Under different conditions, we would not be at all interested in a Monday night February match-up between the Raptors and Pistons. It would just be another forgettable game on the schedule. I made this point in the morning preview, and I stand by it. But then Detroit traded for Blake Griffin in an attempt to push into the playoff picture, and the Raptors are still in first — so there were post-season implications to tonight’s game.
The key word, of course, being “were,” since the Raptors put so thorough a beatdown on the Pistons tonight there doesn’t seem to be much more to glean from it than: Raptors good, Pistons bad. The final score was 123-94, and it actually felt less close than that. Even if Detroit manages to eke their way into the playoffs, they aren’t going far — against Toronto or any other team.
The only time the Pistons remotely threatened the Raptors tonight was in the first quarter. At one point Detroit held a four-point lead, but they were only shooting 41 percent at the time (to the Raptors’ 55 percent). If not for a few offensive rebounds (an Andre Drummond speciality), some steals (Drummond again), and some sloppy play from Toronto (six turnovers), it’s a wonder if we’d have even seen a close score at all.
Because the rest of the game was all Toronto. As has been the case often this year, the Raptors bench came in and got things going the other way. To start the second quarter, a two-point game was suddenly a 12 point lead for the Raptors after some slick C.J. Miles shooting, a dynamite Pascal Siakam-Jakob Poeltl alley-oop play, and then a Fred VanVleet steal which led to a Delon Wright three. It happened so fast, I’m not sure the Pistons even knew what time it was. For their efforts — especially against that big and talented Detroit frontline — Poeltl finished with eight points, three steals, and a block. His buddy Pascal went for 11, plus five rebounds, and another strong night of helpers with six assists. And sure, just for fun, Delon Wright did this:
Utes out here havin' a ball. pic.twitter.com/2hVMCnrzZS— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 27, 2018
Then the Raps starters came back in and that was that. They outscored the Pistons 34-22 in the frame, out-shot them 50 to 33 percent (and 43 to 29 from three), and while the turnovers didn’t quite stop (they had 13 through three quarters and 18 in total), it honestly didn’t matter. Kyle Lowry finished the game with 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting from three, DeMar DeRozan had another 20 on 5-of-9 shooting and led the team with seven assists, and Serge Ibaka won his match-up with rival Griffin, outscoring him 19 to 12, and surprisingly out-rebounding him nine to one. Griffin looked asleep and sad for most of the game (except when he was trying to disrespect FVV, which didn’t work out for him either).
“I think we just tightened up defensively, got some stops and got out in transition a little bit,” said VanVleet after he chipped in eight points of his own. “Obviously, when the shots go in it makes it easier, to just kind of clamp down ... The starters came in and set the tone in that third and the bench just tried to do what we do coming in there.”
The tone Fred is talking about there gradually got the lead up to 20 plus points in the third quarter, and turned the game into a real laugher by the fourth. Two-way contract player Malcolm Miller got in at the 8:45 mark; Lucas Nogueira showed out with a three-pointer; the lead eventually grew to 31 points. These Pistons were trying, I guess, but they remain the most exhausting team in the league: all of that labour to get... where, exactly?
A lot is deservedly being made of the Raptors’ relative struggles in crunch time situations. When they’ve gotten in tight games, as they did last Friday night against the Bucks — an actual fearsome team — the offense often looked shaky, and sometimes the defense faltered. Dwane Casey mentioned before tonight’s game that the Raps do prepare, but it’s hard to simulate the feeling of an actual late-game situation. It’s hard to disagree, especially when it feels like more and more of Toronto’s games are over before the fourth quarter.
There’s only one other team that can boast a problem like this. (I’ll whisper it here in these parenthesis: it’s the Warriors.) But while the other title contenders in the NBA have all been tested in some way, many of the young Raptors are still waiting for their time on the big (and bigger) stage. That moment will come, and we can still worry about it — but it is a funny problem to be faced with now.
Imagine: the Raptors and their fans worrying that the team is winning too many blowouts. What a world.