Missing a whole bunch of guys and playing some unconventional lineups as a result, the Toronto Raptors shared the ball, worked their butts off on the glass, went hard to the rim all night and won their second straight game and third overall against the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
Even though it was a team effort and every Raptor contributed, things begin an end with Kawhi Leonard — who is a Toronto Raptor.
Kawhi Leonard is Ridiculous
I’m doing my best not to take Leonard for granted, because he is so damn good, I don’t want to get used to it and start thinking his play is routine. He made an incredible array of shots last night, shrugging off defenders, scoring with either hand, getting anywhere he wanted... Sure, it’s the Cavs, and they’re terrible, but he made them look like high schoolers out there.
My favourite play might have been in the second quarter, when Jordan Clarkson found himself defending Leonard at the top of the key. Leonard’s eyes must have lit up like a kid on Christmas; he was so excited at the prospect of cooking Jordan, looking at all of the possibilities in front of him, that it seemed like he couldn’t even decide how to do it and momentarily lost the ball. And then he calmly picked it up and laid it in even as Larry Nance Jr. came over to contest.
Leonard was 12-of-16 on the night. Look at this shot chart:
Superior Ball Movement
The Raptors did an excellent job sharing the ball last night; the box score doesn’t really show it (21 assists on 48 field goals) but a lot of the one-on-one play that resulted in made buckets came of out of initial ball movement that opened up the floor for Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell.
I do want to call out one play, this extra pass from Leonard to OG Anunoby in the first quarter:
For Leonard to pass up that short baseline J — that shot is usually money for him — to hit the trailing Anunoby shows that trust and chemistry are starting to come together. Anunoby hasn’t had a great season, but he hit his first two shots, and Leonard fed the hot hand. It’s a simple basketball play but one that’s a great sign for the Raptors.
Speaking of OG Anunoby...
Does OG Anunoby Need to Start?
I don’t think it’s a stretch to call last night OG Anunoby’s best game of the season; in addition to his career-high-matching 21 points, he had a career-high-matching eight rebounds and was active and engaged on defense all night. He did pick up three fouls early (he likely would have set new career highs otherwise) but overall? Great game from OG.
He got the start last night, and you can’t help but wonder if Anunoby is one of those players that needs to start in order to be effective. Some guys do need that, and Anunoby has generally struggled all year coming off the bench. One game doesn’t tell the story but it’s certainly a possibility.
Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone in the current (when healthy) starting lineup is giving up their spot. Pascal Siakam has earned the hell out of his spot, and Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry are locked in. And the lineup with those four plus Serge Ibaka has the fourth-best net rating in the league for any group that’s played 200 minutes.
It might be tough for him, but OG is gonna have to learn how to channel that energy off the bench.
I Don’t Wanna Jinx it but... is Good Norm Back?
Last night was only Norman Powell’s second game back from his injury, but he played 26 minutes, and he played extremely well. Gone was the out-of-control, indecisive Norm of 2017-2018; what we saw was the play-within-my-means Norm of 2016-2017. And it was an incredibly welcome sight.
And some hops! It usually takes guys a little while to get their legs under them after coming back from injury (even upper body injuries like Powell’s) but Norm was attacking and getting up high at the rim. He had two great drives in the second, one finishing with the right and another with the left, where he attached closeouts and got to the rim with a nice burst. He finished with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
Maybe playing with another California guy in Leonard has helped Norm find his place on the team a little bit? Who knows, but with all of the injuries and the continued struggles of C.J. Miles, if Powell can play this way consistently, that is huge for the Raptors.
Slick-handling Pascal Siakam
It’s become so routine that I haven’t highlighted a Pascal Siakam runout in a while, so it’s take this one in:
Ooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu ️ pic.twitter.com/P3gkH64y7I— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 22, 2018
The speed and the (left-handed!) finish are sensational to watch, obviously.
But look at the way Siakam controlled the dribble immediately after picking up the loose ball, pulling the string on it to keep it out of Collin Sexton’s reach. That ball handing skill in a big man, even in today’s NBA, is rare, and is another one of those things Pascal Siakam could not do two years ago. The dude is doing sensational things every game and yet his development continues to amaze me.
Even though the Raptors let the Cavs hang around too long (giving up 41 points in the third quarter) it was a solid team effort from Toronto last night. They’ll be shorthanded again tonight in a much tougher match in Philly, as Leonard has already been ruled out (that wind you’re feeling is the giant sighs of relief from Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who might not reach double-digit turnovers against the Raptors for once). Can the rest of the guys pull together with the same kind of effort? They’ll need it.