The Toronto Raptors led from start to finish, and despite a couple of Pacers runs, a victory over Indiana was never in doubt. That makes it a franchise-record 57 wins, and a franchise-record 33 home wins, another Atlantic Division title, and a franchise-first top seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Pretty Good Start!
As Raptors fans we definitely felt relieved after our team beat the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, and the way in which the Raptors came out of the gate last night made us even more relaxed. The Raptors showed up with a ton of energy, especially on defense: they were active in passing lanes and at the rim, as both Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby had early steals, and DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas both had early blocks.
Serge Ibaka, meanwhile, provided the spark on offense—10 points in the quarter— and before you knew it, it was 24-8 Raptors.
That gave Dwane Casey the opportunity to go all-bench a little earlier than usual, with DeRozan subbing out with 1:15 to play. Unfortunately, the bench was unable to build upon the lead.
Sloppy Bench Play Kept it Close For Awhile
I was thrilled to see the Bench Mob back in fine form against the Celtics, but they were out-of-sorts in the early going last night, as the Pacers were able to cut the lead to five about halfway through the second quarter.
Thankfully, this was a night where the starters were locked in, and an 8-0 run from that unit brought it back to double-digits.
Back to the bench, though; it was interesting to see Norman Powell get an extended look before C.J. Miles came into the game. Powell usually bridges a few OG/Miles minutes in the second quarter, but here he got the run in the first. (He was fine; he’s still not 2016 Game 5 Norm, but he’s not January 2018 Norm either.)
Miles, meanwhile... well, he’s kinda like bad Norm right now. He’s shooting airballs and bouncing the ball off of guys’ feet. He finished 1-for-6 (0-for-3 from 3-point range), with two turnovers and three fouls. It’s all going wrong for poor C.J.
The other weak link on the bench was, shockingly, Pascal Siakam. “Weak” being relative, naturally; I just feel like he’s gone a little squirrelly at the rim, often declining to take the ball strong to the rack and opting to try a finger roll or reverse, and it’s hurting him. Look at this shot chart:
Two-of-6 within five feet is not good, and definitely not good when you struggle from deep, as Siakam does.
Jakob Poeltl, on the other hand, had a nice night around the rim, flashing his quick hands to grab tough passes and complete contested layups. The beauty of the Raptors depth is the way that guys can pick each other up on any night if someone is off.
Except, perhaps, for Miles’ 3-point shooting. Despite how well Lowry and Fred VanVleet are also shooting, C.J.’s range and quick release are irreplaceable.
Defensive Intensity Remained High
It’s true that the Raptors offense hasn’t been humming on all cylinders in these two wins. Miles’ struggles have been noted, turnovers have been an issue, and even Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas have been quiet the last two games (averaging 31 combined points).
But Dwane Casey will live with any offensive struggles when the defensive intensity remains as high as it has the last two games. The Raptors were the more aggressive defensive team right from the tip last night; they held the Pacers to a mere 14 in the first quarter, and the Raptors didn’t let them crack 20 in a quarter until the garbage time minutes of the fourth. That also makes it two games in a row where the Raptors have held an opponent under 80.
Most notable on the night was OG Anunoby’s defense on Victor Oladipo. Oladipo’s had a breakout year, will likely win Most Improved Player and will likely make an all-NBA team. Anunoby, however, is not impressed. He held the Pacers’ All-Star to a mere five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Five! This guy averages 23.3 a night on 47.5% shooting!
Also of note: Not one single Pacers started scored more than five points. Granted, none of them played in the fourth quarter as the game was out of reach, but still, that’s something you don’t see very often! Kudos to the Raptors’ starters for locking them down early.
Serge Ibaka is Postseason-Ready
Speaking of Raptors starters, Serge Ibaka scored 25 points, which is a season high, and he did it on a mere 13 shots. He also grabbed eight boards, and although he didn’t block a shot he looked active and engaged on the defensive end as well. He even finished a fast-break alley-oop off a DeRozan pass!
It wasn’t that long ago that we were lamenting Ibaka’s play and wondering if he was entering his twilight. We were, perhaps, as Raptors fans are wont to do, overreacting. In his last five games, he’s shot 34-of-58 (58.6%), including 12-of-23 (52.2%) from downtown, and is averaging 16.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.
That’s pretty damn good.
The only worry now is, can he sustain this in the playoffs? We don’t want peak Serge peaking too early! Regardless, it’s been really good to see a sustained run of solid play from him.
The Time is Now, Now, NOW
With apologies to Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, the window, the moment for the Toronto Raptors is indeed right now:
They Raptors have locked up first place in the East and have homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The no. 2 team, Boston, is banged up and missing its best player. In the 3-4 spots, LeBron James lurks, but he’s surrounded by his weakest team since 2010, and Philadelphia, while scary good, is young and inexperienced, and their unicorn is hurt. The 5-8 seeds are not easy outs, but are also just not as talented as this Raptors team.
None of this may be true next year. Boston will have its stars back. If LeBron stays, Cleveland will use its draft pick (via Brooklyn) to reload. Philly will have playoff experience. Oladipo will be better. Giannis might finally get a coach. Miami remains a free-agent hot-spot.
What I’m saying is: There has not ever been, and there may not ever be, a better time for the Raptors to make it to the NBA Finals. The time, the window, is right now.
The opportunity is right there in front of them, waiting to be seized. Can they do it? The Playoffs are a week away.
Sunday is the final home game of the season, against a tanking Orlando Magic team, and I suspect we’ll see DeRozan, Lowry and Ibaka on pretty short leashes. I’m sure they’ll start—it’s Fanapalooza, after all!—but the game doesn’t mean a heck of a lot so there’s no need to risk any injuries, especially with another game on Monday.
In the meantime: Celebrate! We’re #1!!