As has so often been the case for the Raptors at their best, it was the defence that started fueling a turnaround. Anunoby took on the Irving assignment while Lowry chased Harris, allowing Siakam and VanVleet to roam and gamble to force turnovers and kick-start the transition game. Siakam saw time on Harris, too, allowing difficult Irving-Harris actions to be switched more freely. The Nets’ hot shooting cooled off, too, as the Raptors tightened their rotations.
Attacking on the break energized the Raptors and opened up opportunities against a tired Brooklyn team, with Anunoby and Siakam in particular thriving with the extra speed and space. That the Raptors got strong centre play at both ends — Khem Birch saved a pair of tough passes from Lowry to create corner 3s for teammates, and Freddie Gillespie had five blocks — went a long way. Birch closed out the game with a big dunk on a Siakam dump-off and an end-of-clock corner 3, making a case for crunchtime minutes despite Nurse’s initial belief he might close smaller.
Figuring things out over the course of 48 minutes has been a strength of the Raptors’ over the past several years, just not here in 2020-21. There are a number of caveats. Wednesday’s starting lineup, for example, tied a franchise record from 1995-96 as the 28th group the Raptors have started with this season. It marked the 16th time in 17 games that the starting lineup was different than the game prior. It’s only one game, but it’s one game in which the Raptors looked like the second-tier East team that was envisioned rather than play-in fodder.
The second question — whether it’s too late for the Raptors to be relevant — is a matter of perspective.
Maybe you question the Nets’ ability to get or stay healthy and the chance to fight into a 2-7 matchup is now more intriguing. (The Raptors would have to catch up four games right now to have a chance at the seventh seed via play-in, rather than the half-game they have to catch up to play for the eighth seed.) Maybe the idea of adding the team’s four most important players back to a group on a solid run without them is enticing and the additional rest keeps them in position for a strong finish. Maybe the reality is that tanking is just too out of character, too unachievable without shutting down still-developing players who need to keep growing together.
We’ve litigated this enough, so take Wednesday as a reminder of what, say, the 70th percentile version of this group looks like. It’s a 25-34 team, but it’s also one that ranks in the top half of the league in offence, defence and net rating despite all the nonsense of the season.
Nine — Solid: Freddie Gillespie continues to impress in his stints off the bench. Gillespie was arguably the Raptors’ most productive player for stretches in the first half, as it was his diving efforts, his tap-out rebounds, and his shot-blocking that got the Raptors out of their early deficit. Gillespie finished with five blocks in 24 minutes, and even though he’s only in his seventh game, Gillespie already has half as many blocks as Aron Baynes in 50 games this season. It’s no wonder why the undrafted rookie is taking his minutes and running with it. The Raptors need size and activity in the paint, and Gillespie is providing.
For the first time since March 29, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had his core players available. In addition to Lowry, VanVleet made his second appearance in nine games, while Siakam, Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. returned after shorter absences.
It was also the first time the incumbent Raptors had played with Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, the centre combination that has provided some length and athleticism that has been missing in the middle, and Nurse – if he needed — could look at Malachi Flynn, Yuta Watanabe and DeAndre’ Bembry to round out a deep bench.
It’s not the profile of a sub-.500 team and the fact that Toronto’s reserves have carved out a 4-2 record over their past six games as the Raptors seemed to be aggressively trying to improve their draft position by resting their key players suggest a team that’s deeper than it was to start the year.
Nurse’s expectations before the game were low – he forecasted clunkiness – but he was pleasantly surprised.
“Well, it did start that way [clunky],” Nurse said. “[But] I think the chemistry built throughout the game. I think our guys did a really good job of adjusting offensively especially. …. Obviously we were creating a lot of good shots. I thought all the way through, I thought maybe we got a little tired or maybe late missed a bunch of open ones [but] I’m pretty happy with the performance. I think it’s a good step forward with a long way to go, but a really good step forward tonight.”
The Raptors were the better team for all but the first quarter. They dominated the middle portion of the game and held firm down the stretch as they were led by Siakam with 27 and Anunoby with 25. Defensively, they limited the Nets to 39.6 per cent shooting for the game.
The Raptors finished the second quarter on a 17-7 run that allowed them to start the third frame trailing 58-56 after the Nets led by 12 with 4:37 left in the half. But as the game wore on, the Nets were worn away by the Raptors’ depth and energy – as a whole the team hadn’t played since Sunday, let alone the additional rest some of the regulars have had.
The game turned in the third quarter when the Raptors looked the fresher, more energized, and certainly deeper team. Their starters nearly knocked the Nets out of the park with a 36-23 run that featured 11 points from Anunoby, nine from Siakam and 16 combined from VanVleet and Lowry.
The Raptors pushed their lead to 18 with 3:52 to play in the third on a VanVleet triple, and it looked like the rest of 2020-21 had never happened.
There were other contributions. The Raptors’ centre tandem of Birch and Gillespie showed what was missing for most of the year. Their box score numbers weren’t all that impressive — they combined for 12 points and 12 rebounds — but they kept loose balls alive, moved the ball well, chased down six offensive rebounds and protected the rim with Gillespie – who started his second 10-day contract on Sunday – counting five blocks and Birch another.
Nurse gave five players off his bench at least 11 minutes and all scored at least four points.
The only downbeat was Chris Boucher having to be helped off the floor early in the fourth quarter with a sprained left knee.
On the defensive end, it was evident the game plan was to protect the paint and smother driving lanes. Sometimes that would result in an overhelp, leaving the perimeter open for the Raptors to get looks from deep — going 6-of-11 in the frame.
Toronto ended the second with a big response, cutting the deficit to only two points at the break. Despite nursing a two-point cushion at the break, the Nets ended the first half shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from deep. Brooklyn dished 11 assists and outrebounded Toronto 29-24 in the first two frames.
The game got away from the Nets in the third. The Raptors put the pressure on out of the gates to open the second half. Toronto turned their relentless defense into quick offense, resulting in their first lead since the opening possession, forging a 7-0 run, and Nash to call a timeout with 10:06 remaining in the third.
Toronto extended their run to 20-4 after the timeout, picking apart the Nets defensively. Brooklyn struggled with Toronto collapsing the paint and restricting the driving lanes. The Raptors ended up scoring 36 points in the third frame but the Nets finished the third on a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to 92-81.
“I think they just came out with energy. [Toronto] had good pace on offense and we weren’t ready,” Brown said on the third quarter. “They executed and we didn’t execute on the offensive end and didn’t communicate on the defensive end. They took advantage of that.”
The Raptors faced a big scare in the opening minute of the fourth. Chris Boucher appeared to twist his ankle when TLC was going for the offensive rebound. Boucher hobbled to the locker room and didn’t return with a left knee sprain.
Despite losing their promising big man, the Raptors forged a 12-3 run. But the Nets didn’t fade away, remaining on the cusp of single-digits before going cold late.
If you like roller coasters, then Wednesday’s game was for you.
After the Nets built as large as a 13-point lead early on, they were out-scored by the Raptors 91-67 in the final three quarters in a 114-103 loss. The Raptors led by as many as 18 points as they broke the game open in the third quarter.
The Nets made a push in the fourth quarter and came within five points of the Raptors in the closing minutes but could not close the gap. Toronto scored just 22 fourth-quarter points, but Brooklyn did not have the tools to make a run.
The Nets had difficulty containing the Raptors after holding them to just 23 first-quarter points. Though Toronto shot just 43.3% from the field, they made 18-of-47 three-pointers while the Nets could not force stops.
Brooklyn had a great offensive start to the night as Joe Harris drained his first four three-pointers that quickly helped build a double-digit lead and a 36-point first quarter. That burst died off, though, as Landry Shamet and Jeff Green combined to shoot 3-of-19 from distance, and the team just 13-of-41 from deep on the evening.
The Nets shot just 39.6% from the field after shooting 55.1% against the Pelicans on Tuesday and had their seventh-lowest scoring output of the season with 103 points. Kyrie Irving and Bruce Brown each notched double-doubles as everyone else was largely contained or just came up flat.
The Raptors did a good job of forcing the Nets to shoot on tired legs rather than get some better looks in the paint Brooklyn did out-score Toronto 42-36 in the paint and out-rebound them 62-52, but that was against the worst rebounding team in the NBA.
Toronto took care of the ball while pouring in the points in the second and third quarters. The Raptors turned the ball over just 10 times while they scored 11 points off Brooklyn’s 13 turnovers.
Pascal Siakam led the way for Toronto with 27 points while OG Anunoby added 25 points.
The Nets had an opportunity to move back into first in the East with the Sixers losing to the Suns, but ultimately fatigue set in as they continue to operate with a shorthanded lineup. Steve Nash said Kevin Durant could return as soon as Friday against the Celtics, and that would be welcomed news just in time for a difficult weekend slate.
Onto the next one.
Overall, that game plan was really good for Toronto, but it didn’t seem like such a safe bet in the first quarter. The Nets came out with their guns blazing, as Joe Harris was left open for a perfect 4-for-4 start from three and Kyrie Irving nearly had a double-double in ten minutes, scoring 10 points in the frame.
The mistakes made gave Toronto something to focus in on, though, and while Irving got his points the rest of the way, Harris would only make one more field goal, as the Raptors tried to force everyone else to beat them. In the end, they couldn’t.
Irving would finish with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists, but needed 21 shots to get there after a hot start. Bruce Brown had 21 points and 14 rebounds off the bench in support.
Trailing 36-23 after the first quarter shenanigans, the Raptors took a while to get going in the second. A hockey sub strategy for Nick Nurse failed to produce returns, as a bench lineup led by Malachi Flynn and Gary Trent Jr. didn’t provide necessary shooting in its first stretch. Trent Jr. was really the only core player to struggle tonight, going 2-for-9 and scoring just five points.
Still, as the starters worked their way back in, the Raptors started to improve. The defense immediately got better and started forcing Nets misses; Brooklyn would finish the half 9-for-24 from distance despite a hot start. On offense, a trio of OG threes was supported by 11 points from Siakam, as Brooklyn’s lead slimmed to just two at half.
A run to start the third gave Toronto the lead for good, as the 7-0 spurt was punctuated by this OG hammer.
The starters continued to force awkward offense from Brooklyn, especially in the stretches with Irving on the bench. Simultaneously, VanVleet and Lowry made a few tough threes, and the lead swelled to 18 late in the third. Overall, the team shot 7-for-12 from distance in the quarter.
For the first time in 12 games, dating all the way back to March 29th, all four of those players were available against the Nets on Wednesday.
Predictably, Toronto got off to a slow start as its returning players shook off some rust and rediscovered their rhythm and chemistry. Once they found it midway through the second quarter, it became a game of what ifs.
What if that group had stayed healthy? What if three of them – Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby – didn’t have their seasons disrupted by COVID-19 and its aftereffects? What if they had stolen a few games early in the year and gotten off to a better start so they didn’t have to spend the rest of the campaign playing catch up? And, perhaps the most confounding hypothetical of them all, what if they had addressed their most pressing need sooner?
With the Raptors close to full strength, Nick Nurse got his first glimpse of what the rotation could look like now that he has a few more capable big men at his disposal, and he liked what he saw.
The additions of and Freddie Gillespie have helped solidify the centre position, a season-long issue for Toronto. Even small differences have gone a long way.
“I think that they’ve done a good job of just doing little things,” Nurse said of the team’s new centre tandem. Birch and Gillespie each logged 24 minutes, splitting the position and ensuring that Toronto always had a traditional big on the floor.
Coming into Wednesday, Lowry hadn’t played with Birch since the Canadian made his Raptors debut against the Knicks. VanVleet had only shared the court with him and Gillespie briefly in the win over Orlando last week. Siakam and Anunoby are still getting comfortable with them, as well. And surely they’re all still getting comfortable playing together. Still, it didn’t take long for them to get on the same page, which speaks to how well the two big men have fit in.
“First of all, they’re doing a lot of dirty work,” Nurse continued. “They’re up helping those guys on screen and rolls, they’re up helping them on pin downs, they’re rebounding or blocking out and maybe letting some other guys get some rebounds.”
“I think the [other guys] just liked that they’re doing the dirty work and playing hard and just kind of being an opportunity scorer. That’s kind of what fits with those guys pretty well right now.”
Gillespie was a force defending at the rim, blocking five shots. Birch, who started and was on the floor to close the game, quickly became a trusted partner in the pick and roll for Lowry. The two showed the kind of chemistry that the veteran point guard has built with countless big men over the course of his career but could never quite build with , who has fallen out of the rotation entirely.
“He’s just kind of figuring out the offence,” Lowry said of Birch, who hit his third three-pointer in a couple weeks with the Raptors after knocking down four in three and a half seasons with Orlando. “He’s been a pro. He’s always killed us on the offensive glass [when we played against him] and I think just his knowledge of the game has given us a little bit more. Those two just running the floor, big bodies have kind of helped us out.”
Suddenly, it looks like the Raptors could be onto something.
After a predictably messy start — the Raptors gave up 36 first-quarter points and trailed by 13 — they settled down and dominated for the final three quarters.
The big four combined for 83 points and 17 assists, the Raptors held Brooklyn, minus Kevin Durant and James Harden, mind you, to 29 per cent shooting and 67 points over the final three quarters to win their fourth game in a row.
The win also kept the Raptors right in the thick of the race for play-in playoff spots. Combined with a Washington win and a Chicago loss, the Raptors are now half a game behind the Wizards and a half a game ahead of Chicago in the battle for 10th in the East.
As they have said all along, the players will not be overly concerned with who they are playing or who they are chasing or who is pursuing them. The Raptors will judge themselves against themselves.
“Build on something each day, even if it’s just your shooting or your passing,” Lowry said. “Just continue to see some type of excellence and I think with us, everybody being back tonight, it’s one game and we got to continue to build off the good juju that those other guys have built for us.”
The other guys Wednesday were centres Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, who gave the Raptors another solid 48 minutes. They combined for 12 points and 12 rebounds, Gillespie had five blocked shots and Birch sealed the game with a corner three-pointer as the Raptors seem to have solved a season-long problem.
“I think that they’ve done a good job of just doing little things,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the centres. “First of all, they’re doing a lot of dirty work. They’re up helping those guys on screen and rolls, they’re up helping them on pin downs. They’re rebounding or blocking out and maybe letting some other guys get some rebounds.”
Initially there were some rhythm issues — as Nick Nurse predicted pre-game — but when they got it going, coupled with a second unit that is fully in rhythm against an injury-depleted Brooklyn unit, the Nets had no chance.
Down by 13 after the first quarter, the Raptors started to come around in the second, heading to the lockerroom down just two and then took things over in the third on their way to a 114-103 win.
“I thought all the way through, I thought maybe we, I think got a little tired or maybe late missed a bunch of open ones, right, but still it was the right shots and all that stuff,” Nurse said. “So I’m pretty happy with the performance. I think it’s a good step forward with a long way to go, but a good really good step forward tonight.”
Yes, the Nets made a push late in the fourth despite the fatigue from playing on the back end of a back-to-back, but the Raptors held them off for their fourth win in a row, just the second time this year the team has enjoyed a four-game winning streak.
The four returnees, all starters, combined for 83 points between, them led by 27 from Siakam and 25 from Anunoby — whose offensive game isn’t being talked about enough these days.
Anunoby kept them in it early on with some key three-point baskets. He went 4-for-9 from distance in the game while VanVleet, who started a little slower, picked it up late to finish 5-for-10 from three.
The downside of the night came early in the fourth when Chris Boucher, the only Raptor to play in every game this season and a guy enjoying a career breakout year, got tangled up under the basket and wound up having Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot come down on his left foot, violently twisting the lower part of Boucher’s left leg.
Boucher remained down and while he limped off mostly under his own power, the news came back of a strained left knee, ending his night. He’ll have further testing to determine the severity of the injury.
Nurse, even before the win was hopeful that last night’s game might be the start of something.
“I have no idea what’s gonna happen here,” Nurse said. “A lot of guys back. These guys haven’t played together in a long time. I hope it’s a first step. I don’t expect it to be smooth and beautiful tonight. I expect there to be some clunkiness and that kind of stuff. I hope I’m wrong.
In most years, injuries and the number of games a guy is able to play is a huge factor in many of the decisions. If a guy misses 15 or 20 per cent of his team’s games, it’s usually enough to disqualify him from consideration. I’m not sure that’s the case this year, at least not the extent it’s been.
This year? This year almost every significant player has missed a large chunk of an abbreviated season for one reason or another.
So, yeah, it’ll still be a consideration, it has to be, but I don’t think – in my mind at least – it’ll carry the same weight this year as it has the past.
It’ll factor into where, or if, I’d put Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid on the MVP ballot, likely LeBron James and James Harden and Kevin Durant, too.
The fact they’ve missed games has to figure into the decision, the fact they’ve all missed games will be a thing to think about, too.
The schedule itself is a factor. Only 72 games and with the feeling that so many are jammed together makes me wonder if any kind of per-game statistic should be given much weight.
The games, because of the schedule, have just felt different all year. Some numbers are absolutely inflated because of when they were put up: Was it the first night of three games in four days, did they come against teams that were playing for the fourth time in five nights? Are they are “real” as they would be in another season? Might there have been regression if the season went 10 games longer?
I haven’t figured out exactly what I think yet but it’s been in the back of my mind for more than a few weeks.
It’s just another part of why this season is so odd, so unprecedented, so wacky.