Coming into this season, the Raptors were planning on a transitional year. With a lot of money tied up in three players — Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka — there wasn’t a lot to fill the gaps. It’d be up to young players on the bench to fill out the productivity, and a new playing style would help that along.
It’s February now, and safe to say the plan is working better than expected. Against an undermanned Knicks team on Thursday, the Raptors got nearly nothing from their All-Star backcourt. Thanks to everyone else, though — especially those young guys coming off the bench — Toronto still won by 25, 113-88.
Five players on the Raptors’ second unit got into double digits Thursday. They were led by Pascal Siakam, who had a tenacious game in all areas. Similar to the Celtics game on Tuesday, he was laying out effort running up and down the court, beating players to the punch and even running a few plays from the point. His 14 points, six assists, and five rebounds in 23 minutes don’t quite tell the story of his game; watch the tape back, and you swear some plays looked like a skinny Draymond Green.
Excellent also was Jakob Poeltl (he and Pascal earned the post-game tandem interview usually reserved for Lowry and DeRozan), who had 13 points on 6-for-7 shooting. C.J. Miles dropped three triples toward his 11. Fred VanVleet continued to be steady for 10 points, six assists and three steals. Delon Wright had 11. It was a damn team effort from the bench, who earned their spotlight.
The lift was much-needed for the Raptors, who looked wholly disinterested facing a Knicks team missing Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter. Without those two inside, New York was left protecting the rim with Michael Beasley (note his history as a slightly disinterested defender) and Kyle O’Quinn. The Raptors were quick to take advantage early in the game, as Jonas Valanciunas would score the team’s first six points. In fact, nobody matched up with the Lithuanian on Thursday, as Jeff Hornacek even threw Luke Kornet out there to give it a try for his NBA debut. While Kornet’s parents — who caught the Sportsnet cameras a few times — were thrilled, the effort was for naught. Valanciunas dropped a couple threes and made 7-for-12 total, leading Toronto with 18 points and ten rebounds.
The lack of inside presence for New York was also good for Serge Ibaka, whose solid start paced the team. Lowry and DeRozan were miserable from the get-go in this one, and the Knicks were allowed to stick around through the first three quarters. The two All-Stars ended up combining for just 15 points on 4-for-21 shooting.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Lowry got to sit after just 25 minutes, DeRozan after just 29. The bench played the last two minutes of the third quarter, and started dropping triples at a fever pace to start the fourth. An eight-point game turned into 20 in a snap, and the Raptors were winning walking away — again.
Toronto is now very close to the NBA’s best point differential. They were just 0.4 off of Houston coming into the night, and with another blowout victory, that gap will narrow.
A team that came into the season looking to lean on its stars and hope the best for its youngsters has seen the script flipped. Now, with the stars looking forward to an All-Star break and saving their energy for bigger games, the bench is propping everything up. The end result, as you can expect, is wins.
Some other observations from this one:
- Put some respect on Dwane Casey’s name. His rotations in the third and fourth quarters were perfect. He allowed the starters to play through awkwardness with a small lead for ten minutes in the third, but didn’t feel behooved to come back to them after. Lowry and DeRozan were sleepwalking, and Casey simply played the hot hands without favouritism. The result is rest for the stars, and experience for the youngsters. Between this and the strategy vs. Boston, he’s had a masterful week.
- When the Raptors reach their second gear defensively, there’s really no stopping them. Against Boston it was all out mayhem, and while only the bench really brought it tonight, it was still a difference. Unlike the last outing against New York, there was really no fearing a 21-point run.
- A little sad that there won’t be any more blowout Bruno minutes. I always hoped those would come back one day. Happy, though, that Sacramento is deciding to keep him on their roster.