Even in games they’ve won handily, the Raptors haven’t once looked like a finished product this season. And frankly, that probably won’t be the case at all during what is very much a fact-finding season for a team on the rise. This is a team with disjointedness baked into its DNA. It’s a roster of long, spindly dudes, many of whom are being asked to expand their games in ways they might not yet even be coordinated enough to attain.
But through the bouts of miserable offensive process and stretches where Nick Nurse’s detail-oriented defense overwhelms those trying to execute it, you get glimpses of what the end product just might look like which, frankly, kick ass.
We got a pair of those delicious flash-forward moments at the most important possible juncture of Thursday’s 115-109 Raptors win over the 76ers, as OG Anunoby made good on all the on-ball reps he’s seen in the early going this season. With the Raptors trailing 109-107 with about 1:20 to go, OG got a step on Andrew Drummond on a switch, and picked out Gary Trent Jr. in the right corner for a three to put the Raps up one.
The next time down, he did it again. Same mismatch, same corner, same result, this time for the last three of Fred VanVleet’s team-best 32 points on the night.
FREDDERICK EDMUND VANVLEET SR. pic.twitter.com/zR913Sdz8v— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 12, 2021
“Yeah that was good to see,” said Nick Nurse when asked about OG’s back-to-back dimes. “I think it helped that we got him a little more faced up instead of kind of back to the basket and working in such tight quarters... He knew exactly what he was gonna do on that last one.”
The precision of those two buckets doesn’t exactly tell the tale of how the Raptors got it done in this one. Their seventh win of the season might have been their grimiest to date. With no Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch or Yuta Watanabe on the second night of a back-to-back, Nick Nurse surprisingly opted for a tight eight-man rotation. When you only have eight guys to mix and match, and five of them are gangly, position-less chaos-bringers, the math says that’s gonna lead to some bizarre lineup combos. Large swaths of the game were consumed by the Raptors molasses offense, either resetting itself into forced late-clock looks or getting commandeered by an overzealous Precious Achiuwa, who finished 1-of-10 from the floor as Pascal Siakam’s starting lineup fill-in.
More than once in the first half it felt like the Sixers were knocking on the door of blowing it the hell open before the Raptors’ defense got things reined in. In the fourth quarter, Tyrese Maxey’s personal layup line threatened to undo all the great work the Raptors did through the first 16 minutes of the second half. Toronto scrounged just enough from its survival-mode rotation to set the stage for Anunoby’s late playmaking heroics.
Chris Boucher turned in what was hands down his best game of a season that before Thursday had been a supreme bummer. Splitting time at the four and five, Boucher posted 17 points and six boards to go along with two blocks on a tidy 7-of-12 shooting line. On defense he was more controlled than we’ve seen him at any point this season. After a couple erratic shot attempts early on, Boucher settled into groove finishing off all sorts of transition possessions with force. With three 6’9 guys likely returning to the lineup soon, Boucher’s hold on a rotation spot is tenuous, but Thursday’s effort should give him a little more pull with Nurse going forward. (Achiuwa perhaps not so much).
Boucher’s best work came in the the third quarter the Raptors won 29-21 to pull ahead of Philly, as did Scottie Barnes’. Toronto’s star rookie poured in eight of his 13 points in the frame, on the way to a stuffed 13-9-4-1-2 stat line. He entirely controlled the action, doing that thing where looks like he’s moving a beat slower than everyone else, while processing things two beats quicker. If not for some duffed bunnies would have had six or seven assists on his ledger. He is very good, and his emergence alone means this season should already be considered a success.
This was a bit of a rabbit out of the ass win for Toronto. Down Siakam, with Fred VanVleet pushing north of 40 minutes once again, and some super hairy moments in the late going, it felt like as the Raptors’ 10-point fourth quarter lead was erased that Toronto had lost its shot to pull out the road win. The Raptors are loveable try-hards, but it rarely translates to 48 minutes of cohesive play. It’s those sweet, sweet flashes, from Barnes, VanVleet, Anunoby and the rest that help them overcome the inconsistencies and pull victories, usually of the dramatic persuasion. If things go to plan, those moments will amp up in frequency as the season progresses. In turn, so should the wins.