The Raptors are now 4-1, and undefeated at home, after beating up on the hapless Pistons on Wednesday night to a final score of 125-113. In truth, the game wasn’t quite as close as that 12-point margin suggests. The Raptors got their lead up to as much as 22 points in the fourth quarter and were in control for most of the game’s 48 minutes after a 37-point opening frame.
As coach Nick Nurse has opined throughout these early games, he’s in discovery mode and trying to stretch his squad out to play more than 30 minutes of what he deems good basketball. After Monday’s win against the Magic, Nurse acknowledged that metric of good play, tonight he was a bit more magnanimous. “I think it was a little bit longer tonight. I thought there was some, again, maybe eight or 10 where it was kind of poor.”
In that spirit, let’s work our way up through the good to the very good (and yes, maybe a touch of the poor) with these five thoughts on last night’s Raptors-Pistons contest.
McCaw Is In the Opposite of the Dog House
Many Raptors fans are likely confused as to what it is Nurse sees in eighth man Patrick McCaw. After missing the first three of Toronto’s games due to injury, he’s back in the rotation in a big way as their pseudo third point guard and defensive specialist at the point of attack. At least that’s what McCaw is supposed to be doing in theory.
In practice last night however, despite a steal (he know as three in two games, which is not nothing), McCaw spent a large chunk of his 23 minutes getting roasted by Derrick Rose, who sliced and diced his way to 16 points (on 7-of-12 shooting) with 10 assists. In 2019 it stands to reason that Rose shouldn’t be able to do that to any team. Still, McCaw is firmly in the Raptors’ rotation. Nurse loves him, and the team needs him to bring something to the table when he’s on the floor. (They certainly aren’t getting it from anyone else on the bench besides maybe Terence Davis.) That McCaw managed to score five points (on a 3 and a truly insane drive to the rim) counts for a lot — but Pat really shouldn’t worry, his spot is safe.
Let’s Worry about Lowry’s Minutes
We wouldn’t have to do this if there didn’t already exist a compelling body of evidence to suggest that burning out Kyle Lowry early in the season is a bad thing to do. Going all the way back to 2015 (when he was still on the right side of 30), Lowry is the kind of point guard willing to play as much as he can — and do as much as he can — at all times. But that kind of pace leads to breakdown. It did in a big way in 2015, and it became a dominant narrative for much of the next 2-3 years every time Lowry made a string of 35-40 minute appearances.
The tricky thing now is this: the Raptors clearly still need Lowry. In fact, they need him even more than they did last year (and his scoring is indeed up as a result). What’s more, with him sharing the court even more with Fred VanVleet, it puts the Raptors into a specific bind — they need a third point guard they can rely on! That theoretical player need not put up 20 points and eight assists like Lowry did last night, but he needs to eat some of those minutes. Lowry played almost 38 last night, and is averaging 39 on the year. Yikes.
OG Is A Menace
There are perhaps more significant defenders on the Raptors or more important components to their overall team defense, but OG Anunoby is now the most threatening defensive presence on the squad. To be clear: Toronto needs Lowry and Marc Gasol to quarterback things, they rely on Pascal Siakam’s ability to do it all in a heartbeat, and they certainly appreciate the toughness of Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka. Anunoby, though, is starting to move into a different category. His stance, his footwork, his long arms, his power — all of these are starting to really work together to demoralize opponents one-on-one, and it is a sight to see.
Setting aside the solid offensive numbers (another 13 points and eight rebounds last night), OG is making it impossible for players on the perimeter to get anywhere they want to go. Watching him guard Luke Kennard last night, something of an up-and-coming player for the Pistons, was watching full-scale retreat every few minutes; Kennard could gain no ground (he scored just three points, 12 off his season average). For his efforts, OG had another two steals last night — he’s now averaging 1.6 per game — and the chatter about his presence on an All-Defense team continues to grow.
Siakam Is Perhaps the Superstar We’re Looking For
Look, it’s one game, it’s just five games into the season, it was a hopeless Pistons team, yadda, yadda, yadda. The point here is this: Pascal Siakam put up 30 points, five rebounds, and five assists in 30 minutes across (mostly) just three quarters, and he did it by taking what Detroit’s defense gave him.
Siakam’s crushing 19-point explosion in the third quarter was what sealed the game for the Raptors — and it also highlighted where Pascal is moving next. During last season’s playoffs, as we can all recall, the biggest knock on Siakam was that you could stick a bigger body on him and dare him to shoot from anywhere outside of, say, 15 feet. Goading Siakam into step-back jumpers or any sort of non-corner three on the move was a win for the defense. And last year, for the most part, it worked. Except now when the Pistons tried to throw Andre Drummond on Siakam, the Raptors star just drilled threes in his face. On the night, Siakam was 13-for-21, and he shot 2-of-4 on non-paint twos along with 3-of-6 from three (with all three makes coming above the break). This is some Neo in the Matrix stuff right now.
Dwane Casey, Still Something
When asked about the development of Toronto’s players, and what made Casey, the Pistons’ coach and former long-time Raptor coach, most proud about the stories now around the team, here’s what he had to say:
Well, all of them. Take Kyle, Kyle’s story, Fred VanVleet’s story. Here’s a kid who’s not very fast, not very tall, undrafted, had every excuse to not make it big and here he is and he’s gonna be one of the top free agents. Pascal, his story going from school over there in Africa to college over here, his father passed away, and then to see where he is now. So all of those stories are beautiful stories, and I remember when they weren’t stories. So, again, I’m not being salty, but I remember that.
So those are all great stories and to see those guys — I saw Pascal at the awards ceremony when he got Most Improved Player and I was so proud of him to see him do that. So all of those things. Those are the feelings I had when they got that trophy and had champagne flowing everywhere, and they had the parade — great parade. It was a great feeling, and it’s the best feeling in the world when you hold that trophy up and you get that ring. I’m a little jealous because their ring is bigger than my ring, but it’s a beautiful ring. Again, all of it is a positive story.
This is just perfect Dwane Casey. He wasn’t the guy to get the Raptors all the way there, but he deserves every ounce of credit for taking the franchise out of the absolute wilderness.
And for in-game stuff, let’s cherish Casey for something else: there was a chance for the Pistons to perhaps call for a coach’s challenge but Casey waved it off and continued on. His counterpart (and rival?) Nurse, however, tried once again to make a challenge — and once again he failed. (He’s now 0-for-4.)
So that’s it for Raptors-Pistons, an easy 125-113 win for Toronto. There was a pile of discussion before the game as Casey was asked every question about how he felt seeing the Raptors claim the 2019 championship, emotions, in one sense, were high given the fraught history between him and his protege Nurse, and then the game came and, well, it was the case of the better team just straight up winning out. At least Nurse can now finally say he beat his former boss in an NBA game.
And I’ll try not to get too mad about Casey making yet another crack about Toronto’s traffic.