Momentum in sports is a funny thing. Sometimes it functions like a pendulum, taking a big initial swing one way, then definitively swinging back at an equivalent pace. Other times, it resembles a heart rate monitor, rapidly going back and forth, with no emergent direction.
In the case of the Toronto Raptors, who travelled to California’s capital to take on the Sacramento Kings, they played the part of a canny boxer unexpectedly knocked down in the first round. After absorbing the initial punch from the Kings, the Raptors rose back up, not hunting desperately for a haymaker of their own, but rather staying content just to work their way back in it. They did so steadily and deliberately, not ever delivering a knockout, but hammering the Kings with body shots and controlling the tempo until their opponent buckled under the relentless pressure. When it was all said and done, the Raptors had broken the Kings, turning a 19-point deficit into a 144-123 win, with those 144 points representing a franchise record.
Before the game even started, it was announced that Kyle Lowry would be sitting out of tonight’s game for personal reasons. As a general rule, it is easier to get information out of the Pentagon than the Toronto Raptors, so that is all were given and we will not waste time speculating. Norman Powell slotted in to the starting lineup in his place.
The alterations to the starting five did not stop there, however, as Alex Len got the nod at the five instead of Aron Baynes, who has struggled to find his role with the new team so far this season. Head coach Nick Nurse’s tinkering will likely continue, though, as 16 points in the paint through the first five minutes led Nurse to call Chris Boucher’s number early in this one. Considering the way the rest of the game went, it is easy to wonder if Boucher will see himself in the starting lineup in the near future.
Initially, the defensive woes continued with Boucher on the floor as the Kings stayed scorching hot through the entire first. A lack of toughness in the paint and a slight lag on closeouts allowed the Kings to shoot 82% (!) in the first on their way to 43 points — a disqualified Tyrese Haliburton three away from a record for first quarter points against the Raptors. Somewhat miraculously, the Raptors were able to get within eight by the end of the first frame.
The momentum continued into the second quarter. Pascal Siakam picked up where he left off against the Phoenix Suns by staying in attack mode as the Raptors had erased the gap for a 53-53 tie with six minutes left in the first half. He leveraged the extra attention his drives were drawing with some crafty passing on his way to five first half assists. Siakam finished with 17 points and 11 assists, and was just one rebound away from his first career triple-double.
Though Siakam’s play and Fred VanVleet’s steady hand were essential for keeping the Raptors in this one, the story in the first half was Norman Powell.
Capitalizing on his heightened role in Lowry’s absence, Powell made it a point to attack the rim. He was rewarded for his efforts, getting to the line for six first half free throws to go with his three first half three-pointers. Powell finished the half with 15 points.
Although the Raptors improved considerably in the second quarter, the Kings kept chugging offensively as Toronto struggled to contain Sacramento’s engine, De’Aaron Fox. Fox looked like a Ferrari sharing the highway with a fleet of minivans in the first half, using his speed to wreak havoc both in the half-court and in transition. Fox finished the first half with 16 points and three assists on 6-of-7 shooting. 16 points from Harrison Barnes also helped contribute to Sacramento’s 74 first half points — but the Raptors had closed the gap to just three.
Hanging over the Raptors’ improved second quarter was their inability to perform with a traditional centre. Alex Len’s 4:43 minutes at the start of the game were all the court time he would see, and Nick Nurse abandoned his traditional fives entirely from that point onwards.
Their steady climb back in this one continued into the third quarter as VanVleet, Siakam, and Powell scored 15 of the teams first 17 in the quarter as the Raptors grabbed the lead with 8:38 left in the third. VanVleet, in particular, was excellent in the third as he finished with 16 of his 34 points in this frame. They would not relinquish that lead for the remainder of the game.
to reiterate, Freddy's lay-up package is elite pic.twitter.com/btmoNJ6aOn— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 9, 2021
By the fourth, the Raptors started to blow the game open, and the notable performances were myriad. As mentioned previously, Chris Boucher made a compelling case for the starting lineup, racking up 23 points and 10 boards. Malachi Flynn, like Norman Powell, took advantage of his time in Lowry’s absence, having his best game in the NBA. He looked composed and confident, hitting a couple threes and showing off a nice floater.
Midway through the fourth, the Raptors were able to rest on their laurels and enter garbage time in an unfamiliar place so far this season — on the winning end of it.
The sustainability of playing without a centre is certainly a question mark going forward, but for now, Toronto can enjoy getting back in the win column after watching their core guys show out in this one.
The Raptors will look to build off of this success on Sunday night against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.