice learning moment I guess, a confidence-booster actually. So I’m getting happier here as I talk.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Friday’s win, adding evidence from last week’s game against Karl-Anthony Towns and the T-Wolves where the Raptors were without Gasol and Ibaka, is the Raptors have the depth to guard every type of big. If Gasol’s injury continues to linger, they know Ibaka can hang with potential first round playoff matchups in the Brooklyn Nets’ Jarrett Allen or the Orlando Magic’s Nik Vucevic for long stretches. They’ve also learned that Hollis-Jefferson can be trusted to fill in at the five.
-OG Anunoby was sneaky-exceptional. He had four blocks, two of which on long jumpers that must have been demoralizing for the Suns. Offensively Anunoby was selective and assertive, going 5-for-9 from the field for 12 points, attacking mismatches whenever they became available (as pointed out to me by the Athletic’s Eric Koreen). His two handed dunk in the fourth quarter was particularly emphatic for two reasons – its pure athleticism, and for putting the Raptors up nine with under five minutes left. The lead would only grow from there.
-Serge Ibaka‘s foul trouble nearly made this game too close for comfort. But he checked in with 5:13 left and didn’t allow Ayton a single point for the rest of the game. He also provided the dagger with a banked three to put the Raptors up 12 with about four minutes left.
-It continues to baffle me that opponents don’t pump fake Chris Boucher on his closeouts on three point shooters. Boucher had four blocks in all, and the team finished with a season-high 13.
-Suns head coach Monty Williams had some high praise for the Raptors before the game. Asked what stands out about the defending champs:
“Kyle. He’s just a beast,” Williams said. “His awareness, his craftiness. I think he’s the craftiest player in the league. Kyle is just a monster, and Siakam is an All-Star, and you could kind of see that coming. Kyle is so important to winning; he’s just such a good player.”