With a smiling Dwane Casey leaving the court, the Raptors gave up its first season series sweep to Detroit since the 2008-09 season — ten years of avoiding what the Pistons ultimately needed the former Raptors coach to do: win in the regular season.
Toronto came out of the gates as they have all season without Kyle Lowry — with slow pace and grinding ball movement. The Pistons took an early 14-4 lead through the first seven minutes of Sunday’s action before Toronto roared back on an 8-1 run to get within two points.
From there the two teams jockeyed back and forth, before the first quarter ended with Toronto down 25-21. It was Fred VanVleet’s return to action after missing almost five weeks with a hand injury and he looked especially crisp all game.
Given that the Pistons are a likely matchup for the Raptors in the first round, Toronto was testing the waters all game — getting a look at what this Detroit team has used to fuel the recent hot streak its been enjoying.
The Raptors have already secured a playoff spot, meaning the team’s remaining games have a bit of luxury attached to them. For the entire team — especially Nick Nurse and the coaching staff — it’s an opportunity to try new things in preparation for the post season. In Nurse’s case, he’s taking full advantage of this.
Eric Moreland is fourth-year centre out of Oregon University, with a strong motor that hustles around the hoop — he’s a great utility player to include on the bench.
To start the second quarter, the Raptors introduced a VanVleet-McCaw-Powell-Anunoby-Moreland lineup that looked extremely athletic on both ends, but unfortunately was pretty ineffective. They had a fun four minute run that included a Moreland three-pointer, before Gasol came in to showcase what fans hope the bench unit will look like after Ibaka returns.
Nurse featured Gasol a lot more offensively than we’ve seen through his first 13 games — and the 10 year veteran combined with VanVleet to become a fantastic looking guard-big duo. Gasol scored seven points, grabbed seven boards and dished four assists in a team-leading 18 first-half minutes. VanVleet scored eight points — including two 3-pointers — in 14 minutes off the bench.
With the pressure of winning off the table, the team played loose for most of the first-half, only turning on the jets in small spurts.
One of those spurts was a 12-6 run that was capped off when Kawhi Leonard hit a PU3IT to get the Raptors within three points with under a minute left. He led both teams with 14 points at the half, while Pascal Siakam quietly chipped in six points of his own.
Heading into the second half, the Raptors would likely look to introduce VanVleet to Lin and Gasol some more — three guys who will likely share the court a lot.
This trio will be vital in assisting the starting five come playoff time, but unfortunately for the Raptors, Jeremy Lin has yet to really adjust to his new situation. He went scoreless in 10 first-half minutes, missing all three of his shots, finishing the game with just three points and three assists.
In the third quarter, Toronto turned up the defensive pressure to 11 and regained control. Among a tide of “Let’s Go Raptors” chants from visiting Toronto fans, the Pistons fell victim to a Kawhi Leonard block and Siakam steal on back to back possessions. In all, the Raptors opened up the third on an 11-5 run, forcing a Casey timeout less than four minutes into the quarter.
In Dwane Casey fashion, his ATO play led to a Pistons turnover.
That's our spicy PF pic.twitter.com/lV8d9OozmZ— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 17, 2019
At this point, the wind really seemed to be out of Detroit’s sails, and Leonard was a huge reason for that. In fact, the whole team was clicking. After looking not much better than the Suns in the first half, Toronto took off the “tank” mask and put on their “contender” cape in the third quarter.
Through nine minutes, they outscored the Pistons by 11 points (27-16) en-route to an eight-point lead before another Casey timeout.
My goodness, the ball movement! Raptors lead is up to eight, 74-66, and the Pistons need another TO.— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) March 17, 2019
Overall, the Raptors headed into the fourth quarter having scored 37 third quarter points, reining in the four point halftime deficit and spitting out a six-point lead. Leonard dropped 13 points in the quarter, ahead of the blitzing combination of Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol.
However, it seems that the greatest lesson learned in this game was that the combination of Moreland-Anunoby-Powell off the bench is no good for anyone but the other team. Detroit opened the fourth on a 7-0 run and regained the lead over the first three minutes. From the seven-minute mark on, it was a slug fest.
In the final two minutes, the game looked just like the first two between these teams: a two-possession or fewer game, a couple annoyingly lucky Detroit plays/calls, and a Raptors team clawing for a victory in the waning moments.
The Raptors’ execution in the final minute of the game was piss poor. VanVleet seemed to rush the pace on offense beyond his comfort level, taking an ill-advised 22-foot jumper early in the shot clock of what would end up the Raptors final meaningful offensive play. Following a pair of Reggie Jackson free throws that nailed the coffin for Toronto, cameras panned over to Dwane Casey, who seemed extremely smitten with the season sweep.
Kawhi Leonard led all players with 33 points and 10 rebounds, Marc Gasol nearly recorded the triple double, notching nine points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, and Fred VanVleet led the bench with 17 points.
With the win, the Raptors fall to 49-21, while Detroit increases its hold on the No. 6 seed in the East with a one game lead over the Brooklyn Nets.