It took the Toronto Raptors about four minutes to shake off the rust that set in after an 11-day break and run out to a big lead over the Phoenix Suns. It looked like a laugher from there, but the Suns refused to go easily — even though the outcome was never really in doubt.
Is there anything to learn from a 17-point win over a bad team while still missing two key rotation players? Maybe not, but some thoughts regardless:
Both teams came out cold as ice, as you might expect after the All-Star Break. It looked, briefly, like the Suns had snapped out of it first, as the Raptors struggled to make basic basketball plays:
Raps first 11 possessions: 1-6, 4 turnovers, 4 points.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) February 22, 2020
But the Raptors didn’t let that go for long, thankfully. Back up by their defense (we’ll get to that!) and some terrific play from Pascal Siakam, they soon jumped ahead and before you knew it, led by 24 at halftime.
The Suns attempted to make a game of it in the third with the help of some questionable officiating, and got within 13 about halfway through — but a 16-4 run pushed the lead back to 93-68 and I thought this one was put to bed for sure.
Alas, the Suns felt differently.
They Almost Gave Away Another Lead!
I’ve written before about the Raptors’ propensity for letting teams (bad teams, especially) hang around, and they did it again last night. They gave up a 15-0 run after taking that 25-point lead, and soon enough the Suns were within six, 96-90, with eight minutes to play.
Talent won out in the end — despite missing Marc Gasol, Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw the Raptors are just in a different class than the Suns. But once again we must ask: Is this a problem? Can the Raptors really afford to be lackadaisical and think they can flip the switch whenever they want?
I’m not going to worry about this one. First game back from the break, against a bad Suns team... and a team that would love to knock off the champs on their own building... you can forgive the Raptors for playing somewhat uninspired.
But we’re going to find out over the next few weeks — heck, maybe even the next two games — if the Raptors can get up for big games against good opponents, and keep that switch flipped on the “on” position for 48 minutes.
(Attack the) Block Party
When we talk about the Raptors’ excellent defense, we usually talk about their rotations, their intelligence on switches, their ability to force turnovers and their ability to mix up coverages and schemes. Phew!
What we don’t usually talk about is shot blocking, but in the first half last night Toronto showed us they can do that too — they had eight swats at the half. Pascal Siakam opened the night blocking a Devin Booker three, then Serge Ibaka deliciously stuffed Kelly Oubre, Jr. at the rim. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher each blocked threes in the first half as well — and Boucher blocked another in the third. They finished with 13, and Anunoby led the way with four.
Normally I am not a proponent of defenders jumping at three-point shooters. Just rotate, close out quick and get a hand up, because chances are you’re not going to block a three, and there’s a decent chance you’re going to fall for a fake and end up fouling.
But I am a proponent of cool and fun plays, and swatting threes is cool and fun! So, against the Suns? Go for it.
Against the Bucks? Maybe not so much.
Where Would We Be Without Serge?
With the Suns threatening in the fourth and the Raptors looking for answers, it was, once again, Serge Ibaka who provided them.
A banked in triple? Sure thing! We’ll take it!
There aren’t enough good things that can be said about Serge’s season. I think if you polled Raptors fans three years ago, most would’ve agreed that the Raptors overpaid to keep him in free agency, and that he’d never live up to that contract. I would’ve been one of them.
Now? Well, the Raptors wouldn’t have beaten Philadelphia in the playoffs without him, and they wouldn’t be 41-15 without him this year. Add in his winning personality and his off-the-court lovability, and that contract is nearly a bargain.
Despite missing an extended stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters with foul trouble, Ibaka finished with 16-6 last night and is now averaging 18 points and 8.7 boards as a starter, on .640 true shooting.
Kelly Oubre, Never Change
Why, after a year-and-a-half (and an NBA title!) do I still take such delight in Kelly Oubre Jr. getting punked by the Raptors?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the “feud” between Oubre and Delon Wright in the 2018 playoffs, that ended with the Raptors outscoring the Wizards by 15 in the fourth quarter of game six in Washington to win by 10... and Wright blocking Oubre’s shot at the final buzzer.
It was the goofiest, shortest, most one-sided feud ever. And yet it has stuck in my head and I can’t help but enjoy it every time the Raptors play Oubre (even though he’s not in Washington anymore, nor is Delon Wright in Toronto!).
So, yes, I cackled with delight when Ibaka blocked Oubre’s dunk attempt, and when Anunoby blocked his three-point attempt, and especially when Oubre dribbled a ball off his foot on a fast break while Phoenix was making a run (literally as Matt Devlin said “Phoenix is gonna find themselves back in this game!”).
Hey, it’s a long season. You gotta find joy in the little things.
Now, as the expression goes, s**t gets real. The Raptors host Indiana, Milwaukee and then Charlotte, before going on a five-game West coast road trip. That two-seed is far from sewn up!