We know in our bones the Raptors are going to lose some games this season. There will be a night when the shots don’t go in, when the defense is a step slow, when any number of random bounces will not go their way. (To say nothing of the refs’ whistles.) Toronto will not go 82-0.
And yet, after another win, an at times tense 116-107 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, Toronto’s sixth in a row (which sets a new franchise record for best start to a season), it certainly doesn’t feel like they’re going to lose any time soon. We know that’s impossible, of course, an irresponsible thing to even suggest. And yet, and yet, and yet.
Before hyperventilating, let’s get to the events of the game. Toronto opened the scoring on the Mavericks, and then just kept going. It was 7-0 before the Mavs made a bucket; later it was 18-2 as the Toronto defense kept Dallas frustrated while finding all kinds of inventive ways to score — Danny Green hit some threes, Kyle Lowry dictated tempo, Pascal Siakam ran faster than everyone else, and Kawhi Leonard glided around the court deciding where and when he would make things happen for his team. The Raptors’ first half lead, which got to as big as 17 points, would eventually shrink to a mere five, but were any of us worried?
As humbly as I can, allow me to submit: no, we were not worried.
That said, coach Nick Nurse was forced into something of a corner where his lineups were concerned. Without both Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, and in the absence of OG Anunoby, Nurse opted to try out all-bench lineups featuring Lorenzo Brown, Norman Powell, and Malachi Richardson — all at the same time. In other words, despite outright dominance of the Mavs for long stretches, the Raptors found themselves in some tight spots in the second half.
Despite a restoration of their 17-point lead in the third, the Raptors were up by just one point, 90-89, with a minute and half to go in the frame. Toronto was paced throughout by superlative work from Kyle Lowry, who finished the night with 20 points (on 8-of-14 shooting) and 12 assists, with zero turnovers; Kawhi Leonard quietly did his thing too, putting in 21 on 7-of-16 shooting, along with nine rebounds, five assists, and three steals. In truth, with those two on the court, the risk factor to the Raptors losing was low. But those two couldn’t play all 48 minutes.
So, yeah, a one-point lead. The Raptors did have to contend with some strong play from Mavs rookie Luka Doncic (22 points, 7-of-14 shooting), a big 18-and-15 from DeAndre Jordan, and some spirited play form Wesley Matthews (21 points). After that trio however, Dallas’ ability to withstand Toronto waned — they never managed to get closer than one. A field goal drought of about six minutes, stretching between the end of the third and well into the fourth, allowed the Raptors to push their lead back up 13 in the final frame. And wouldn’t you know it: the surge to victory was lead in part by Brown, he of G League fame, the Raptors’ fourth string point guard.
Brown played a total of 15 minutes in the game, closing both the first and third quarters, and opening the second and fourth. For that first run he was largely invisible, looking every bit the minor leaguer he often is. That second run however, with the game on the line, was somehow different. “Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s a game of basketball,” said Brown when asked about the shift in momentum and his growing confidence. “It’s an up and down game and whoever wants it the most is gonna get it, so I felt like it was my time to step up.”
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, Brown hit a three (his first points of the game) to push the Raptors lead back to eight. Less than ten seconds later he was stealing the ball in the backcourt for an easy breakaway dunk. Two more Brown buckets came later, including another off a steal, to put the game away for good — what else could Dallas do, especially with Lowry and Leonard looming? In the small media scrum afterwards, Brown’s confidence seemed to grow too; shy at first, by the end Brown was patting one reporter on the back and chuckling about the last time he’d actually dunked the ball in an NBA game.
This game wasn’t won or lost on Brown’s strong second half — not entirely — but it certainly didn’t hurt. For their parts, Danny Green went 4-of-7 from deep for 15 points, Pascal Siakam finished with 10-7-3 (and should have had a couple more assists, if not for Jonas Valanciunas missing some bunnies). The big men, JV and Serge Ibaka, finished with 17-and-8 and 11-8, respectively. Even C.J. Miles had a mini-breakout with a pair of threes, and some strong defensive play, for 10 points. The Raptors just keep finding ways.
As mentioned, Toronto is now 6-0, which is a franchise record as far as season opening runs go. They’ve played against mixed levels of competition, and at times still look to be finding their legs individually and as a unit. Still, there are times, maybe when Kawhi goes in for one of his patented baseline jumpers, or when Valanciunas finds himself wide open in the lane, or even when Lorenzo Brown comes in and swings a game for a few minutes, when it really does feel like the Raptors will never lose. Hey, stranger things have happened.