Late in the third quarter that felt like the fourth quarter of Toronto’s somehow frantic-yet-sleepy 107-92 win over the Houston Rockets, Ish Wainright poked the ball away from a nameless Rocket. It was a theme of the night, that the Raptors forced an endless train of turnovers from the Rockets, their length stymieing every dribble, every pass, everything the Rockets tried to do. But after Wainright stole the ball, he pushed ahead in transition on his own before throwing the ball do a defended Justin Champagnie. Oops.
It didn’t matter. Wainright traded the sure two for even more points, as he jetted around a screen on that same possession in the half-court and drilled a triple.
The Raptors could do no wrong.
To that point, the team had two (!) buzzer-beating, half-court, off-the-glass, three-point heaves fall on the night. Dalano Banton flung up one shot. Later, Malachi Flynn pushed the pace after a turnover and hurled in the triple to end the third quarter.
There weren’t too many poor performances to go around for the Raptors. Gary Trent jr. played terrific perimeter defense, digging in and deflecting a variety of dribbles for the Raptors. OG Anunoby continued his star rise, creating space with ease in isolation and drilling ridiculous pull-up jumpers. Khem Birch returned from a spell in the health and safety program and — though he started out jumpy and fouled plenty — settled in to play a nice defensive game. Precious Achiuwa showed off his impressive handle and self-creation abilities.
“That’s the way I’ve played since middle school, high school and college as well,” said Achiuwa of his open-court dribbling. “It’s just something I’m comfortable doing. As long as I’m taking care of the ball, making the right plays, making the right reads and not turning the ball over, it puts us in a good position.”
Flynn didn’t just bank in a three, but also showed off the aggression with his jumper that he’s lacked for much of the preseason; he closed out the Rockets on his own, drilling triples every time Houston’s deficit sniffed single digits.
Almost every Raptor scraped against his theoretical ceiling, at least for a stretch or two.
The point is that, for at least one night, we saw what length and strength could be. It’s true that Toronto wasn’t playing a particularly impressive offense from the Rockets in the first place. And with so few true ball-handlers (like, zero?) on the opposing squad, it wasn’t hard for Toronto’s enormous, floor-shrinking defenders to force the Rockets into poor decisions. Jalen Green, Houston’s prize rookie, had more turnovers (seven) than points (five) and was thoroughly outplayed by Scottie Barnes.
Barnes, by the way, deserves his own blurb. He played about as well as he could for the vast majority of his minutes. He was responsible for plenty of Houston’s turnovers, and on the other end, he finished well, passed well, and did just about everything he could to make sure that the Raptors created advantages at every turn. But in the third quarter he rotated for a block but fouled from behind instead of making the clean defensive play. Though the Raptors were leading by 20 points, more or less, Barnes was furious with himself for the mistake and pounded the ball on the floor.
Don’t be fooled by Barnes’ always-happy exterior. He expects perfection from himself, and no matter how happy he is, it’s clear how frustrated he is with himself when he makes mistakes. Happy, communicative, inspiring — but not contended. You couldn’t create a more impressive growth mindset if you let Dale Carnegie design one in a lab.
So Toronto beat up on a surefire lottery team. In the preseason. That’s hardly a cause for celebration. But the point is that Toronto did it by playing to its unique set of strengths. They had a mountain of deflections, ran in transition, and won the game in the collective rather than the individual.
“We want to get into the ball and we want to try to create some havoc,” said Nick Nurse after the game. “I didn’t get the final numbers, but we had some quarters, I think we had one quarter with 19 deflections. We have games in the low 20s sometimes.
“A lot of high deflections, there were two or three or four on one possession, that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to use some of that length and turn it into offense.
“I still think we probably didn’t turn enough of it into offense. Thirty turnovers, 32 points. Thirty-two points is a nice number, but that number per turnover should be a bit higher.”
That’s greed, pure and simple; last year, the league leader in transition points scored 24.9 per game. But Nurse is right to be greedy. That’s where the Raptors’ points are going to come from. And when it rains, it’s going to pour. With Fred VanVleet, Anunoby, Barnes, Achiuwa, Birch, Banton, and others, the Raptors have a horde of long-armed players who are elite at forcing turnovers. That will be a strength to come, even in the regualar season.
When Toronto plays poor offensive teams, their wins may look a lot like this one. It was a preseason game, of course. (The Raptors were also without Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, Goran Dragic, and Yuta Watanabe, while the Rockets were mostly available.) But this is the blueprint. Be big across the spectrum, force chaos, and thrive. Toronto will always play at least four players together who can handle in transition. They switch positions on offense as a matter of intent. They’ll be just fine when things get crazy.
The Raptors will win more often than not when it’s bedlam on the court. We don’t know how they’ll fare in the organization of good games, and we surely don’t know how they’ll survive the structured grime of the playoffs, if they make it. But they’re going to have a fair number of wins that look just like this one, at least in the regular season. Welcome to the length and strength era.