In this unfortunate and unlucky Raptors season, we’ve been straining for good news. When the team was healthy, it looked like they were about to become a terror in the East. But COVID-19 undid those plans. Now further disrupted by other injuries, Toronto continues its search for answers. On Saturday night against the Cavaliers, they found some in Gary Trent Jr. and Malachi Flynn. For the former, now just nine games into his Raptors career, the hoop was the size of the ocean and he couldn’t miss; for the latter, the entire team was on a string and his to command. Both posted career-highs in points, with 44 for Trent on unreal 17-of-19 shooting and 20 for Flynn to go along with Malachi’s first double-double care of 11 assists. Their combined efforts got the Raptors the easy win against Cleveland, 135-115.
If the shorthanded Raptors were going to win this game, it would help to get off to a good start. And it’s hard to do too much better than not missing a shot for the initial 8.5 minutes of the first quarter. Going 17-for-20 in the frame had the Cavaliers on their heels and then on their backsides after a 17-5 run from the Raps. Toronto’s offense made the game look easy, but it was their defense that did quite a bit to leave Cleveland behind. In that effort, the return of DeAndre’ Bembry helped enormously — he was there to stir up deflections, swoop in for surprising blocks (he had three in the first quarter), and run the floor in transition. What’s more, his energy proved to be transferrable, with the rest of the squad getting involved off his lead. Thanks to an absurd Yuta Watanabe buzzer-beating three, the Raptors went into the second up 47-26.
The second quarter became more of a shootout — albeit one-sided in favour of the Raptors. Carrying over their lights-out work were Trent Jr. and his new pal OG Anunoby, who spent the first few minutes of the second going shot for shot and pumping the Raptors’ lead up higher and higher. When OG finally did miss — he finished 5-of-6 in the half — Trent just kept going. Setting aside one obvious heat-check miss, Trent closed out the half going 9-of-10 from the field for 25 points. Anunoby, meanwhile, did his damage with 15, while Bembry, quieter in the second, had 11 points. Toronto also benefitted from the confident point guard play of rookie Flynn, who chipped in seven points at the half — to go with six assists. In all, the Raptors were just clicking.
Don’t believe me? Toronto also saw a couple of nice little rolls from Aron Baynes; Chris Boucher finished a couple of strong plays and stuffed Isaiah Hartenstein at the rim; Stanley Johnson got himself to +1 in the half; and, sure, Rodney Hood banked in a 3 at the shot clock buzzer to keep the Cavaliers totally demoralized. The only grim moment came when new Raptor Freddie Gillespie, possessor of a truly hulking presence, got on the floor for a bit and accidentally clocked Johnson with an elbow. Stanley was fine afterwards — even going out of his way to partake in a wild sequence later in which he turned the ball over, got a chasedown block and then a rip-away steal — but phew, that was quite a blow.
With a halftime score of 87-54 — the most points ever in a half for the Raptors — it was obvious most everything was going Toronto’s way, including a lead that grew to 38 points. But it wouldn’t be 2021 if there wasn’t some bizarre struggle for the Raptors. In the third, the team saw too much Bembry recklessness, which resulted in a few too many empty tries on offense. Similiarly, Boucher also tried to do too much to no avail. While that pair’s confidence remains high, sometimes it comes with a cost. If not for Trent’s presence, and a timely three from Flynn, it did feel like things could have gotten much worse. The Cavaliers managed to string together an 18-2 run in the third, outscoring Toronto 29-13 in the quarter. Yes, Trent had another eight points, but a raging Collin Sexton put in 14 to get Cleveland semi-back into it, 100-83.
The fourth quarter saw the Raptors get back to what was working for them in the first half: Trent firing, and Flynn orchestrating (and also firing). The pair had 21 points in the frame — 11 for Trent, 10 for Flynn, as they outdueled the Cleveland’s aspiring duo of Sexton and Garland. Behind their starting backcourt on the night, Toronto fended off more spirited attacked from the Cavaliers — with their lead shrinking to 12 points — before re-asserting control. While Toronto saw production from Watanabe (14 points, five boards), and felt Gillespie’s sudden impact (six points, four boards, one nice assist), it was inspiring to watch Flynn settle things down for the Raptors in a few different ways. He hit shots, threaded passes, and kept his efforts up on the defensive end through to the end. While we’ll still need to see if Flynn can play to this level against a more talented and consistent squad, it sure seems like he’ll give it a dang good try in the games (and years) to come.
So yes, the Raptors got back to running away with it and we could just relax and enjoy the show. In the end, maybe this win doesn’t help Toronto’s so-called tanking efforts, but then we wouldn’t get to see Flynn having his moment while his bench dads, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, hooted and hollered from the bench. Maybe that kind of moment doesn’t win a team the title tomorrow, but it sure feels better than what we’ve been going through lately with the Raptors. Maybe it was some good news.