During a garbage-time adjacent stretch of the fourth quarter of Toronto’s Monday night game with the Cavs, Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. attempted to post up on the left block. Toronto sent a quick Chris Boucher-Serge Ibaka double-team his way, forcing Nance to make a nice cross-court pass to the right wing. Standing there on the catch, spacing the floor for the 6-20 Cavs, was noted maker of 14 threes in 413 games John Henson, who didn’t even think about looking at the bucket.
A halfhearted swing to the corner, a clanked three by some young and inefficient Cleveland guard, and a Nance loose-ball foul later, and the single-play microcosm of this year’s Cavs was complete. That team sucks, man. The Raptors went on to win 133-113.
That final result wasn’t in doubt for even a second on Monday night. Toronto led by as many as 18 in the opening quarter; Cleveland never inched closer than seven for the remainder of the game.
Much like the way a double-digit lead over, like, the Magic feels untouchable because their offense is a brick factory, the Cavs feel forever out of reach thanks to their Raptors Republic 3-on-3 tournament ass defense. Stringing together a handful of sturdy defensive possessions seems like an impossibility for them. On Monday night, any flourish of competitiveness on the Cavs side was summarily snuffed out by their one-through-five commitment to letting dudes walk by unencumbered.
The culprits behind Cleveland’s 28th-ranked defense are everywhere, but your eye naturally moves towards Kevin Love. It didn’t really matter who Love was matched up with — Marc Gasol, OG Anunoby, one of the local kids playing the half time game — the Cavs’ openly rebelling star had neither a chance to hold up, nor an interest in standing one.
Anunoby toyed with Love to a particularly cruel degree, at one point in the third quarter blowing by him the way Steph Curry never could for two separate contorting lefty lay-ups. OG finished the night with 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting; his powerfully smooth drives are becoming a more commonplace and satisfying part of the Raptors’ half-court repertoire.
Those Anunoby flashes were overshadowed in the third quarter by the game of HORSE Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell played against one another in the frame. Over the first five minutes of the half, both Powell and Siakam chipped in two threes and two mid-range jumpers. Both guys even mixed in Dirk-looking one-legged step backs at various points in their dual-outburst. Fittingly, they connected for the signature play of the game.
you know your dunk owned when the worlds most stoic man john altilia is feeling it pic.twitter.com/xh4Hxd4q7Y— Sean Woodley (@woodleysean) December 17, 2019
Powell dropped 16 of his 26 points on the night in the quarter; Siakam 13 of his game-high 33. Norm drew particular praise from Nick Nurse after the game, and with 22.5 points a game on 61 / 50 / 72 shooting splits in four games as a starter in place of Fred VanVleet, a once set-in-stone starting unit at full health is looking to be a little more fungible. Nurse suggested as much after the game.
“It’s the decisions of ‘I am going for it,’ and now you’re not hesitating at anything, or looking out of the corner of your eye, you are just really going,” said Nurse of Powell’s finishing around the basket of late — he had four or five strong finishes through contact on the night.
“He had a couple tonight where where he had to move it around somebody or directly over somebody, but most of these when he gets an extra burst he gets clear and clean and he’s making them.”
If there was any question as to whether Powell’s best role is as a fourth or fifth guy, surrounded by creators who can compromise the defense on his behalf, there ain’t now. Surely the politics of a starting lineup change will be a chill and calm conversation-starter in the coming days.
On the topic of rotation notes, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson found himself glued to the bench for the first time in a month and a half on Monday. Nurse revealed after the game that a slight injury was enough reason to forego his minutes in favour of some extended run for Chris Boucher.
Boucher looked bouncy, and his fit with Serge Ibaka seemed a little less clunky than it has when Hollis-Jefferson’s gotten the call since Ibaka’s return. It’s a one-game sample and all that, and the new Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis, Patrick McCaw, Boucher and Ibaka bench mob had a bit of an icky stretch to start the fourth quarter (a short Siakam shift was needed with about five minutes left to finally shut down any notion of a Cavs miracle), but seven points and five boards in 13 minutes should be enough to throw Boucher back into Nurse’s rotation puzzle. With Patrick McCaw clearly going nowhere (he hit two threes on Monday!), and the Raptors nearing full health at long last, who plays and who doesn’t is probably going to be the dominant question for Nurse and the Raptors throughout the holidays.
What is more clear is that the Raptors are emerging from their early-December malaise. No, Cleveland isn’t a real measuring stick, and the win Monday tells us nothing about whether the Raptors can hang with the league’s top teams. But between a couple Raptors-like stretches against the Clippers, and the last two wins over Brooklyn and the Cavs, you can see things settling back into a comfortable place for the team. Pascal Siakam looks like he’s having a blast again; a bunch of his 13 buckets on 24 attempts were accompanied by the smirk of a guy who knows he can’t be stopped when he’s cooking. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka looked damn near rust-free on Monday, too. Lowry hit three of his seven triples and carved the Cavs up for 11 assists to one piddly turnover; Ibaka popped off for eight points early in the second, nearly all of which could be credited to Lowry and that sweet, sweet pick-and-pop game those two have mastered over the last year and a half.