OG Anunoby made his return to the Toronto Raptors lineup last night, and Nick Nurse started small, and for one half, all was right with the world, as the Raptors hung tight with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Then Kyle Lowry twisted his ankle, sapping almost all joy from the proceedings. The Raptors weathered Lowry’s absence behind a big game from Fred VanVleet, knocking off the Bucks 124-113, but now we need to wait and see if the Raptors will be down another starter.
1. Good Starters, Great Start
We finally — finally! — got the small-ball starting lineup the Raptors should have been playing all along (and against a not-small opponent too) and guess what? It worked! Starting Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam, the Raps jumped out to a nine-point lead, with all five starters scoring in the first four minutes. And despite the size disadvantage, the Raptors outrebounded the Bucks 23-19 in the first half.
Really, the only thing that held the group back was foul trouble. They had four in the first 3.5 minutes, and while you might say “that’s what happens when you go small,” that wasn’t really the case. One of the fouls was Powell fouling Bryn Forbes behind the three point line, a second was Anunoby fouling Giannis Antetokounmpo on a fadeaway, and another was a bad call as Antetokounmpo bowled Lowry over. (The fourth was on VanVleet, who fouled Brook Lopez under the rim.)
Ultimately, thanks to foul trouble and Lowry’s injury, this group only played 8.6 minutes, but they were +5 in those minutes. (Curiously, the same group with Boucher in place of the injured Lowry also played 8.6 minutes — and was a +14!)
I’m not saying Aron Baynes was the problem, but maybe Aron Baynes was the problem?
2. Bench… OK?
To be fair, Baynes actually played well in his minutes off the bench last night, and that may in fact be where he’s best suited to play. The Raptors mixed up the bench unit slightly, with Baynes playing alongside Chris Boucher late in the first with DeAndre’ Bembry, Terence Davis and Fred VanVleet. (Stanley Johnson got a DNP-CD.)
I’m still not a fan of VanVleet+bench units, but it seems to have worked a little bit better with Baynes in there, as his screens opened up the floor nicely for VanVleet. Unfortunately, Terence Davis remains a disaster, and defensively, well, they transformed Pat Connaughton into Larry Bird, so that group ended up a net negative. But in the absence of foul trouble and a healthy lineup, one where Davis plays less and one-starter units are rare, I really do think moving Baynes to the bench helps stabilize the rotation.
3. Matt Thomas!?!?!
Speaking of Davis and the bench, how about Nurse finally unlocking the Matt Thomas dog house? Thomas played almost six minutes in the second half (Davis did not play after halftime); he was pretty invisible out there (0-1, 1 rebound) but “invisible” might be better than “disaster”, as I described Davis above.
In some ways, it was actually kinda shitty of Nurse to dump Thomas into last night’s game. Yes, these guys are pros and need to be ready to have their number called at any time. But still, asking Thomas to come in cold, after barely playing for weeks, against one of the best teams I the league, in a tightly contested game? That’s tough. Why not try it against the Timberwolves?
Also, shame on Leo Rautins for saying of Thomas, “he has to play good defense to stay in.” It’s not that I disagree with the sentiment, or that I think Thomas is a good defender, but why is he held to a different standard than Davis? Davis is also terrible defensively, but it doesn’t affect his minutes (or didn’t, before last night). That’s just a lazy thing to say.
4. It’s Good to be Back
There’s only one good thing about players getting hurt, and it’s that we get to bust out the Iron Man 2 gif when they come back:
OG Anunoby delivered some superheroics of his own last night, despite some early foul trouble. He nailed his first three and had a quick steal, and in the fourth quarter, he gave us this...
OG with the fade pic.twitter.com/X7uMY4ZPcH— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 17, 2021
... followed it up with this...
OG WITH THE SAUCE pic.twitter.com/uBLVmpQlvX— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 17, 2021
... and capped it off with this:
OH YOU GOTTA LOVE IT pic.twitter.com/X6sO1fgss8— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 17, 2021
It’s like he never missed a day! Good to be back, indeed.
5. Kyle Lowry Lead Passes Forever
There are so many things about Kyle Lowry’s game to love, and most of them were on display on the second quarter sequence where he ultimately got hurt — the rebounding, the hustle, the heads-up play. And of course there are the charges drawn and the PU3ITs and so on.
But I do love me some Kyle Lowry lead passes.
I love that this one comes off of a made basket, and that Lowry was about to dribble the basketball before spotting Bembry and just firing that pass off. Just beautiful.
So how big was this win, in the grand scheme? As Fred VanVleet said after, it’s just one game — just like the game against Minnesota was one game. I don’t think you can call it a statement to beat the Bucks right after playing such a terrible game against such a terrible team. Last year, when the Raptors feasted on bad teams but struggled against the best teams, I’d have called this a statement win. This year? It’s a good win, and hopefully the sort of win that you build off of and create positive momentum from. But for now? Yeah, it’s just one game.