In their own way, both Nick Nurse and Dwane Casey have now been humbled. The former won a title with the Raptors thanks largely to some superhuman efforts from a single player he now lacks; the latter was fired from the Raptors and quickly joined the Pistons, a franchise that has now lost 12 straight playoff games dating back to 2009. I admit, these situations are not particularly equal — a title sure beats watching Andre Drummond spend another season figuring it out — but for a random early season game, it tracks as similar.
That was the general mood of Wednesday night’s Raptors vs. Pistons matchup. Unlike last year’s weird inability for Toronto to best their former head coach, the night’s affair was mostly just a chance for both squads to try things out. It just happens that the Raptors still have far more available talent — and know more certainly who they are — than the Pistons. As a result, Toronto gradually pulled away in the first quarter and never looked back, winning handily 125-113. There’s not a lot more to read into it than that.
Except, ah yes, Pascal Siakam. The Raptors’ newest franchise cornerstone continues to show that he may indeed be everything Toronto hoped for — and more, if you can believe that. For yet another contest, Siakam controlled much of what the Raptors were doing on offense — but unlike those other games, he kept his fouls and turnovers in check. The result: a 30-point outing on 13-of-21 shooting (including 3-of-6 from three), plus five rebounds and five assists, and at least one highlight play of note.
The above play, an absurd run-ahead, self-alley-oop lay-up — the best way I can describe it — is pure Siakam. He’s down the court before most of the rest of the players on the floor can even turn around. And when it looks like he’s flubbed it, when it looks like Siakam will have no choice to gather the ball and reset — up he goes. These were two of his 19 points in the frame, which completely crushed whatever momentum the Pistons thought they had.
In truth, Casey’s Pistons don’t have a ton of momentum to spare. For every massive Drummond rebound (he had 22 boards tonight), for every shifty Derrick Rose drive (he finished with 16 points and 10 assists), even for every Langston Galloway three (a total of three), Siakam and the Raptors had an answer. In this it’s hard not to feel a bit bad for Casey — he knows some of Toronto’s guys perhaps better than they know themselves, or at least better than they knew themselves when he coached them — particularly Siakam. Now Pascal is a no-doubt leading scorer able to provide a mix of iso-jumpers, above-the-break 3s, and punishing spin moves in the post. Everyone else in Toronto is finding their places behind him.
Off of that singular effort, the Raptors shot 59 percent from the field as a team and 48 percent from three; they had only 14 turnovers to Detroit’s 20; and while they couldn’t out-rebound the Pistons (Drummond made sure of that), it didn’t really matter. Kyle Lowry just ran the floor instead, getting his team out to 23 fastbreak points, and finishing with 20 of his own (on some neat 7-of-13 shooting). His backcourt counterpart Fred VanVleet put in some light work for 13 points and 11 assists in a low (for him) 30 minutes. And OG Anunoby continued to be early-career Scottie Pippen with 13 points, eight rebounds, and two steals, while acting as an all-around deterrent on the perimeter. (Luke Kennard will be seeing OG’s swooping arms around every corner for the rest of his life.)
And while the Pistons’ bench did provide some strong contributions, the Raptors continued to see steady production from Serge Ibaka with 19 points and six rebounds. What’s more, they got 19 come-from-anywhere points from Norman Powell, who shot 7-of-10 despite having no real business doing so. Let’s also give special mention to the 23 minutes the Raptors got from Patrick McCaw, who showed off a bit more of those defensive chops Nurse is always crediting him with having. He also, amazingly, took three whole shots — and hit two of them! I’ll say it again: if the Raptors are getting five points from McCaw on any given night, they will be tough to beat.
The Raptors still project as a thin team. Nurse was not shy in admitting the foibles of his squad — Siakam resting on D due to his offensive expenditures, Lowry’s minutes still ticking too high, Gasol rounding into form (OK, that was my addition), the absence of anything from players nine through 15 — but they’re 4-1 anyway.
More importantly, the methods they employ to win feel sustainable, even if the Raptors remain just an 8-man squad. Toronto, it should be noted, had 34 assists on the night, and kept the ball moving (sometimes to a fault) in an effort to find the best shot. And while they can’t count on every team finishing as poorly at the rim as the Pistons, they know they can lean back into their defensive schemes when they have to. It’s a enviable place to be in. On a night like this, while you’d never get him to admit it, I’m willing to bet Dwane Casey would agree.