Another Sunday afternoon tip meant another sleepy start from the Toronto Raptors, but the alarm soon went off and with stellar shooting and crisp ball movement they ultimately overpowered the Charlotte Hornets 123-103.
Sweet Ball Movement (Almost) From the Opening Tip
The 12-2 Charlotte run to open things wasn’t pretty. The Raptors looked a step slow on defense and their offense was completely out of sync.
But the Raps settled in, started setting up their offense and things quickly started to click. It began with a DeMar DeRozan pass out of a clogged lane to Serge Ibaka for a 15-footer, followed up by a Kyle Lowry-Jonas Valanciunas pick-and-roll that led to a dunk. Valanciunas returned the favour a minute later when he found Lowry in the corner off a loose ball (that he managed to pass between his legs!) for three. By the time the Raptors erased the lead (on a Lowry 3-pointer that put them up 21-19) they’d assisted on 7 of 9 made field goals.
Toronto finished with 35 assists on 49 field goals, a 71% assist rate—their third-straight game with an assist rate over 70%. DeRozan is averaging 6.3 assists in those three as well.
The Bench Defense is So Much Fun to Watch
OK, pretty much everything about the bench is fun to watch. But you really have to love how aggressive they are on defense. They’ve been terrors in the passing lanes all year, but now they’re starting to pick up and apply more pressure in the backcourt as well—something they’re absolutely equipped to do, with their length and speed.
Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright wreaked their usual havoc on the perimeter, but even C.J. Miles got in on the action yesterday, with a steal off a lazy Cody Zeller pass, a runout and a dunk. 13 Charlotte turnovers isn’t a lot—it’s right on their season average, which is third-lowest in the league—but the backcourt pressure and length on the perimeter did change the way the Hornets initiated their offense, and surely contributed to Charlotte’s 40% shooting through three quarters (Charlotte did shoot 10-19 in the mostly-garbage-time 4th quarter).
A fun play at the end of the first quarter
With about 28 seconds to go in the first, the Raptors brought the ball into the frontcourt. DeRozan isolated on Treveon Graham in between the circles as you’d expect, and with about 15 seconds to go, Jakob Poeltl came up to set the screen. But he slipped it early, and Cody Zeller, Poeltl’s defender, either didn’t realize or simply decided to stick to DeRozan—leaving Poeltl open at the top of the circle.
DeRozan hit him with the pass, and while Poeltl with the ball in space may not be ideal, the kid is a pretty good passer. As the defense shifted towards him, he found C.J. Miles on the right wing and Miles drained the triple, giving the Raptors a 4-point lead heading into the second quarter.
That’s the type of play the “old look” Raptors wouldn’t even attempt.
Poeltl or Valanciunas playing playmaker in crunch time in the playoffs probably isn’t optimal, but anytime an end-of-quarter play sees the Raptors move the ball, it makes me happy. And I do trust everyone on this Raptors team to make the right play in a situation like that.
C.J. Miles is On Fire
Miles went 8-of-11 and scored 24 points, a season high. He’s now 15-of-23 from downtown in the past four games, a ridiculous 65%. As I noted the other day, that kind of production makes me much less worried about the Raptors finding another shooter on the buyout market (though I hate that Marco Belinelli went to Philadelphia—he can be a big help there). Miles also had two 4-point plays in the game.
Beyond the shooting, I’m really impressed with Miles’ energy in the past four games. He’s moving extremely well without the ball, making crisp cuts and getting to his spots ready to shoot the ball—and his teammates are finding him (all six of his triples were assisted). He also had two steals, including the runout and dunk mentioned earlier, and he added a blocked shot as well.
With the dental surgery, birth of his child, and sore knee, plus his teammates settling into the new offense around him, it’s possible that C.J. is just now finding his groove with the Raptors. Let’s hope it’s hear to stay.
A Game of Minor Notables
Sunday’s win marked Dwane Casey’s 300th career victory as Raptors coach, which is far more than just a sign of longevity. Sure, he’s coached almost 200 more Raptors games than anyone else, but, the success and growth in that time period is worthy of recognition.
Also on Sunday, the Raptors won their fifth straight game by 15+ points, a first in franchise history. That includes wins against Boston and Portland, so the opponents aren’t entirely scrubs. The critical thing here is the reduced demand on Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka and Valanciunas, who haven’t played a fourth quarter in more than 10 days.
Finally, Sunday also saw the debut of Malachi Richardson in a Raptors uniform; he saw his first 4.5 minutes of action in garbage time, and scored his first points as a Raptor as well. As the Raptors 905 come back off their road trip this week, he’ll no doubt get some run there, but it’s cool to see him log some minutes with the varsity team.
Shortly after the Raptors beat down the Hornets, the Cleveland Cavaliers beat down the Celtics in Boston. That means the Raptors are all alone in first place, which is awesome, but that Cavs win is a little... disconcerting. Though I tend to agree with many prognosticators that the Cavs didn’t improve that much on paper, the difference may well be a fully engaged LeBron James, who was completely checked out as of last week. A LeBron that’s happy, playing hard and enjoying his teammates is a damn scary thing. And 27 games to go is still a lotta games...