“For a quarter, it looked like a ball game, and then the bench took over.” How many Toronto Raptors game recaps have included a statement similar to that this season? I’m guessing it’s a lot! It was the same story in the Raptors’ 122-98 victory over the Chicago Bulls last night.
Toronto Got a Great Start from the Bigs
Early on, the Raptors offense ran entirely through Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Each had scored on short hooks in the lane, then Ibaka found Valanciunas on a nice dish for a layup; JV then scored off an offensive rebound, Serge found him again for a lay-in off a loose ball, and then Ibaka scored back-to-back runners.
They combined for 14 straight points before Kyle Lowry nailed a three. Then they each added one more bucket to account for 18 of the Raptors first 21 points.
Each of them had a block in the opening three minutes as well.
The Raptors went away from the bigs the rest of the first, and thanks to some rather poor defense, the Bulls ended up taking the lead. But after the bench steadied things in the second, the starters came back—and Ibaka and Valanciunas combined for 6 points on 3-of-4 shooting with 6 boards and a block in the final 4.5 minutes of the half.
All in all they combined for 34 points on 21 shots with 16 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocks.
Once Again, the Bench was the Key
The aforementioned poor D let the Bulls build a six-point lead going in to the second; the Bulls somehow shot 58% and scored 33 points in the first.
The bench wasn’t having any of that.
It took them less than 2.5 minutes to erase the lead, and another 4 minutes to build it to 7 points. Toronto never looked back.
Offensively the subs were great, but it was really on the defensive end that the difference was made; they were using their superior foot speed to scramble out to shooters and jumping into passing lanes, and even used their athleticism to keep Chicago off the boards (a 7-4 advantage over that stretch).
After that big first, Chicago only scored 16 points on 5-20 shooting in the second.
Pascal Siakam was the key sub last night; he’s been getting better and better lately, and it’s been impressive to watch. He’s doing all of the Siakam things—steals and runouts, creating drives and scoops, getting dunks off scrambles—that we’re used to, just doing a little more, and doing it in much more controlled, confident boosts.
Last night he did all of the above, racking up 17 points on 9 shots. He added six boards and even went 2-for-2 from downtown. He had a couple of wonderful drives where he showed his craftiness around the hoop, and a sweet runout dunk to boot.
The bench ended up with 56 of Toronto’s 122 points and once again—for the sixth time in seven games—played the entire fourth quarter.
OG Anunoby and Norman Powell Not Looking so Hot (Umm, and DeMar?)
Damn good thing that this Raptors team is deep, because these two cats—who between them have started every game at small forward—are struggling.
A few games ago I mentioned OG Anunoby flirting with the rookie wall, and I think he’s fully embraced it now. A twisted ankle two games ago seems to have hastened their coming together. He looked slow tonight, his shots were way off, and he didn’t even make an impact on defense.
The All-Star break couldn’t come at a better time for him; even though I think he deserves to be there, I’m quite pleased he didn’t get selected for the Rising Stars game. I’m much happier to let him rest.
As for Norman Powell, his struggles are well documented; this was the type of game, with Anunoby struggling and a big second half lead, where you’d like to see Powell get his offense back on track. Unfortunately all of his shots were short and “stay ready” Norman looked anything but.
Hopefully the break does him some good as well.
And then there’s DeMar DeRozan, who’s been quietly subpar during this 7-game winning streak. He’s only scoring 18.6 on 40% shooting during the streak (50% TS), and while his defensive rating is fine at 99, he isn’t really passing the eye test there; last night in the first quarter Justin Holiday repeatedly beat him over screens and back cuts for easy buckets, for example.
I’m not worried about DeMar of course—he’ll be fine—but I do hope he finds some time to rest during All-Star Weekend in his hometown.
Dishes and Dimes
One thing DeRozan did well last night was find his teammates. The Raptors set a season-high with 38 assists, DeRozan had 8 and Lowry had 10—pretty impressive numbers when you consider they only played 28 and 27 minutes, respectively. Overall the Raptors assisted on 79% of their made buckets.
Lowry had a couple of sweet ones too, including a mid-air dish to Anunoby off an offensive rebound, a lovely drop-off to Jakob Poeltl on the pick-and-roll, and another find—this time to Ibaka—off another offensive rebound.
The Raptors also ran a nice play at end of the third quarter to get a quality look. With the clock winding down, DeRozan iso’d between the circles as he usually does. Lowry circled around the left side, pinned Bobby Portis with a quick screen, and slipped out to the right wing as DeRozan drove left. DeRozan crossed over back into the lane, kicked it to Lowry, who gave a slight head fake then passed off to C.J. Miles, wide open in the right corner.
Unfortunately he missed it. (I feel like he may have bobbled it a bit in his hand—didn’t look like it came off clean.)
I like the action. Maybe it’s not there against a better defense but as I’ve said before, just the idea of more ball movement and the trust that Kyle and DeMar are showing in their teammates in end of quarter, late clock situations is great to see.
25 Games To Go
The Raptors are 41-16, two games up on Boston (three in the loss column) for first place in the East. They’re third overall, behind Houston and Golden State; they’re third in net rating, second in point differential (a truly impressive 8.5; there are no teams other than Houston and Golden State that are even above 3.5!); and are the only team in the top four of both offensive and defensive rating.
And they’ve put the toughest part of their schedule behind them. And Lowry and DeRozan’s minutes are at the lowest they’ve been in more than four years.
That’s all pretty amazing.
It’s not all sunshine and roses; they’ve still got things to clean up, like clutch situations, consistency from 3-point range, rebounding, punching back against scrappier teams like Miami.
And Cleveland appears to be lurking...
But I think it’s worth celebrating this team’s achievements to date, and I think—despite the number of times the Raptors have broken fans’ hearts—it’s OK to have a positive outlook on the rest of this season.
Now it’s break time, Lowry, DeRozan and the coaches get to hang out in L.A. and we get to daydream about success in April and beyond.