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Sleepwalking to a win against the Rockets

What punishment comes for spotting an opponent a 24-point lead? For the Raptors? Nothing, really. The Raptors meandered through this win with very little regard for tough defense, or disciplined offense for that matter. The talent disparity, and the Raptors ability to flip the proverbial switch in the fourth quarter allowed them to close the gap and set the stage for a knee-wobbling, game-winning floater from the unflappable Gary Trent Jr. The variance-laden Rockets couldn’t withstand the steely-eyed Trent Jr. as he marched down the lane to 6-feet and popped up the destined shot.

Before that, though? We saw the Rockets tee off from downtown in the first half to the tune of 24 points from behind the line, and then we saw them miss nearly everything from deep in the second half. Bereft of shooting, and noticing the Raptors lack of input on their dribble penetration, the Rockets peppered the paint with buckets. Josh Christopher (Jaygup), Kevin Porter Jr., and Alperen Sengun found a home on the inside and carved out a comfortable space. The trio combined for 72 points overall, but they grabbed 27 of them in third quarter with only 1 made triple. The Raptors defensive scheme can be a whirling terror in the best of circumstances, but if they’re not feeling up to it, it can be a lot of dribble penetration, less than stellar rotation, and way late contests at the bucket. We saw that.

On the other end of things, the Raptors missed heaps of looks at the bucket in the early parts of the game. The ball was rolling off the rim, and some players slammed the ball off the backboard so hard that Jerry West’s logo form was left concussed. Pascal Siakam ended up 3 assists short of a triple-double and he should’ve cleared it comfortably. Speaking of Siakam, he was driving everything on offense. The usual, of course: pay very little attention to his primary, manipulate the secondary levels of the defense, and make great decisions. Easy baskets for teammates, or a simple supply for himself? Either works. Classic Superstar stuff.

After popping off for averages of 26/8/5 in March, Siakam has ascended past that, cool as you like, up to 28/11/6.5 in April. The Raptors set of circumstances – injuries, shooting slumps, whatever – have continued to request bigger and bigger performances from him and he, quite simply, answers the call every time. He gets everywhere on the court. Does he dematerialize and rematerialize? Bend into unbelievable shapes? Transport via wormhole? Teams wall up, and he pops up in places he has no business being.

DeMar DeRozan remarked upon a difficult stretch in the season by comparing hoops to school: “It’s kind of like going through high school, you getting all A’s as a freshman and sophomore. Then junior and senior year, you got AP classes, them shits is extremely hard.” Siakam has been acing the AP stuff. As far as gearing up for playoff defenses? There’s very few players in the league that have received a similar level of schematic attention. Team can always ratchet things up to some degree, but Siakam has been walking across the coals for some time now – he, and everyone else is just excited to see him do it in a playoff atmosphere once again. He hit the game winning shot in The Finals on a historic defender after all. He’ll find his way.

And Siakam’s running mate for the night – who knows how big a role he’ll play in the playoffs – Gary Trent Jr. had a good shooting night. Most importantly though, he accessed a few more counters than we’re used to seeing in this game. The game winner is big, of course, but every 18-foot shot that he turns into a paint touch is a win. Teams are going to try and run him off the line, his counters have to be more diverse. He found a really nice pocket to operate out of in this game, and that diversity grows little by little. Scottie Barnes found his stride as the game progressed as well.

“It wasn’t the easiest game to get ready for tonight. Right? And there’s some human nature involved here. Right? And he (Scottie) wasn’t really involved, and he wasn’t really doing much and he didn’t have much going but when the game – he and Gary both have both really played in fourth quarters. Which, to me, is a heck of a bonus because usually you gotta go through about six years in this league before you can perform in that corner with games on the line and that stuff. And it’s just all competitive drive, and I think the moment of the game overtakes them, and they both start competing like heck, and it takes them a long ways.” – Nick Nurse regarding Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr.

Along the same line of thinking as Nurse’s quip about often times needing experience to perform well late, Thaddeus Young broke out the “low-usage king” cape in this one. Made just about everything he tossed up, added a new playmaking element, and brought more severity to the Raptors defensive approach. Plugging in where necessary in these lineups that make huge runs. The whole fourth quarter at +12, +14 from the middle of the second quarter until halftime. Closing space was something the Raptors did as a team, but also something Young did as a defensive playmaker.

All in all, the Raptors found just enough winning stuff to fuel them through a game that even their coach admitted was tough to get up for. The Rockets aren’t regarded as tough competition, and the Raptors were on the second night of a back-to-back with major figures of their starting lineup missing. They found enough, and they won. It doesn’t get much better, all things considered.

Have a blessed day.

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