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Five Thoughts on Last Night: Raptors 96, Pistons 91

Despite some prolonged funks in the middle quarters, The Raptors eventually sealed a 96-91 win against the Pistons on Monday. Here are five thoughts on a game that couldn’t end soon enough.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Cliché alert: the dog days of the NBA season are upon us. The stretch between New Year’s and All-Star Weekend typically yields less-than-pretty basketball, and that was certainly the case on Wednesday night when the Detroit Pistons made their first visit to the ACC to play the Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors Looked Nice and Comfortable in the First Quarter...

The Raptors didn’t come out guns blazing or anything like that; they simply came out looking like the second-best team in the East. They were calm, cool, executing their stuff, and building a nice lead over a weaker opponent. DeMar DeRozan had two nice cuts to the basket for easy layups—one off an inbounds play—and C.J. Miles scored a similar backdoor layup after a timeout. Those are the plays that good, comfortable teams make: Just running through the sets, exciting cleanly without hesitation.

They stretched an 8-2 early lead into a 15-point cushion by the 2:00 minute mark of the quarter.

... but Maybe They Got a Little too Comfortable.

After an early second-quarter 7-0 Pistons run, the 5-man bench unit—without Fred VanVleet, taking the night off due to a knee contusion—settled things down and kept the lead around double digits. But when the starters came back in, the wheels started to come off a little bit. Kyle Lowry and DeRozan missed 3-pointers, and the Pistons turned up the defense, attacking Lowry and DeMar above the arc and breaking the Raptors’ offensive rhythm. Toronto turned the ball over six times in the final four minutes of the second quarter, and the Pistons closed the gap to three points at the half.

The Raptors went from looking like they were in control, to looking like they thought the game was over. Detroit had other plans, clearly.

The Raptors’ Struggles Against Detroit’s Trap were... Confusing

For a while there, it looked like I’d tuned into the Raptors-Bucks series from last year, watching DeMar DeRozan spin cluelessly into a second defender and turn the ball over. He ended up with five giveaways in the game, more than double his season average. After a couple of great early dishes—one to Jakob Poeltl in the paint, and another cross-court dime to C.J. Miles for three—I was ready to write about DeMar’s improved passing. He did end up with five assists, right on his average; but the lack of vision he showed breaking those traps offset any positives.

He wasn’t alone, either. Lowry and Delon Wright also fell prey to the Pistons’ traps, and the Raptors overall ended up with 21 turnovers—seven above their top-five average.

Generally DeRozan and the Raptors have been fine against that trapping defense all year. I’ll chalk this one up to a one-game malaise rather than a problem to worry about.

Boy, Did That Fourth Quarter Drag

The two teams entered the final frame knotted at 73, and it wasn’t exactly a tightly contested battle down the stretch. The two teams combined to shoot 15-39 and turn the ball over 11 times in the fourth. In one scintillating sequence starting at about the 4:20 mark, with the Raptors leading 90-83, the following events happened:

  • Jonas Valanciunas passed up a layup to fire a pass to C.J. Miles that went over his head;
  • Ish Smith lost the ball on the way up to shoot a floater;
  • Delon Wright traveled;
  • Avery Bradley launched a fadeaway three-pointer that hit nothing but air (I do have to credit the Raps’ D on that possession);
  • Valanciunas turned the ball over again.

It was painful. The players looked like they wanted to get out of there, and judging by the weary tweets I saw hitting the timeline, pretty much everybody watching the game felt the same.

The Bright Spot of the Night: C.J. Miles Going Off

Miles had his best game in about a month, scoring 21 and hitting some well-timed 3-bombs. When he catches it in rhythm, he’s got a pretty stroke and it looks like it’s falling every time. Off the dribble, not so much, but when the ball is humming around the perimeter, Miles is the perfect player to cap off possessions. He finished 5-of-12 from long-range on the night, even canning one after turning his ankle on a fourth-quarter fast break.

Kyle Lowry added 4 3-pointers and the Raptors ended up 11-of-31. I’d like those numbers—both the totals, and the percentages—to tick up a little bit. But this roster is limited when it comes to shooters. The question facing Masai Ujiri is going to be: Is it better to be patient and try to develop Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Delon Wright into better shooters? Or make a move for, say, a Marco Belinelli or Jared Dudley?

I’d love to see either one of those guys on this team. And yet I wouldn’t want to give up any Raptors player for either of them.

Guess that’s why they pay Masai Ujiri the big bucks.

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Before I go, quick shoutout to the Raptors and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for making last night’s game “You Can Play” night, in support of the same-named organization that promotes inclusiveness in sports. It’s a wonderful gesture and it’s great to see the organization front and centre on these sorts of initiatives.

As the game was starting I was finishing up my dinner, and when they showed this during the anthem, I actually got a little choked up and had to stop eating for a minute.

Just the thought that a young person somewhere, a big Raptors fan, maybe struggling with their identity a bit, might see that and know that their favourite team supports them and believes in them... well, that sort of thing makes me proud to be a fan of the organization.

That’s all for the mushy stuff, the Raptors are back at it on Friday against another tough opponent, the Spurs. They’ll have to play a little more cleanly against San Antonio than they did against Detroit to come away with a win!