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Raptors dial in for middle quarters, beat Nets 114-103

After a sloppy first, the Raptors starters showed the kind of potential we’ve been waiting for all season, suffocating the Nets on both ends in an outstanding win.

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s no question the Toronto Raptors have had a different energy of late. Since the trade for Gary Trent Jr. and, maybe more importantly, the signings of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, the Raptors have been playing some inspired, energetic basketball. No longer are there lost minutes at centre, as rebounding issues have been shored up and defensively, there’s been some shades of the old Raptors.

Riding a three-game win streak into tonight’s game, there was even a question of whether Toronto would look the same with all their starters healthy. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam have all missed intermittent time this month due to rest or injury, and the stars just haven’t aligned to get them all on the court at the same time (whether on purpose or not). On Wednesday, we finally got a resounding answer to this month-long inquiry: yes, the Raptors look pretty damn good.

Despite a slow start, Toronto came on strong in the second and third quarters, out-scoring the Brooklyn Nets 69-45 in those frames, to once again topple the Eastern Conference powerhouse, 114-103.

Leading the way for the Raptors on both ends was the combination of Siakam and Anunoby.

More than anyone, Siakam has spent the most time this month carrying a rotation of bench players; despite that, he didn’t take any steps back with the rest of Toronto’s stars in tow. Dropping 27 points on 19 shots, Siakam added nine rebounds and a team-leading six assists — the last of these proving to be the dagger, as he skied above the outstretched arms of DeAndre Jordan and dropped a pass into Birch’s pocket for a dunk. Another unexpected win was Siakam’s three-point shooting. The outside shot has been in the doldrums all year, but Pascal lined up a pair of them on Wednesday, going 2-for-5 overall.

Anunoby was just as impressive, though. Scoring 25 points on 8-for-14 shooting, OG was imperative in giving Toronto a second quarter lead, making 3-of-5 three-pointers in the first half. Down the stretch, he walled off the only Big Three member playing, Kyrie Irving, on multiple occasions to snuff out any hope of Brooklyn making a last ditch run.

It was pleasant seeing the returns of Lowry and VanVleet too. The guards were also stroking it in the second quarter, combining for seven first half threes, as VanVleet would finish with 17 points (5-for-13) and Lowry would finish with 14 points, seven rebounds, and five assists.

Though these four were the only Raptors in double digits (no weirdness in the box score is weird in itself), there were plenty of contributions from the supporting cast. The aforementioned combination of Birch and Gillespie looked right at home against top tier talent, safely winning any matchup against veteran DeAndre Jordan on the glass. The two combined for 12 rebounds and Gillespie added five blocks — Toronto’s defense funnelled Brooklyn’s supporting players into the paint all night and Gillespie in particular was up to the task of finishing possessions.

Overall, that game plan was really good for Toronto, but it didn’t seem like such a safe bet in the first quarter. The Nets came out with their guns blazing, as Joe Harris was left open for a perfect 4-for-4 start from three and Kyrie Irving nearly had a double-double in ten minutes, scoring 10 points in the frame.

The mistakes made gave Toronto something to focus in on, though, and while Irving got his points the rest of the way, Harris would only make one more field goal, as the Raptors tried to force everyone else to beat them. In the end, they couldn’t.

Irving would finish with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists, but needed 21 shots to get there after a hot start. Bruce Brown had 21 points and 14 rebounds off the bench in support.

Trailing 36-23 after the first quarter shenanigans, the Raptors took a while to get going in the second. A hockey sub strategy for Nick Nurse failed to produce returns, as a bench lineup led by Malachi Flynn and Gary Trent Jr. didn’t provide necessary shooting in its first stretch. Trent Jr. was really the only core player to struggle tonight, going 2-for-9 and scoring just five points.

Still, as the starters worked their way back in, the Raptors started to improve. The defense immediately got better and started forcing Nets misses; Brooklyn would finish the half 9-for-24 from distance despite a hot start. On offense, a trio of OG threes was supported by 11 points from Siakam, as Brooklyn’s lead slimmed to just two at half.

A run to start the third gave Toronto the lead for good, as the 7-0 spurt was punctuated by this OG hammer.

The starters continued to force awkward offense from Brooklyn, especially in the stretches with Irving on the bench. Simultaneously, VanVleet and Lowry made a few tough threes, and the lead swelled to 18 late in the third. Overall, the team shot 7-for-12 from distance in the quarter.

The full bench lineup was much improved to start the fourth, which really helped seal the game for Toronto. Gillespie and Yuta Watanabe both played sensational defense, while Flynn looked more comfortable and finished 2-for-5 for five points. Defense rubbed off on the starters too, as two plays on that end sealed it: VanVleet forcing a charge on Brown by getting him into the corner, then OG walling off Kyrie to force a turnover.

With the win, the Raptors are now owners of the number ten seed in the East, pending the result of tonight’s Wizards-Warriors game. Victors of four straight, they’ll take their streak to Manhattan as they take on the Knicks on Saturday afternoon.