To remind the world they’re the defending NBA champions, the Raptors spent most of Monday afternoon pummeling the Brooklyn Nets. Yes, this is a Game 1 in the playoffs — historically a sticky situation for Toronto — but there was (mostly) no doubt about this one. The Raptors locked in on defense, moved the ball well, shot even better, and (for the most part) finished off the Nets by the end of the first quarter to win Game 1 of their first round playoff series by a score of 134-110.
As you may have noticed, there are a couple of hedging parentheticals in the previous paragraph. That’s because, in true Raptors fashion, there were some dicey moments in this Game 1 (go figure). Despite being led by a 30-point, 11-assist explosion from Fred VanVleet — which included him shooting 8-of-10 from deep — the Nets made it a game in the third quarter thanks to a collective effort from their squad, some helter-skelter play that went their way, and shots actually going in. They needed that kind of run just to get back into Game 1 after the Raptors hung a 37-20 first quarter on them — which gave fans a sense of comfort and confidence we haven’t had since, well.... since forever.
The tone was set in the first quarter after the Raptors’ player introductions were done by different members of each starter’s family. (Kudos to Pascal Siakam’s brother being high energy like him, and OG Anunoby’s bro totally stone-walling it.) From there, a beaming Kyle Lowry quickly got to business, putting up eight points, three rebounds, and two assists in the opening frame. True to form, Lowry would also draw three charges in Game 1, often timing them to stop runs from the Nets. Despite some strong shooting early, Lowry did fade down the stretch, hitting only 3-of-14 from the field to finish with 16 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. Still, he got to the line seven times (hitting all seven), and, yes, he got to see his two sons call his number before the game. Fun times.
Less fun was the up-and-down play of Pascal Siakam. After a dynamite first quarter that saw him collect ten points and seven rebounds on a clearly overmatched Brooklyn frontcourt, Siakam would only score eight more points the rest of the way (on just one made field goal). Obviously Siakam finishing the day with 18 points and 11 rebounds (plus a 9-for-9 line from the charity stripe) is not bad; it just felt like there were moments when it looked like he could do more. The Nets spent long stretches of Game 1 playing without any true rim protectors (Jarrett Allen, who had a nice 15-12 game, is the only real big man they have) and often times put Joe Harris on Siakam. There’s room there to attack, is my point.
To take advantage of their team size, the Raptors did lean on Serge Ibaka off the bench, and the veteran big man delivered. In just 25 minutes of action, Ibaka shot 8-for-14 from the field for 22 points, to go with seven rebounds and three assists. After a strong defensive start from Marc Gasol — who only played 20 minutes but still managed a 13-5 — it was Ibaka who manned the middle for the Raptors. This slight downsize to Serge came in handy in the second half, as the Nets sped the game up, junking up the organized defensive efforts of Toronto. Credit to Brooklyn on this, they caught the Raptors napping in the third, and beat them up everywhere on the floor for those 12 minutes, outscoring them 35-22.
Naturally, everyone in Toronto got just a little bit worried as a result. The Nets looked like like the hungrier team in that third quarter; Siakam had faded somewhat; the Raptors size and shooting advantage looked somehow diminished despite hitting 49 percent of their shots in the first half (and shooting a blistering 48 percent from three); and Toronto’s lead had shrunk all the way down from a massive 33 points to a mere eight. They headed into the fourth quarter up by nine which — even after leading the entire game — felt like a sensitive margin.
We probably should have just relaxed though. Despite some hot shooting from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (26 points) and the all-around fire of Caris LeVert, the Nets really were no match for the Raptors on the whole. Toronto started trapping LeVert early, Cabarrot lost his shooting match with VanVleet (who really was stellar and steady), and some stout play from OG Anunoby and (hey!) Terence Davis late put this one away entirely. All five starters for Toronto scored in double figures (with Ibaka joining them), and despite the Nets’ flurry in the third, there just wasn’t enough gas in their tank for more.
In all, this is the kind of play we can — and should — expect from the Raptors in these playoffs. Yes, there will be runs from the other team, but when it looked like things could turn against Toronto, the team adjusted, found some new angles, and made winning plays (e.g. Davis coming from nowhere to drill a late clock 3, OG’s massive two-handed offensive board and dunk and-1, VanVleet just calmly icing the game again and again with 3s). Will every game end via a 24-point deficit? No, probably not. Not in the playoffs anyway. But this one did.
And now there’s just 15 more to go.