What’s really being asked in these questions of Raptors’ chemistry and cohesiveness is this: how will they respond when pushed? Will they come together and execute, will they rise to the occasion, will they play up to their potential? Or, despite major changes to the roster, will they revert to being the same old Raptors?
As Paul Flannery wrote earlier today on SB Nation, by dint of that aforementioned personnel makeover, it’s impossible for this Toronto squad to be the same. It is fair, however, to wonder now about fit and familiarity instead — and yes, to ask those questions of force. What indeed will the Raptors do when they get hit? Well, in Tuesday night’s game against the Boston Celtics, a strong 118-95 win, we got a clear answer: they can and will hit back. And they can kick ass in the process.
How the Raptors decided to lay this particular smack down on Boston came in parts. After a contested first quarter, the Raptors were led into the second by Kyle Lowry, nearing his peak. Once again — and as per usual — Lowry’s stats don’t exactly tell the whole story here. He finished with seven points (on just 2-of-6 shooting, including 1-for-4 from three), but also had 11 assists and six rebounds. More importantly, he was the catalyst and connective tissue for the Raps’ entire run of play in that second frame, one that saw the team explode for 18 straight points to seize control of the game.
Lowry didn’t do it alone, of course — which is also part of his genius. During those first six minutes of the quarter, he was joined mainly by the trio of Norman Powell (eight points in the second; 11 in the game), Patrick McCaw (who laboured his way to six points, four in the second), and Marc Gasol. Of the bunch, only Gasol can match Lowry for basketball IQ and for his part the big Spaniard turned in another underrated Lowry-like line — five points and eight assists in just 23 minutes. No one play summed up that masterful pairing quite like the moment when Gasol drew a charge on a high-flying Jaylen Brown attempt, only to see Lowry skying past him to block the ball out of bounds.
Ignited by Toronto’s veterans Kawhi Leonard then started getting into the act after a relatively quiet few minutes. It was his scoring through the second and third quarter, with a combined 17 points, that helped pace the Raptors out to a lead that got as big as 31. Leonard would finish the game with a typically efficient line of 21 points, on 9-of-15 shooting, to go along with six rebounds and four assists. That last number in particular is nice to see, as Kawhi’s passing game has not always been the strongest element of his game. When asked about it, coach Nick Nurse implied that Gasol’s heady passing presence is rubbing off — on Kawhi, and the whole team. Hitting shots helps, but their 33 assists on 46 made field goals tonight certainly suggests a growing sense of familiarity in Toronto.
The main beneficiary of this new world order in Toronto has to be Pascal Siakam, as both recipient and creator of all kinds of passes and offense and most everything else. Siakam led all scorers on the night with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting — he was also a blistering 4-of-5 from three, which still feels semi-impossible. Siakam doesn’t need anyone’s help, really, to create offense, but when Kawhi is zinging cross-court passes to him for open threes, there really is no feeling like it. Well, OK, I guess there are other feelings like it:
In a game during which the Raptors let the Celtics score 32 points in the opening frame, but then less than 100 after full time, we should talk about Toronto’s defense at some point. Nurse said tonight represented some of the best weak-side helping he’d seen from his team for awhile. The pressure was indeed relentless from Toronto as they hounded the Celtics into 14 turnovers, while holding them to just 38 percent shooting (and 20 percent from three). The Raptors used that defense to get out to 29 fast break points, which only seems to rev up guys like Siakam and Lowry even more. That Toronto also managed to hold game-breaker Kyrie Irving to a mere seven points is a nice touch too.
Taken together we get the final result: a Raptors win by 23 points and it was never really in doubt by the midway mark of the second quarter. Sure, the Celtics did their usual try-hard thing and hustled the massive lead down to 20 points or so in the second half, but by then it was too late. When even Toronto’s all-bench lineup is finding its way — and hoo boy, with Chris Boucher, Jodie Meeks, and a returned Malcolm Miller out there for a long run tonight, they did indeed get a chance to try — there really isn’t much hope for opposing teams.
So then, how concerned should we be about the Raptors, and what, if anything, does this game actually mean in the big picture? To answer the latter question, I’ll be honest and say: not much. The Raptors appear pretty much locked into second place now behind a juggernaut Bucks team, and are less than a safe bet to win out the Eastern Conference. And yet, I feel less concern by the day as to how this team will do as they enter the post-season. No, this is not the same old Raptors; the players have been changed up and the energy can spike in all kinds of wild directions. And you know what? When Toronto does get hit this year, maybe the outcome will be different too.