It’s unfortunate Toronto’s Kyle Lowry wasn’t able to participate in Saturday night’s game against the Nets. After injuring his neck last night in Indiana, it was necessary for him to rest tonight; but Brooklyn’s backcourt of Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert provide something of a mirror image for Lowry and partner Fred VanVleet to compete against. As it was, the three who did play each had themselves a game. The math on this (two greater than one) suggests the Nets should have won. But they didn’t thanks once again to the Raptors’ broader attack — and a defensive identity that can withstand multitudes.
When the final buzzer sounded, it was the Raptors up 119-118, giving them their 14th straight victory, far and away a franchise-record now. VanVleet called it a night with 29 points on 11-of-20 shooting, with six assists and a pair of rebounds. He did what he could to help slow Dinwiddie (21 and 11) and Caris LeVert (an eye-popping 37 on 12-of-18 shooting, including 6-of-7 from deep), but as mentioned, Fred didn’t have to do it alone.
To begin with, it was Terence Davis who got the start for the Raptors, in lieu of the injured Lowry, and he came ready to play. Davis opened his night with a 4-point play on the way to 20 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. He’s not the defender or game-controller Lowry is, but Davis can change games out of nowhere, too — a well-timed corner 3, a put-back jam, a fearless finish down the lane. It was Davis, along with VanVleet, who set the tone early for Toronto, particularly as Pascal Siakam eased into the game. To that point, it was an out-and-out guard duel, with defense largely an afterthought.
Two things defined the second quarter, though, as set up by the first. We knew eventually Siakam and Serge Ibaka would get going (and they did, scoring 8 and 6 points in the frame, respectively); but before that could happen, we saw the return of Toronto’s all-bench lineups. Coach Nick Nurse trotted out a group of Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, the long-missed Matt Thomas, and even Oshae Brissett (who’d tweaked his ankle only early this week in the G League) to finish the first and kept rolling with them in the second. What should have spelled doom for the Raptors, as the Nets’ zone defense settled in, instead turned the game around.
The Raptors began the second by going on an 11-0 run thanks to some rock solid defense and enough shot-making to blow the game open for a time. The Nets would go scoreless for the frame’s first 4.5 minutes. Along the way, Thomas scored 11 of his 15 points off the bench, going 3-of-4 from three overall, while also grabbing six (!) boards and three (!!!) steals. Thanks to the continued improvement of Ibaka as a passer, Thomas also got to show he can do some other things on the offensive end as well. Namely, this:
The third quarter saw the Raptors and Nets play to a draw (34 points apiece). For most of it, Toronto was content to just keep Brooklyn at arm’s length. They’d threaten and then Davis (who scored 11 in the frame) would make something happen, or Siakam would put in another easy bucket, or VanVleet would steady the ship for a few possessions. The Raptors extended their lead to as much as 18 points in the third behind the confidence of their starters (only OG Anunoby failed to put up double digits in scoring), and the waxing-and-waning of the Nets’ three-point shooting. Toronto cracked 100 points in the third and it felt like they’d built up enough of a cushion to ease their way into another victory.
Dinwiddie and LeVert had other ideas though. Behind their play — and, let’s admit it, the tired legs of the depleted Raptors off a back-to-back — the Nets managed to come all the back to tie it late. With just 35 seconds left in the fourth, LeVert (who else?) hit a jumper to knot the score at 118. The Raptors had once again been forced to lean on an all-bench combination of players for half the frame, and now looked back to VanVleet and Siakam to make something happen in the clutch. The former was golden in the fourth, pacing the Raptors with ten points, including a three-point play and long fadeaway; the latter, however, struggled down the stretch, going just 1-for-5 from the field for three of his 20 points. Still, it was that pair working together who’d get the Raptors back in front.
As the seconds ticked off the clock, a couple of pick-and-roll attempts eventually got Siakam going downhill at the rim where he was fouled. The Nets challenged the call, and may have even had a case, but Siakam went to the line anyway. He missed the first — eliciting a squeal of surprise from the crowd — before draining the second. By this point the shotclock had been turned off, giving the Nets their final chance at the win. Naturally, LeVert got the ball in his hands. With OG draped all over him, he could only put up an air-ball. Astoundingly, there was enough time for Joe Harris to get a put-back attempt up, but that missed too.
There’s that old saying that it’s better to be lucky than good. As it turns out, with this win streak now up to 14 for Toronto, the Raptors may actually be both. It’s not a bad place to be — provided they can get some injury luck to go along with all the winning. Lowry deserves another chance at the Nets. Hmm, maybe in April?