Though 2019 was a remarkable year for the Toronto Raptors, it ended in relatively unremarkable fashion. Unremarkable in that the Raptors blowing the doors off an inferior team that is simply not prepared to match their effort levels has become commonplace. Even in their depleted state, the Raptors are a much better team than the Cleveland Cavaliers. That showed, as they comfortably outplayed and outexecuted the Cavs on the way to a 117-97 win.
Kyle Lowry led a balanced offensive attack, finishing with 24 points and 8 assists as the Raptors saw six different players score in double figures. Serge Ibaka continued a solid stretch of play with a 20-10 double-double, and Terence Davis II was the story in the fourth, scoring an exciting 14 points of his eventual 19 in the final quarter. On the Cleveland side, second-year point guard Collin Sexton was a lone bright spot, scoring an efficient 22 points, but not receiving nearly enough support to make this game competitive.
The biggest splash came pregame, when it was announced that head coach Nick Nurse would be starting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the place of OG Anunoby. This was a surprise as Nurse has kept his starting lineups consistent within the confines of the available personnel (something that has been inconsistent given all the injuries the Raptors have sustained.) This was a justifiable move, however, as Anunoby has not been up to par offensively over the last few games.
Instantly, the difference in the play-style of Hollis-Jefferson and Anunoby was evident. While Anunoby typically lives on the perimeter, Hollis-Jefferson’s lack of shooting acumen forces him inside. Hollis-Jefferson sniffs around the paint like a hungry wolf, hunting offensive rebounds and openings that he can attack. It is from there that he racked up two quick assists in the first, putting his playmaking – an area in his game where he has a clear edge over Anunoby’s – on display. Though his play may be “unsmooth” as Nick Nurse puts it, Hollis-Jefferson turned in a solid performance in his first game starting for the Raptors, with 14 points, five boards, and two assists.
The move to swap the two forwards seemingly paid off, as both players made a positive impact on the game. When Anunoby checked in midway through the first quarter, it was clear that the move sparked him. He was active on the glass and on the defensive end, and he showed a desire for more offensive involvement. Though he moved him to the bench, Nurse still showed faith in Anunoby, running a play to get the young forward an open three to close the opening frame, which Anunoby drained right before the buzzer. His night was solid, if unspectacular, but his 12 points and general assertiveness was an improvement over his recent play.
The Anunoby three-pointer gave the Raptors a 27-25 lead in a tight first quarter, a lead that was extended to 16 by the end of the first half as the Raptors led 59-43, and never relinquished for the remainder of the game. Lowry was once again a driving force offensively, as 13 of his 24 came in the first half. Defensively, the Raptors performed about as well as one would expect a stellar defense to against a Cleveland offense that is decidedly lacking in firepower.
The third quarter, like the first, was largely even with a slight edge going to the Raptors, giving them a 17-point lead going into the final frame. Kyle Lowry made his presence most felt in the third, hitting three jumpers from beyond the arc and a pair of free throws for 11 points. Lowry, however, was not the only one taking the opportunity for a little stat padding.
Late in the third, Kyle Lowry was the lone man back on a Cavaliers break led by Kevin Porter Jr. Lowry swiped at the ball and was called for a foul. Lowry, not one to go quietly after a perceived missed call, instantly went to Nick Nurse, telling his coach to “challenge it!” Nurse obliged. It was clear after the first replay that Lowry had gotten all ball, and the call was overturned. Since starting the season an unsightly 0-6 record on coach’s challenges, Nurse has been picking his spots significantly better and that number has since evened out. Another successful challenge marked a fitting end for Nurse, who has seemingly been on a six-month long coaching heat check.
Any hope that Cleveland may have had of a comeback in the fourth was quickly quelled by some of the best basketball that undrafted rookie Terence Davis II has played with the Raptors. He came out and hit a three to begin the quarter and followed it up on the very next possession with a smooth finger roll through contact. He sprinkled in two more threes as the quarter progressed and put the exclamation point on his night with a highlight reel dunk as he was fouled.
The dunk was so unexpected and spectacular that I let out an audible scream that woke my poor dog Cooper, who was content to sleep his way into 2020.
It was the point with 1:57 left in the fourth quarter that marked the unofficial end of the game, as the Raptors reserves checked in. When you see a Shamorie Ponds three-pointer, Point Boucher, and a Stanley Johnson post-up in quick succession, it is typically a good sign for the Toronto Raptors. As a result, the starters were able to get a head start on planning their New Year’s Eve festivities as the Raptors cruised to an easy win.
Well, that does it for 2019, truly a memorable year for a franchise that won their first NBA Championship. Yet another win is a fitting way to punctuate the year for a Raptors team that certainly had its fair share of victories within 2019. So, here’s to more fun in 2020, and Happy New Year to all of Raptors Nation.