Tonight’s Raptors game wasn’t the prettiest or most exciting, nor was it the sexiest matchup — in fact, those still in the pro-tanking camp would’ve even considered it a must-lose. But with a shot at the play-in tournament and a daunting schedule ahead, a game against the Cavaliers presented the Raptors with an opportunity for a relatively easy win before the final stretch of the regular season.
The last matchup between these two teams was a blowout win for the Raptors, who may have taken their previous loss to Collin Sexton and the Cavs a bit personally. The Raptors were notably without Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam for the win, but Gary Trent led the way with 44 points on an insane 17-for-19 from the field. Tonight, the Raptors were in the opposite situation — the aforementioned trio all suited up while Trent was held out with a lingering lower leg injury. (Toronto was also absent Chris Boucher and Paul Watson Jr.)
Monday’s result was what you might expect. The Raptors’ starters simply overwhelmed the far less talented Cavaliers, while Toronto’s bench unit was largely uninspiring and allowed Cleveland to get back into it. After a 10-2 Cleveland run to start the game, an obligatory OG Anunoby pass-deflection-leading-to-fast-break-dunk kicked the Raptors’ defense into gear, helping them go on a 20-2 run. Meanwhile, Lowry, who picked up six assists in the first quarter, was picking apart the Cavs’ defense in tandem with refreshing new addition Khem Birch. For his part, Birch finished the first half with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, four boards, two steals, and two blocks, and finished the game with, in his words post-game, “the easiest fourteen points of my career.”
But down Boucher and Watson, a bench unit of Malachi Flynn, DeAndre’ Bembry, Rodney Hood, Yuta Watanabe, and Freddie Gillespie started off the second quarter by going a -5 in four minutes, prompting coach Nick Nurse to sub Lowry and Birch back in. Bembry and Hood wouldn’t see the court again until garbage time, as Nurse went to Stanley Johnson instead in the second half. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went to a zone defense in the second quarter, limiting the Raptors to just 16 points, and making it a mere one-point game at halftime. The second quarter was pretty ugly, with the Raptors allowing some easy offensive rebounds and finishing the half just 1-for-15 from behind the arc.
But in the third quarter Siakam took over, continuing his run of high-quality play. Two of his 10 third-quarter points were some of his nicest of the season, as he took a rebound coast-to-coast and Euro-stepped a defender to finish with a strong left-handed dunk in transition.
While Siakam’s fourth foul prompted Nurse to sub him out for Johnson at around the 4:30 mark, the Raptors flipped the script on the Cavs by playing zone — and overall increasing their effort level. Lowry also continued enjoying the benefits of having an athletic centre with good hands and instincts, picking up his 10th assist during the third quarter. After the Raptors extended the lead again, the Cavaliers somehow shrunk it to 74-70 — that is, until Malachi Flynn scored five in a row (including three off of maybe the worst inbounds play of all time), then picked up a steal leading to free throws for Gillespie. Just like that, it was back to 81-70 for the Raptors heading into the fourth.
A couple of poor defensive possessions to start the fourth allowed the Cavs to make it 81-76, but Johnson created some breathing room for Toronto with yet another important three. Afterwards, Fourth-Quarter Flynn, who played the entire frame and led all scorers with 11, found Watanabe on two possessions, one for an open dunk and the other a wide-open corner three. Flynn and Watanabe led the Raptors’ bench in plus-minus at +6 and +5, and both looked encouragingly decisive on offense in addition to bringing their usual high-energy defense.
Siakam and Flynn were the only Raptors to make multiple threes (two each — I repeat, this game was not pretty), and both were key in helping the Raptors run away with this one. After picking up the loose ball off of Isaac Okoro’s late rim-stuffed dunk attempt, Anunoby finished a finger roll to secure Toronto the commanding 103-85 lead, which finally gave Nurse enough comfort to play the garbage time unit. Tonight’s leader in minutes? Kyle Lowry with just 33 — a significant number, with the Raptors taking on Brooklyn tomorrow.
Considering Collin Sexton and others were out, and that the Cavaliers are, well, not good, there’s not a ton to take away from this game in terms of the Raptors’ ability to compete for, or in, the playoffs. But it did serve as yet another sign that, with the addition of two active centres with solid finishing ability, this Raptors team is, at the very least, capable of handling their business against the bottom of the league. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s what the good teams do. Unfortunately, we might not actually find out this season if that’s indeed what the Raptors are.