After an abysmal offensive performance against the Miami Heat, the Toronto Raptors had the opportunity to turn things around on the road against a struggling Brooklyn Nets team. But after a slow start that looked entirely too familiar, with a zone defense and poor shooting dragging the Raptors down, it looked like Toronto might not take advantage of said opportunity.
Fortunately, a timeout by Nick Nurse with 4:43 left in the second quarter sparked a turnaround. Coming out of the break, the Raptors broke out of their slump, outscoring the Nets 87-55 from there on their way to a 121-102 victory. Raptors veterans Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet carried the offense, all finishing with over 20 points. A strong game by VanVleet was a refreshing sight for Raptors fans, as he had struggled of late.
The Nets got a boost with the return of promising young guard Caris LeVert and wing Garrett Temple. The Raptors, who have had not been playing well offensively, would get no help from returning players, and would therefore have to look internally for any improvement. Unfortunately, the start of the first quarter saw a continuation of the offensive woes for the Raptors.
The Nets, inspired by the success of the Miami Heat, used a zone defense for much of the first quarter, and baskets were tough to come by in the early going. Kyle Lowry was not getting legs into his shots, and the interior defense of Jarrett Allen served as an effective deterrent for the Raptors in the paint. Unlike the Heat game, however, the Raptors defense was not playing well enough to keep the game close if the offense did not get going, as Spencer Dinwiddie’s 11 first quarter points spurred a strong start for the Nets, and they led 33-24 after one. Dinwiddie finished the game with 23, to lead the Nets in scoring.
As it so often has in this recent stretch, a Lowry-and-bench unit injected some life into the Raptors. The flurry of limbs and energy that is Chris Boucher was effective on both ends, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played with some juice against his former team. The Nets, however, weathered the storm, and built their lead as high as 15 points.
Once again, the zone defense deployed by the Nets suffocated the Raptors. The Raptors simply did not show enough ability to hit open shots to force their opponents back to a more traditional defense for the majority of the half. At one point, the Raptors even went scoreless for four minutes.
An uptick in defensive intensity created some easy opportunities in transition for the Raptors following the aforementioned timeout at 4:43, and the team showed the first semblance of an offensive rhythm. Solid play on both ends of the floor allowed the Raptors to close the half on a 12-0 run. Still, at the half, the Raptors trailed 52-48.
The Raptors momentum slowed, but did not stop in the third quarter. After getting close a few times, a Fred VanVleet driving layup with a foul with 3:54 left in the third finally gave the Raptors their first lead of the game since being up 6-5 in the first quarter. The Raptors had greater success attacking the interior of the Nets defense this frame, and were therefore able to open up the rest of their offense. VanVleet was excellent in the third, as he tallied 14 points and two assists.
The Raptors and Nets traded body blows for the remainder of the period, and the lead switched hands a few times. The Raptors, however emerged with the slight edge going into the fourth quarter, leading 83-80 after a 35-point quarter. They did not look back in the fourth and would not relinquish the lead for the remainder of the game, scoring 38 points in their best offensive quarter of the decade.
The Lowry-and-bench squad returned to start the fourth, with Canadian Oshae Brissett taking the place of Stanley Johnson on the floor. This lineup was able to build some breathing room for the Raptors to start the quarter, before the return of VanVleet. Though there were positive contributions from up and down the roster, the fourth was all about the point guards, who helped turn this game from a tight contest into a blowout.
Lowry and VanVleet combined for 24 points and 5 assists in the fourth, and were instrumental in putting this game to bed. Lowry, visibly agitated by a scuffle with Jarrett Allen in the third, which saw Lowry assessed with both a flagrant and technical foul, was even more demonstrative than usual in the fourth. He gleefully yelled “And-1!” repetetively after Serge Ibaka made a layup through contact, and took clear delight in pulling away from the Nets in this one.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be a Raptors game this season without injury scares. Both VanVleet and Ibaka limped off the floor in the fourth.
Both teams have had their fair share of bad injury luck. The Raptors are still short key players Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell, and missing fringe guys in Matt Thomas and Dewan Hernandez. For the Nets, they signed Kevin Durant this summer, knowing full well he would likely be out for the season. Beyond that, however, the player they thought would keep them afloat in the meantime, Kyrie Irving, has missed significant time and remains out of the lineup.
Although neither Ibaka’s nor VanVleet’s injury looked particularly serious, and the Raptors have a couple days off before their next game, any more time missed by key players could be detrimental for an already hobbled squad. For now, however, we can enjoy the win and hope for the best.
Brooklyn has now lost five straight games, and lost 17 of their past 18 games against the Raptors.