So far this season, the Raptors’ offense has overwhelmed the need for defense on most nights. Friday’s loss to Atlanta, though, was a bellwether moment — the team was slipping from a mediocre defense to a dirt poor one, relying on their offense to scrape by. It didn’t work against the Hawks, and that effort carried over into Sunday’s game.
Early on against the Orlando Magic, the Raptors were allowing a 27th ranked offense to dictate. Orlando had 30 points in the first frame, with old pal Bismack Biyombo scoring the first four and Evan Fournier dropping in nine to lead the team.
It took an alarm clock play to wake the Raptors up: a run-in between Kyle Lowry and Jodie Meeks in the second quarter turned the game around. After that, the Raptors dug in on defense, showcased the Magic’s scoring woes, and poured it in like they have all year. They turned a disappointment into a blowout, winning 109-79.
Leading the way for the Raptors was DeMar DeRozan, who surpassed the 30-point mark for the 15th game this season — a personal record. His 31 points came on 13-for-21 shooting, as he used early portions of the game to probe the defense, then turned in some easier opportunities as the game went on. His dunk on Meeks in the third quarter was punctuation to the questionable play in the second quarter, where Jodie wiped out Lowry on successive plays, the latter being called flagrant by the officials.
Shortly after this dunk, with the score going the way it was, DeRozan was able to sit most of the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, his partner Kyle Lowry poured in a couple threes after the Meeks incident, prompting the Raptors broadcast to repeat that Meeks had “poked the bear”. While Lowry had 16 points, the bear might also have referred to Jonas Valanciunas, who had one of his best games on memory. Valanciunas had a double-double in the second quarter alone, dominating his matchups with Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic with hook shots, short jumpers, and a couple swooping layups. He finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds.
The best progression for the Raptors, though, wasn’t the play of their three stars — it was the improvement of their team defense. Without the services of Cory Joseph, the Raptors were able to dig in with a lineup of Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Valanciunas to start the second. They would go on a 10-2 run to eventually tie the game. VanVleet, after a couple of painful offensive trips, played well in his most meaningful Raptors appearance. Most memorably, he had this steal-save-assist combo.
After allowing 30 in the first, the Raptors limited the Magic to 21, 13, and 15 in the three successive quarters. While you come away from that feeling good about progression, it was also readily apparent how limited Orlando is scoring the ball. They went long stretches where Fournier looked like the only player capable of driving productively. Magic coach Frank Vogel pulled his starters early in the fourth, but ironically had Jeff Green setting up the offense multiple times. Green was a horrendous 1-for-7 and finished a team-worst -27.
And that’s how we come around to our old pal Biz. Locked in this weird mess of a Magic roster, it was nice to see the flashes of what he brought to Toronto last season. Biyombo had eight points, three blocks and 12 rebounds — exactly the line he was producing for Toronto. He was all smiles too, even after the 30-point drubbing, hugging and meeting with old teammates at centre court.
The two teams go two separate ways now. The Raptors will look to add up some wins over a long holiday road trip, while Orlando tries to figure out exactly who they are. The 19-8 Raptors will play the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.