If there was some question as to how seriously the Raptors took Thursday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the team’s lineup in the second quarter provided an answer. Down Serge Ibaka (due to suspension), Kyle Lowry (thanks to a modest ankle injury), and Fred VanVleet (almost back from his thumb surgery), Toronto trotted out a lineup of Norman Powell, Patrick McCaw, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Chris Boucher for a few minutes. This, against a LeBron James-led team. If nothing else, the mood in Toronto has changed.
And so it goes for the results too. Led by Kawhi Leonard’s 25 points, eight rebounds, and four assists, the Raptors claimed a 2-0 season sweep of the Lakers and former owner LeBron James after a 111-98 win. The King is in a vastly different situation than he had in Cleveland (and Miami) during all those years spent torturing Toronto. Still, it was nice to see the Raptors beat LeBron and do it with a sense of nonchalance. Even when the game got out of hand for stretches, it didn’t feel that way. And besides, what is LeBron to the Raptors now anyway?
That Toronto gambled again with its chaos lineup is proof they’ve pushed LeBron from their minds, at least in part. James still had 29 points (on 12-of-23 shooting), with six assists and four rebounds, but his Fear of God-level play didn’t quite elevate the rest of the Lakers. He tried, but there just wasn’t enough there with which he could work. By the time Powell was putting the finishing touches on his 20 point-8 rebound night, one in which he got to spend some time at point guard (his post-game smile confirming he enjoys having the ball in his hands), it was clear the Raptors were just the better team.
Along with Powell, the Raptors got contributions from up and down the roster. That second quarter group saw Boucher put in a bucket, grab three boards, and challenge LeBron at the rim. Meanwhile, out on the perimeter OG Anunoby was a menace with seven points, four rebounds, and two steals; his partner in crime Patrick McCaw had a similar effect, chipping in six points and two boards and another steal. The Raptors had 15 steals on the night, which helped them get out to 19 fast break points. Sure, they also surrendered 17 turnovers and 23 fast break points to the Lakers — but that’s chaos, baby.
When things got too out of control, as when the Lakers managed to take back the lead in the second quarter and the game became something of a seesaw battle, Toronto knew it could lean back on Leonard, Marc Gasol, and their chaos champion, Pascal Siakam. On this night, Leonard’s shooting was solid — an 8-of-20 from the field, plus 5-of-8 from three — and he looked a touch more comfortable getting his teammates involved. Naturally, when Leonard decides to go solo, he can do that too, especially with the likes of the hapless non-LeBron Lakers guarding him.
In that communal spirit, Gasol had an improved line of 15 points (on 5-of-10 shooting, with two 3s), seven rebounds, and four assists. He too looked to get his teammates involved, but, as per coach Nick Nurse’s pre-game desire, also looked to get his own shot. (The little pass back-and-forth sequence Gasol had with Jeremy Lin in the third quarter was a touching moment. You could tell Gasol wanted to see Lin take and make a three — and Jeremy came through and hit it.) The Lakers went super small for long stretches of the second half which gradually raced Gasol out of the game, but he’d long since made his mark.
For Siakam’s part, it was not a good shooting night. The Raptors’ forward spent time at centre in this one, and also played point guard with the bench unit. Pascal would finish the night a mere 3-of-16, but he’d still have 16 points thanks to a 10-of-12 night at the free throw line. He also had five rebounds, a team-high six assists, and, so as to not be left out on the chaos energy of the contest, two steals too. “We just have guys that are ready to play hard,” said Siakam of his play with the second unit. “And they have length and all that, so definitely a good lineup to get stops and run a little bit.”
Admittedly, the helter-skelter play of this game helped LeBron’s Lakers for awhile, though they’d eventually relinquish their claim to the lead for the final time in the second quarter. While James and Rajon Rondo would threaten, they’d never get L.A. closer than five points in the second half. That the teams would enter halftime after a one-legged three-point buzzer beater from Kawhi thematically summed things up from there.
Still, the six-point lead the Raptors had going into the fourth put them within LeBron’s range, so we were forced to worry. For a few minutes we knew it would be James versus the Raptors’ bench, the chaos engine that had given up the lead in the first place. Anything could happen — and as it turned out, anything did. The Raptors would play a lineup of Siakam, McCaw, Norm, OG, and Malcolm Miller (who hit two 3s for his efforts), and later put out the newly signed Eric Moreland (for an energetic 2 point-5 rebound night). They’d fend off LeBron for those minutes before re-inserting Kawhi and putting the game away for good.
Of course, before we get swept away on this bench wave, it’s fair to acknowledge that, well, the Lakers are bad. Toronto’s bench has been poor for long stretches of the season, and has looked particularly discombobulated after the All-Star break with all of the team’s recent roster turnover. It’s easy to look like a world beater when you’re running up against guys like Alex Caruso, Moritz Wagner, and the ghost of Andre Ingram. Still, there’s nothing like seeing the ball go in the basket, no feeling quite like a solid defensive stop, and nothing beats channeling chaos into productive energy. And when it comes against LeBron? Bonus!
We may never see this combination of Raptors’ lineups in the playoffs. And who knows what will happen after the season ends. We may never see this squad together in this same waya again. For now, we can preemptively just say this: the chaos energy lineup is dead, long live the chaos energy lineup.