For the first time in forever, the Toronto Raptors had their horses back to take on the Nets last night. While Brooklyn was admittedly on the tail end of a back-to-back and missing two of their superstars in Kevin Durant and James Harden, there was still some high billing for the Raptors taking on a division rival and one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
Even though it looked in the first quarter like we were doomed for disappointment, the Raptors didn’t hurt us for long. Winning the second quarter 33-22 and the third 36-23, the team as a whole, but the starters especially, were on it from the first 16 minutes on, pushing Toronto to their fourth straight win, 114-103.
The game basically marks the official end of Tank-a-thon 2021 too. Now, the Raptors find themselves in a dogfight for the ten seed with a similarly streaking Wizards team, and based on the schedule and how much rest Toronto’s stars have had to date, it would appear that whether it’s the strategy or not — they’ll be in the race for the playoffs.
Sorry if that’s bad news for some! It results in some fun basketball, no matter the outcome. Let’s look at five things that impressed from last night’s game.
1. Pascal the Facilitator
Pascal Siakam has been a target for criticism all season and sure, when watching his performances in the micro, there are still things to nitpick. For a guy coming off COVID-19 and losing significant weight, though, it’s remarkable how determined he’s been to be the team’s best weapon inside the arc — a role he spent long stretches struggling with through last summer and fall.
Against the Nets, we got to see Siakam use that determination to play the role of facilitator. With a team-high six assists, it’s clear that Pascal has been one of the main beneficiaries of the Raptors signing two bigs who can catch the basketball. He’s been able to draw defenses and find either Khem Birch or Freddie Gillespie in pockets of space. Even when he’s not directly setting them up, he gives them an opportunity to get on the offensive glass — New Fred especially has been so strong in that area (3 OREB last night).
Siakam’s best pass on Wednesday was the game’s dagger. Euro-stepping into a nicely spaced lane, he floated a hook pass into the arms of Birch for an easy dunk, putting the Raps up eight and the game out of reach.
2. OG the Closer
One of my favourite parts of the 2019 playoff run was when the Raptors pulled the big red emergency lever and put Kawhi Leonard on the other team’s best player. Always an “oh shit” moment, Kawhi always showed the ability to shut down superstars for short periods of time, regardless of injury or minutes played.
While OG Anunoby has a long way to go to becoming as dominant as Kawhi was on the offensive end, there’s no question he’s become the “oh shit it’s happening” defender for this version of the Raptors. Late in the game Wednesday, Anunoby became the primary defender on Kyrie Irving after a short Nets run cut Toronto’s lead to single digits. Irving had ripped the Raptors all game on drives to the basket, but OG absolutely walled him off in the last two minutes.
Providing 25 points on the other end is huge too, but there’s no question the most fun part of watching OG is how he can dial in for a possession and just shut off an opposing superstar. In key moments on Wednesday, he did it yet again.
3. VanVleet and Lowry finding the range
While Siakam and Anunoby looked sharp from the tap, it took some time for the backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet to get into the game. While both ended up shooting less than 50%, their made shots ended up mattering a bit more based on timeliness — Fred’s 5-for-10 night from three especially speaks to that.
Now that Birch is the presumed starting five, it’ll be interesting to see how this longtime backcourt pairing gets their chemistry going (or if they’ll have the chance to) for the rest of this season. It seems like all year we’ve been watching either Lowry or VanVleet take on point guard roles with the other one out, and it still looks a bit strange to see them out there together.
Timely shots will always be in their DNA, though, and they provided plenty of that on Wednesday.
4. New Fred
I continue to be so impressed with what Freddie Gillespie brings to the table (on a 10-day contract, no less!) With an incredible five blocks in the win, he’s now joined Yuta Watanabe as a do-anything, do-it-at-full-speed guy off the bench that the Raptors so desperately needed earlier in the season.
Blocks aside, though, there are plenty of other little things that Gillespie does that make him worthy of a full contract. His skills are raw, but he made a difficult catch in traffic on a Kyle Lowry pass (always a good trust-builder) and has shown the ability to hit a 10-foot jumper if it’s available to him. These are little things that can build as the team trusts him more. At the very least, he’s played well enough to banish Aron Baynes for good.
5. Boucher’s injury
The one negative from last night’s game was an injury to Chris Boucher. Landing awkwardly on the foot of Timothe Luwawu-Caborrot, Boucher suffered a sprained knee and left immediately for evaluation.
While we don’t have any updates yet, a Boucher injury would really siphon some scoring bump from the bench in the short-term. Gary Trent Jr. still looked like he was settling into a 2019-20 Norman Powell type role after being asked of a lot more since joining Toronto (2-for-9 last night) and really, Boucher is the most malleable of the Raptors bench players with his ability to play at both the four and the five.
Hopefully Boucher doesn’t miss too much time, but the offense won’t be quite the same without him in the lineup.