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Five thoughts on last night: Raptors 123, Thunder 114 (OT)

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Late-season, late-game intensity? Bring it on, especially if it helps the Raptors exorcise some late game sloppiness.

Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 123, Oklahoma City Thunder 114 (OT), Fred VanVleet Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

On our That’s A Rap Podcast last week, I mentioned that I thought this Raptors-Thunder home-and-home series was the only thing left to look forward to in this Raptors regular season, what with the Thunder being the only real contender left on the Raptors’ schedule.

For 2.5 quarters last night it looked like I might be wrong! Then things got real, and proved that an NBA Finals series between these two teams could actually be pretty great.

Late-Game Execution Struggles

You don’t have to be a basketball savant to see that the way the Raptors played in the final eight minutes or so was significantly different than how they’d played through the first three quarters. The ball stopped moving, guys were taking “decent” shots instead of passing them up for good ones, and there was a lot of standing around.

As always this is a mix of what the defense is doing, and what the team is doing on offense. For example, Terrance Ferguson and Russell Westbrook ratcheted up their intensity in the fourth, face guarding guys and aggressively jumping passing lanes, to disrupt that ball movement. You have to give them credit.

But that doesn’t excuse the lack of player movement. If Westbrook is denying Danny Green the ball coming around a screen, Green can’t simply give up and then float out between the three-point line and half-court; he’s got to cut back and clear out, and the other players have to keep moving until there’s a clear passing lane.

The good news is, the Raptors did exactly that in OT. So they can do it, they just need to maintain that crispness during those tight fourth-quarter stretches.

21st Starting Lineup. So What?

As the Raptors broadcast has been all-too-eager to tell us, the Raptors have used a lot of starting lineups this season; 21 to be exact, some forced upon them by injuries and load management, some proactive coaching decisions.

Does this matter? The broadcasters mention it constantly, so it seems important. Nick Nurse has said he likes experimenting, and that, on the injury front, it reminds him of his D-League days, when you never knew what players you had on any given night.

I guess the real question is, will all this shuffling be beneficial to the players, who need to learn how to play with different players, against different levels of competition, night-to-night? In theory, that seems like it makes sense.

Of course, I’ve been riding the “players need consistency” train all season. I think guys like to know their roles night-to-night.

Dwane Casey thought so, too, though, and the Raptors flamed out in the playoffs the past four years. So maybe Nick Nurse’s experiments will pay dividends? We’ll see!

But even with yet another starting group, I think last night we saw something very similar to what we might see in the playoffs, rotation-wise.

Did We Just See a Playoff Rotation?

If Nick Nurse was gonna test out his playoff rotation against any opponent, the Thunder made a lot of sense, being the last good team on the schedule. It’s unfortunate that Kyle Lowry wasn’t available, but look at these numbers:

  • Pascal Siakam: 43 minutes
  • Kawhi Leonard: 42 minutes
  • Fred VanVleet: 40 minutes
  • Danny Green: 35 minutes
  • Marc Gasol: 30 minutes
  • Serge Ibaka: 23 minutes
  • Norman Powell: 17 minutes
  • Jeremy Lin: 15 minutes
  • OG Anunoby: 14 minutes
  • Patrick McCaw: 5 minutes

That doesn’t seem quite right; Kyle Lowry, certainly, will take those VanVleet minutes, and in turn VanVleet will take most of the Powell/Lin/McCaw minutes.

But it’s OG Anunoby’s 14 minutes that stand out a bit to me. I would have thought he’d be closer to the 18-minute mark, especially since he’s been playing well lately, and his size would seem to be a boon against the Thunder.

But that’s as close as we’ve seen from Nurse to what I expect to see in the postseason.

Staggered/Transitonal Bench Units!

Guess how many minutes the Raptors played last night without one of Kawhi Leonard or Pascal Siakam on the floor? 0.1 minutes, according to NBA.com, and that’s the lowest number they can display; I don’t even remember this moment in the game.

I’ve been one of many Raptors fans frustrated by Nick Nurse’s insistence on running out lineups that don’t include at least one of Kyle Lowry, Leonard, or Siakam; more patient people said “wait until the postseason!” and, if what we saw last night was indeed a sneak peek at Nurse’s postseason plans... those patient people were right!

To be fair, we’ve been seeing this a little more lately, in general, though of course, Lowry plays a big part; last night, Siakam closed the first and third quarters with a four-man bench unit, and Kawhi opened the second and fourth quarters with a four-man bench unit. When Lowry’s available, that’s just another option to use, depending on matchups.

All of this is to say: I like what I’m seeing, and it does give me an extra bit of confidence heading in to the postseason.

The Phantom Lead

All throughout the second and third quarters last night, the Raptors’ big lead — 20 points at one point — felt like a mirage to me.

Ironically, it did turn out to an actual mirage — the refs wiped a Raptors bucket out that VanVleet wasn’t able to shoot before the 24-second clock expired — meaning the Raptors never had a 20-point lead at all! (Their largest, officially, was 19.)

But that’s not actually what I mean at all. The Raptors built that big lead off hot shooting from downtown, and the Thunder’s rather ridiculously cold free throw shooting. When the Raptors were leading 76-58 (officially) with 7:30 left in the third, they’d shot 11-for-18 from three-point range, and the Thunder had shot 7-for-17 from the free throw line.

You knew those two things weren’t going to continue. As early as the second quarter, I had it in my notes that the lead wasn’t real, and that a “regression to the mean” was coming.

Sure enough, the Thunder went 6-for-9 from the free-throw line in the final 19:30, and the Raptors shot 3-for-16 from three-point range, as the Thunder outscored the Raptors 52-34 over that stretch.

Can’t fall in love with the three-ball, as Jack Armstrong says!

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Ready to do it again on Friday night, this time from the cozy confines of Scotiabank Arena? Bring it on!