Blowing leads has been a sensitive issue for anyone following the Raptors lately. Having done it frequently over the last three weeks of basketball, it’s been hard to look at any lead and consider it finite.
Those issues can date back any number of games, but one of the worst examples recently was the December 29 game against Oklahoma City. Up by 16 in the second half, the Raptors saw an energetic, skilled Thunder team claw away at the lead and eventually take it late in the game. Execution by the Raptors was awful down the stretch — including a missed opportunity to take an intentional foul and extend the game —and was criticized afterwards.
Tonight, we saw a lot of the same issues in giving up a lead. This one was even more egregious — the Raptors were up by 30 points in the first half. When both teams came out flat in the second half, the Thunder turned up the dial first, and eventually cut it right down to a one-possession game in the last two minutes.
This time, though, the Raptors executed down the stretch. The presence of Marc Gasol appeared almost zen for Toronto, as Kyle Lowry used space created by Gasol to score in the paint — pushing a three-point lead to seven — and all but sealing the game. The Raptors won it by a score of 130-121.
Lowry was the closer, but this was a team effort in what initially looked like an easy win. Norman Powell led all Raptors with 23 points, surprisingly coming off the bench as Nick Nurse went in favour of a goliath starting lineup that included all of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol.
The move was a smart one, and the starters did an excellent job of winning their minutes on the floor. Siakam and Anunoby combined to shot 17-for-28 and had 21 points each. Ibaka started 6-for-6 and scored 15, 13 in the first quarter alone. Gasol and Lowry were also in double-digits with 15 and 17, respectively.
The issues for the Raptors in this game were sometimes self-inflicted, other times running into a Thunder team prone to hot and cold stretches.
Starting with the latter, every OKC set seemed to look the same — either Chris Paul or Dennis Schroeder getting into the paint, then setting up a swing sequence for their shooters. Some guys had makes (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went 2-for-2) and others couldn’t hack it (Danilo Gallinari only made 4-of-11). But the consistency of their open looks allowed them to go on serious runs. Schroeder would end up leading them in scoring with 25, while Gallinari added 23.
For the self-inflicted stuff, the Raptors really didn’t run their offence well at all when faced with Thunder ball pressure. Nurse has favoured using Lowry off-ball as often as possible, but neither Patrick McCaw nor Anunoby looked comfortable bringing the ball up, resulting in ill-timed turnovers as the Thunder rallied late. This points a bit to the Raptors missing Fred VanVleet, but it was still painful to watch possessions go to waste while Toronto searched for an initial pass.
Luckily, guys made some really big shots in the fourth quarter. Gasol and OG made these looks back-to-back, shortly following a Norman Powell double-clutch three to end the third quarter.
So maybe there’s some luck in basketball too!
Here’s what we do know. The Raptors are still working kinks out with a healthy rotation. That will look great at times (first half), and ugly at others (second half). What’ll be important for the team ahead of the All-Star break is to coalesce around holding onto leads through sharper play. That... and maybe let Kyle Lowry bring the ball up more.
Toronto takes on the Wizards next on Friday night.