For the first time in his career, Kevin Durant came off the bench in an NBA game. That was the news right before tip-off on Friday night as the Raptors and Nets got set for their first game since their 2020 playoffs showdown. Now, comparing that version of the Nets to this one is night and day, and about as silly a thing to do as bringing Durant off the bench. But KD was only in the position because of the league’s application of its health and safety protocols — which he apparently cleared, until he apparently didn’t. Understandably, this cast a strange pall over the game.
Or at least that was the mood off the court, as broadcasters and online media tried to understand what the hell was going on. On the court, the story was different. With Durant on the floor and moving at full steam, the Raptors were in a tight spot against Brooklyn. But when that matter was finally put to rest (again, on the court), the Raptors were able to put the clamps on James Harden and Kyrie Irving, and follow Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam on their way to a gutsy, at times absurd, 123-117 victory. Now, uh, here’s hoping no one on the Raptors or Nets has COVID.
To get things rolling for Toronto, Lowry was once again tasked with setting the tone. He was the first, and at times only, Raptor who looked wholly unafraid of attacking the Nets to start the game. It helped, of course, that Brooklyn’s defense is as porous as advertised (e.g. at the bottom of the league since the Harden trade). That first quarter saw Lowry pot seven points, while he and Fred VanVleet set up teammates with a combined five assists. Norman Powell also exploded out of the blocks with a quick ten points in the first. And always a sure sign that something is lax for the other team: Aron Baynes, coming off a modest groin strain, went off 3-for-4 for six points and three rebounds. The Raptors took an 11-point lead into the second quarter.
It was a lead Toronto saw grow to as large as 17, thanks to more furiously inspired play by Lowry. As the Raptors’ bench core started coming on — now in a more consistent manner than most of last month — Lowry continued pouring on the points, scoring another ten on 4-of-5 shooting (including two 3s and a strong move at the rim). His intensity was matched by Toronto’s chaos-generating lineup off the bench, which now relies almost exclusively on the energies of DeAndre’ Bembry, Yuta Watanabe, Chris Boucher, and Stanley Johnson. Fired up by their defense, Toronto pressured Brooklyn into 11 first-half turnovers, which helped the Raptors jump out to 21 points in transition.
No lead is safe against Brooklyn however, not with that amount of offensive firepower on the roster. Thanks to some absurd shotmaking — from the expected (Durant, Harden) and unexpected (Landry Shamet, Jeff Green) sources — Brooklyn was able to shrink Toronto’s lead down to one for a moment and turn the evening’s contest into a much more competitve affair. The Nets were aided by some whistles in the frame too, going to the line ten times to Toronto’s one. To their credit, they did force the issue at the rim (and ran into actual defensive pressure while trying it), while Toronto wasn’t quite creating the same chances (and saw much less resistance in the paint) as the second quarter went on.
The Raptors continued to fend off the Nets on offense, with the lead flipping back to Brooklyn in the first few minutes of the third quarter. In fact, it felt like momentum had swung fully in the Nets’ favour — especially after VanVleet and coach Nick Nurse got hit with technicals — and yet there were another few swings in store. Almost immediately after Brooklyn took the lead, Durant was whistled for his fourth and fifth fouls, a huge turn of events. The game was back up in the air for a moment until, a-ha, Nets coach Steve Nash challenged the call and, get this: the foul was overturned. Trouble for the Raptors? Not quite in the way you’d think. After that, Durant was sent off again for, yes, health and safety concerns — this time for good. (More on this later.)
As you can imagine, the speculation was flying online and on TV, but the game continued. For his efforts, Lowry got a cut in his face as all this was going on, the Raptors and Nets kept trading buckets, and the game was further mucked up. In all that mess though, with Lowry getting increasingly fired up, Pascal Siakam started to show up for Toronto. Sorry, let me rephrase: Siakam showed out for Toronto in the third. He played all 12 minutes, dropped 15 points (including going 7-of-8 from the free throw line) and added five rebounds for his efforts. As the quarter wound down, it was Siakam hitting a smooth fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to give Toronto back their lead before the fourth quarter.
Naturally, the game’s final frame was also not without drama. The bombs kept coming back and forth, with the Nets hitting 3s (thanks for nothing Joe Harris) and the Raptors just straight hustling into whatever buckets they could. In the process, Powell joined Lowry in the blood club, getting cut courtesy of Brooklyn’s Bruce Brown a few minutes into the frame. Meanwhile, Bembry took his turn slowing down Harden (this, after he had done his part to slow Kyrie Irving). In all, the Raptors somehow kept going shot for shot, and slug for slug with the Nets. I mean this almost literally as Powell and Brown started getting physical — within the rhythm of the game, mind you — against each other too. Again, a lot was happening.
Worry not though, Lowry sorted Brown out by scoring a few buckets right in his mug, including a pair of threes and via a strong drive. With Lowry maintaining the team’s mania, the Raptors continued to bear down on defense, and in truth: no loose ball was safe from recovery by Toronto. This included Powell diving into a thicket of Nets and somehow coming up with the ball. That sequence turned into a three for VanVleet, his first and only of the game (extending his made-three streak to 54), which gave the Raptors a six-point cushion late. Coupled with Siakam’s continued brilliance in the paint, Toronto would not be bested on the night. In all, Pascal would finish with a season-high 33 points, Lowry added 30 and seven assists, Powell fell short of the 20-point mark with a mere 18, and Chris Boucher jumped in with 17 points and nine boards, making his presence felt too. If nothing else, the Raptors feel like they make sense now.
One final note here, however: the league’s decision-making around Durant did not make sense. The word is that Durant apparently interacted with someone before the game who had an inconclusive test. Instead of being cautious, it was decided that KD could play (but not start, for whatever reason). Then that test turned out to be positive, so they had to take him out of the game. But this is not how viruses work. And while the explanations are now out there that make sense of the ordeal, it certainly seems like a rather cavalier call was made that put the health of many players and staff from both the Nets and Raptors at risk. Sure, luck seems to be on everyone’s side here — at least from what I’ve read — but that doesn’t make it right. Durant should not have been near this game until it was clear he had not been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. And he should have been kept away once the facts emerged.
To end on a good note: this was the most satisfying and entertaining win of the Raptors’ 2020-21 season. And frankly, it reminded me why I love watching the Raptors play basketball in the first place. Setting aside the bizarre health scare with KD and the pandemic in general, which isn’t past us just yet: more of this please!