This is our first look at the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors without DeMar DeRozan. The Raps have been blessed with remarkable injury luck this season: Delon Wright and Norman Powell have been the only Raptors to miss significant time. And the team’s wealth of depth has allowed them to remain largely unaffected by any day-to-day pains. Wright and Fred VanVleet stepped up during Kyle Lowry’s absence, Lucas Noguiera had a strong showing in a pair of games Jonas Valanciunas missed early on, and more recently they’ve received a strong showing from Malcolm Miller while O.G. Anunoby was out.
DeRozan, however, shoulders a larger offensive burden than any of these players. He’s been the Raptors primary shot creator all year long, no bench player would be able to step into his role. Yet, for Tuesday night’s game against the Orlando Magic, Miller was called upon to replace DeRozan in the starting five. Despite the change-up, the Raptors would go on to win, 93-86.
From the jump, DeRozan’s job of generating shots was initially mostly handled by the pick-and-roll combination of Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry. Valanciunas came out white hot, he was involved in each of the Raptors first 14 points, either scoring or assisting on all of them. Lowry then picked up where Valanciunas left off, nailing an unassisted transition three point shot to break the aforementioned streak. Lowry hunted for pick and roll feeds for Valanciunas early on, hitting him with several neat pocket passes. Valanciunas would go on to reciprocate, as the pair ran a bizarre inverted pick and pop where Valanciunas handled the ball and found Lowry for an open three-point shot. Lowry would end the first half with 16 points.
Despite the early productivity from this duo the Raptors struggled to start the game, as the rest of the Raptors starters could not remain under control despite their fairly limited touches. Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby and Malcolm Miller were all disrupted by the length and activity of the Magic forward combination of Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. This pair created a barrage of transition opportunities for the Magic which seemingly all lead to easy baskets, including a 360° dunk for the former slam-dunk champion Gordon.
The Raptors bench then entered in the second quarter and found a new way to give up free points to the Magic. Despite some good initial shot defense the bench struggled to secure defensive rebounds, as ex-Raptor Bismack Biyombo proved hard to handle on the glass. The bench switched everything, leading to Biyombo having his way with Raptor guards at the ends of possessions.
Offensively, the bench struggled to get offense from anyone not named Norman Powell. Powell looked comfortable handling the ball for just about the first time all year and his 3-pointer was on as he would put up 10 point in the half. However, with C.J. Miles floundering and Pascal Siakam unable to score over Biyombo the bench was could not build a lead. The Raptors would enter the half leading by just one.
Then, in the third quarter the Raptors offense came apart at the seams. Powell, who was inserted into the starting five for Miller, lost whatever he had found in the first half. Anunoby continued to struggle with Isaac, turning the ball over seemingly every time he was asked to handle it. Valanciunas struggled to get to his spots under the basket and was pulled for Lucas Noguiera early on. The Magic weren’t great offensively but they still managed to put together a sizeable lead, which grew as big as 11.
The real story of the game, however, was the defensive effort the Raptors gave in the fourth. An all-bench lineup of Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown, Miles, Siakam, and Noguiera began the quarter. This offense-starved unit was almost totally incapable of generating decent looks. Jack Armstrong described watching them try to score in the halfcourt as “painful”. Yet the unit began to cut into the Magic’s lead through some stifling, swarming defense, forcing shot clock violations and gang rebounding like crazy to keeping Biyombo off the offensive boards. When Lowry entered for Miles at the seven minute mark of the quarter the Magic had yet to make a field goal.
Lowry finally gave the bizarre unit a competent shot creator and they proceeded to put the Magic to bed. Lowry banged his 3s against switches and created looks for Noguiera and Siakam at the rim. Brown and Wright provided secondary ball-handling with their slices to the rim, highlighted by Brown coolly making a late clock floater and Wright finding Siakam open in the corner for a rare three-point make. The defense continued to be just as suffocating, a single Nikola Vucevic hook shot and a pair of meaningless 3s after the game had already been decided were the only shots the Magic were able to make from the field.
Despite their innocuous box score stat lines Noguiera (+16) and Brown (+23) deserve special mention for their effort tonight. After being confined to the bench for the entire first half Bebe came in and played 17 consecutive minutes in quarters three and four. He worked hard the entire time and made a tremendous impact defensively, turning back shots at the rim and scrambling to contest perimeter jumpers. With Jakob Poeltl seeming more and more worn down lately, Noguiera has been giving the Raptors a strong argument to get him some rest.
Despite missing two of their best players in DeRozan and VanVleet, and despite struggles from several key ancillary players, the Raptors managed to find a new way to win. They broke their 22 game streak of scoring a hundred points or more in the process, and they needed some unlikely heroes in Brown and Noguiera. But this Raptor team is just a little too deep to lose games like these.