Who among us hasn’t partaken in a lazy Sunday afternoon?
The Raptors did just that in the first half of their 108-93 win over Sacramento. For 24 minutes, Toronto seemed disinterested in playing defense, seemingly hellbent against contesting even one of the Kings’ 42 first half looks; 25 of them went in, including a half court prayer by George Hill at the end of the second frame.
Toronto wasn’t entirely dead in the first half though. The way a Sunday lounger will gladly make elaborate, unhealthy meals while refusing to do the dishes afterwards, the Raptors scored a bunch of points while appearing content with lackadaisical defending; a 63-61 Kings lead was the result.
Presumably motivated by a swift ass kick from Dwane Casey at half time, the Raptors emerged from their relaxation as the setting mid-December sun brought an end to the afternoon. Upon exiting the locker room, the Raptors had shed their sweats and extra blankets and begun the basketball equivalent of meal-prepping and laundry or whatever well-adjusted adults do to set themselves up for a productive work week: they played harassing, energetic defense. As the contested looks, blocks and steals piled up, the Kings saw their once gaudy 62 percent clip fro the field pummeled into rubble.
By the time the buzzer sounded on the Raptors’ 15-point win, Sacramento had amassed just 30 second half points on 33 percent shooting.
Based on recent events, the engineers of Toronto’s shut-down half were a surprising bunch. Jonas Valanciunas, playing without his theoretical safety net Serge Ibaka, blocked three shots in the second half, dove for loose balls and led the way for the Raps as they out-boarded the Kings 46-32; JV had half of Sacramento’s total on his own.
Joining Valanciunas in the gargantuan task of slowing down the league’s second-worst offense was the bench. Regardless of the opponent, it was a relief to see Toronto’s second unit get fully back on track and doing what they do best.
Following Friday’s win over the Nets, during which the second unit flashed some promise during fourth quarter garbage time after getting roasted by Nik Staukas earlier on, Norman Powell touched on what was behind the bench rediscovering itself late.
“We weren’t communicating in the second unit’s first stint in the first half,” said Powell on Friday. “And we really tightened up and focused in on those things and we were able to get stops … When you’re taking the ball out of the basket it’s hard to get your offense going. But we were able to get stops and get out in transition and get easy buckets.”
That defense-first fourth quarter on Friday was clearly a stepping stone for Toronto’s bench, as they continued their ascent back up the league’s second unit power rankings on Sunday by replicating all those things Powell outlined two days ago.
The concern with Toronto’s five-man bench looks is a lack of offensive creativity. With very little in the way of accomplished shooters — especially when CJ Miles is out, or starting as he was today — the offense is often reduced to Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Delon Wright tossing the ball around the arc like a probing water polo team looking for an entry point that rarely reveals itself. Their potency is dampened by structure, which is why it’s so essential for them to create mayhem on the defensive side of the ball, as Powell alluded to early this week.
In the fourth quarter on Sunday, they swarmed Kings ball-handlers, forced misses, poked balls loose and counter struck with quick looks in transition. A sequence in which Powell and Wright drained back to back triples against backpedaling defenders represented the all-reserve lineup’s mission statement. In more than six minutes of fourth quarter floor time, Toronto outscored the Kings 10-4, giving the starters the breathing room they needed to close it out. That Buddy Hield wasn’t allowed to go off like Stauskas or Troy Daniels did earlier this week was a much-needed moral win for the bench.
Sunday’s win was another in a growing collection of wins this season in which it felt like the Raptors were in control from the jump, regardless of little defensive swoons or micro-explosions by opposing scrubs that may take place throughout the game. Toronto picked its spots for full exertion, relaxing for long stretches just because they could. At a certain point in franchise history, 48 minutes of all-out effort was often not enough to even sniff victory.
Exactly 13 years ago today, the Raptors were 8-17, in the midst of a spell of eight losses in nine games, and hours removed from trading away the only superstar the franchise had ever known.
Today, the Raptors are a team capable of napping for two quarters and pulling out a 15-point win without breaking much of a sweat, with that same former superstar watching from the other sideline.
Sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself how far these Raptors have come.