It is hard to know how to feel about this one as a Toronto Raptors fan, as the myriad positives were offset by the eventual 116-103 loss to the Brooklyn Nets in a game that was far closer than the final score suggests.
The Raptors, with their current look, showed they can hang with the league’s best. OG Anunoby was a game-wrecker across 94-feet of hardwood, getting it done on both ends. Khem Birch’s consistent play has been a revelation and has steadied this team on both ends. But another tally is added in the loss column, nonetheless, and it only gets tougher from here.
Based on Toronto’s upcoming schedule and where they sit in the standings, this game had the potential to be a swing point for the remainder of the team’s season. Win this one, and they close the gap on the play-in game while proving that they can compete with the best of the NBA. Lose this one, and not only does each loss hurt in the standings, but they enter into a remarkably tough stretch in the schedule with each game feeling like something close to a must-win.
Neither team was fully healthy, with the Raptors down Gary Trent Jr., Chris Boucher, and Paul Watson Jr., while the Nets suited up without one of their triumvirate of stars, James Harden. Toronto’s depth issues were exacerbated by the fact that it was the second night of a back-to-back, an occurrence that has plagued the team all year.
Still, the Raptors came out looking like a team with a purpose, a team on a mission. Kyle Lowry opened the game with a three. The defense was locked in and tight. A couple possessions after a block from Khem Birch, OG Anunoby made an athletic save along the sidelines to turn the Nets over and set the big man up for an easy dunk. Lowry knocked down a couple more threes and tossed up a beautiful alley-oop to Birch which made Raptors fans dream about what Lowry’s career may have looked like with a consistent vertical threat off lobs.
But as good as the starting lineup was, things unraveled a bit when the bench started to be incorporated. The offense stalled out, and the egalitarian beauty of the first quarter was traded out for a team just getting by on some gritty one-on-one efforts. Predictably, it was less efficient and the Raptors found themselves trailing 56-52 at the end of the first half.
Although the Raptors kept Brooklyn’s two healthy stars in check, they were unable to capitalize as Jeff Green — a player with a unique talent for being really good when you don’t want him to be — picked up the slack on offense. He would finish with 22 points on 50 percent shooting to lead his squad. The Nets kept up that momentum going into the second half.
Just as the Nets were starting to pull away in the third, leading by ten at various points, the Raptors dug their heels in. They hung around until igniting a 17-2 run that gave them a three point lead to end the third, with the score sitting at 83-80. The run started quietly enough, but Malachi Flynn blew the doors open when he banged a three on one end, then played the thief on the other, stealing the ball away and setting Anunoby up for an and-one. Although Anunoby missed the free throw, he made up for it with a crafty pass for a Birch dunk, then received a high-arcing pass from Lowry that he stuffed in easily for a dunk. Following that was a possession worthy of basketball-nerd Nirvana.
One can only imagine this sequence in front of a sold-out Scotiabank crowd. Pandemonium might not do it justice.
But, Brooklyn weathered the storm. With a quiet night from their stars, the Nets relied on contributions from some unexpected sources. Mike James, a recent signee to the team from Europe, traded talent with Kyrie Irving before the game, busting out an endless bag of tricks late in the third and early in the fourth. Blake Griffin, only averaging nine a game, hit a couple big shots down the stretch of this one. And though Kevin Durant was not dominant for the entirety, he was when the Nets needed him to be. His dead-eye shooting late was the nail in the coffin for a Raptors team that was showing life towards the end.
Brooklyn pulled away late and Toronto just couldn’t match their late game shot-making.
As mentioned, the bright spots did exist. OG Anunoby’s shot creation was very impressive, as he scored an efficient 21 on a high degree of difficulty, and he played defense like few on this earth can. He impacts the game like a star, and will soon be viewed as such.
Birch was a beast in the middle, ripping down boards and getting dunks in a manner that Raptors fans had believed was only reserved for opposing centres before he joined our squad. He finished with 13 points and 14 boards, a large chunk of them coming on the offensive end. Malachi Flynn continued his fearless play, and Kyle Lowry was a steady hand for the team.
That said, the difficulty of attaining a seat at the table just got upped, as the Raptors now head west to face a murderer’s row of teams. If nothing else, however, Toronto’s performance in this one showed that the team just might have the juice to make some noise.