With the news before tip that the Nets would be putting four more players — for a total of seven — into health and safety protocols, the Raptors had to feel both opportunistic and a bit queasy.
The signs of a new, less certain pandemic wave are everywhere today, and in the NBA, the question marks hovering over the next two weeks ratcheted up on Tuesday, as the Nets became a new focal point for outbreaks happening across the Association.
The Raptors are obviously not immune either (no pun intended). Precious Achiuwa is in protocols, Masai Ujiri tested positive earlier this month, and broadcasters Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong are taking a precautionary week off. The moments before tonight’s game definitely had the feel of a fog closing in.
Still, the show went on.
Thanks to Kevin Durant playing through ankle soreness, the Nets were able to field a team of eight players. The Raptors, with ten healthy bodies, weren’t much better for wear, but had to deal with their own brand of depth issues all evening. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, and Gary Trent Jr. combined for 104 of the team’s 129 points on Tuesday, as a lack of energetic contributions elsewhere contributed to a 131-129 loss in overtime.
Those top four guys were uniformly excellent for Toronto — with a few understandable warts as their minutes total creeped up late. Most impressive, in my mind, were Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes.
Siakam, who had 25 points on 21 shots along with six rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block, picked out a matchup he liked against the Nets’ Nic Claxton and exploited it at every opportunity. His percentages dropped thanks to some tired legs late, but Pascal had the complete bag for most of this game: scoring in the post, stepping out for mid-range jumpers, and seeing the floor when attention came his way.
Siakam was a critical part of Toronto’s best stretch, a third quarter where the Raptors out-scored Brooklyn 44-25 and turned a ten-point halftime deficit into a significant lead. This was when the team was at its best, forcing the game’s tempo up with ballhawking defense and keeping the Nets’ top guys in Durant and Patty Mills in a reactionary mode. Trent Jr. and VanVleet combined for five steals in the game, which was critical for getting the Nets off of their game; when Brooklyn was able to play in the half court, the gravity of Durant often meant curtains for the Raptors.
Besides the Nets’ superstar, another reason for the half court dominance was Toronto’s defensive glass. The Nets won the rebounding battle 60-41 tonight and much of it was inexcusable on the Raptors’ part. Six-foot-four guard David Duke Jr. (I know: whomst?) had six offensive rebounds by simply cutting into open areas and poking the ball into open space. Boucher and Siakam really struggled to secure boards in the face of pressure, and while Barnes picked up the slack (12 rebounds, five on the offensive end), the Nets relentlessly got extra looks thanks to crashing the glass and out-numbering Toronto in the painted area.
Still, if you’re a glass half full person, your main takeaway from this game is the continued excellence of Scottie Barnes. Scoring 23 points on just 13 shots, Barnes was cool and confident when asked to create his own shot. In fact, the Raptors could’ve called his number even more — when Barnes was leading Nick Nurse’s bench unit in the first half, he barely touched the ball, as Malachi Flynn and Yuta Watanabe ran most of the action (Flynn went 1-for-4 and was benched in the second half).
It was also apparent late that Barnes might be able to provide a change of pace for Toronto’s clutch offense. With both Siakam and VanVleet well over the 40-minute mark, the two settled for a handful of passive jumpers in the half court. Seeing if Barnes can do something in the post on those possessions would at least be interesting to see.
The fact is, though, changing roles only goes so far when your productive roster goes five deep. I’ll include Watanabe in the good group, even though he struggled shooting, as he put in some great frontcourt minutes with Barnes to help shore up the rebounding in the second half.
The drop-off from Toronto’s starters to lineups with Flynn, Justin Champagnie and Svi Mykhailiuk are just too steep to not notice. Even against a team playing eight guys, the Raptors don’t have the talent of a Durant to create high percentage shots in a 1-on-2 or 1-on-3 scenario. When the game was close late, that’s something the Raptors couldn’t count on that the Nets definitely could.
So, that’s the story. The Raptors were healthier, but still at a disadvantage. Durant controlled the game, posting a 34-point triple-double with 13 rebounds and 11 assists, keeping the tempo down after the Raptors made their third quarter run and scoring or creating what needed to be done in overtime. Mills also gave them needed production with 30 points of his own, going 7-for-14 from deep.
The Raptors still had a chance to win it at the death, as a Barnes half court shot rimmed out as time expired, but that control that Durant was able to put on the game — along with some energetic support on the glass from the likes of Duke, Claxton and Kessler Edwards — was enough to win it in the end.
The Raptors next game will be against the Warriors (we think) on Saturday night.