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Despite special defensive plan, Raptors undone by Rockets, 119-109

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The Raptors doubled-down on doubling Harden and ended up with a double-digit defeat. Here’s what went wrong — and right — on Thursday night.

Houston Rockets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

On Giants of Africa night at Scotiabank Arena, a tribute video to Nelson Mandela played on the jumbotron. With one of the former Nobel Peace Prize winner’s famous speeches playing in the background, one statement stood out:

“Let your greatness blossom...”

Raptors superstar, Pascal Siakam, took those words to heart. Coming off one of his poorest performances of the season, Siakam came out like a man on fire, shredding Houston’s average-at-best defense throughout the first quarter.

Meanwhile on the defensive end, Nick Nurse let his greatness for defensive scheming blossom.

Houston won the opening tip. (No, this is not going to be a second-by-second recap.) The outcome of that tip was immediately followed by, unofficially, the quickest double-team in NBA history. With OG Anunoby tasked with guarding the league’s leading scorer, James Harden, Fred VanVleet ran at Harden the millisecond he crossed half court.

To combat the ensuing 4-on-3, the Raptors were extremely hands-y, with deflections (at least by my count) on six of Houston’s first seven possessions. The strategy worked, as it got the ball out of Harden’s hands. On most possessions, Harden would just linger at the logo, allowing the rest of his team to do damage from beyond the arc. Staying true to their Moreyball and coach Mike D’Antoni philosophy, 21 of Houston’s 32 first quarter points came from beyond the arc.

On the offensive end, the Raptors looked much more comfortable than they had against the Heat’s aggressive defensive. Siakam, for example, was back to his old self with 14 first quarter points. Kyle Lowry even looked like his pre-injury self, nailing a triple — his first since returning — and properly setting up an end-of-quarter 2-for-1.

After one quarter, both teams were fairly even from the field, with the main difference being the 6-0 edge at the line. With Houston operating mostly on a man advantage in the half-court, they methodically picked apart the Raptors scrambling defense.

Before the game, Nick Nurse hinted at having a mystery scheme for Houston. He stayed true to that, sending double-teams to Harden every time he touched the ball. The Beard ended the half with only six points. His only field goals coming from transition layups.

With Harden’s excellent offensive season stealing all the headlines, Raptor fans were quickly reminded that noted Raptor killer, Russell Westbrook is also a Rocket. Harden started the second quarter on the bench, which only opened up the floor for Westbrook to operate. All told, the Rockets grew their 6-point first-quarter lead to a 13-point advantage. By the end of the half, Houston was able to get 10 three-pointers from Danuel House, and a pair of former Raptors, Ben McLemore and P.J. Tucker.

If the first half was characterized by Toronto’s scrambling defense leading to open Houston threes, the third quarter was the desired result of that defensive tactic — shots from anyone other than Harden and shots not falling. With the Rockets’ shooting coming down to Earth, and the Raptors’ outside shooting also still relatively poor, Toronto went to the paint. Lowry, Siakam, and Anunoby all took turns attacking the rim with continued success.

So far this season, Toronto has the number one net rating in the third quarter. That showed for most of the frame, as the team’s defense finally got a handful of stops to gain some much-needed momentum. A 14-1 run in the middle of the quarter gave the Raps their first lead since early in the first.

Although Toronto built a small lead in the third, Houston managed to close the quarter with a couple of triples, sparked partially from a ridiculously early 2-for-1 three-point attempt by Fred VanVleet — one which actually led to a successful Rockets 2-for-1.

In the 4th quarter, Houston’s offensive counter to Toronto’s doubling of Harden started paying off again. Threes started falling and the Rockets built a comfortable 2-3 possession lead. As they showed against Miami, Toronto’s defense ratcheted up a notch, keeping the team in striking distance. The offense just couldn’t convert on enough chances to break through. Siakam was stifled on a few possessions, as Harden’s underrated post defense led to more Spicy misses.

In the final two minutes, with Toronto in transition and down six, Austin Rivers fouled VanVleet on a three. Scotiabank Arena was rocking and momentum was on Toronto’s side.

Until it wasn’t.

Mike D’Antoni challenged. Replay showed VanVleet with the slightest of kicking motions. Offensive foul. Game. Blouses Rockets.

The final box score will show some encouraging signs. Toronto continues to be the best third quarter team. Harden was held under 27 points for only the second time all season. Westbrook was forced into eight turnovers, 20(!) missed field goal attempts, and an extremely empty triple-double.

Under a different lens, Lowry (41:50) and VanVleet (38:29) continue playing way too many minutes for an early December game. Siakam’s aggression disappeared for most of the second half and, by the time it returned, he was missing flat-footed three-point attempts and trying spin moves into traffic.

At the final horn, the Rockets accumulated 22 threes, were +8 on the offensive glass, and repeatedly broke Toronto’s traps to stall any Raptor runs. In the end, it was Houston’s greatness that blossomed.