The Toronto Raptors have been pressed for luck all season, and there’s even been times where the circumstances have taken a hit on the team’s energy. We saw plenty of games earlier this season where it seemed like the chemistry would never come together. Guys were in and out of the lineup, the frontcourt was a mess, and Toronto was playing down to Eastern Conference opponents they would’ve smacked handily in years past.
Now, guys are still in and out of the lineup — that’s been a constant throughout — but the Raptors are so much more fun to root for. The energy is noticeably better, as the team has started to show that resiliency that got them to a championship two years ago, even if the talent isn’t the same. This has especially shown up on the current road trip, where the Raptors came into tonight’s game against the Clippers fresh off a decisive upset win over the Lakers.
Tonight, the battle was there, but the execution came up just short in the game’s late stages. The Raptors managed to score just 18 points in the fourth quarter, as the Clippers came back to win on Tuesday, 105-100.
Still, this was one of the more entertaining games of the season. Toronto got the news just before start that they’d be adding Kyle Lowry to the injured list (back soreness), as he took a spot on the bench with key pieces OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. and Chris Boucher. The lack of offensive options didn’t curtail the Raptors, though, as they got 51 combined points from Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam to lead the way.
VanVleet was nothing short of great, leading the team with 27 points and passing for 13 assists. Making 10-for-24 from the field, the point guard had all the circus shots working, while making five timely shots from distance throughout proceedings.
VanVleet’s great passing night helped extend Toronto’s success to the supporting cast as well. Jalen Harris, playing like a deserving heir to Kawhi Leonard’s #2 Raptors jersey, hit all four of his shots for 11 points in 13 minutes. Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie made another hustle pact and combined for 20 points and 12 boards (five on the offensive end). Even Stanley Johnson, often derided and still a -15 in this game, gave the team a three-pointer and played admirable defense on Kawhi.
The source of controversy tonight, though, will be the play of Siakam. He was really good again(!), scoring 24 points, grabbing seven boards, and adding three steals. In the clutch, though, he missed a free throw and forced the action without numbers on a critical fast break in the last two minutes — a play that was challenged but ended in one of his team-high four turnovers. It’s unfair that Siakam will once again be dealing with criticism about his play when the games are close at the end, but tonight certainly won’t help the bias that some have on that subject.
On the Clippers side, Leonard’s struggles (3-for-6, 13 points) meant opportunities for others, as the Raptors dialed in on their former player. Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. tied for a team high with 22 points, both making critical jumpers in the game’s closing moments. Reggie Jackson added 18 points.
Toronto was up for the tap in this one, as VanVleet hit a pair of threes in the early going and set the tone with his defense on Reggie Jackson. Alongside Siakam, the two combined for ten of the Raptors’ first 15 points, nearly mirroring what Pascal and Kyle Lowry did to the other L.A. team two nights ago.
With their stars pulling weight, the rest of the Raptors came in tow. Johnson and Yuta Watanabe were the replacement starters for Lowry and Anunoby tonight and both played well in expanded roles. Watanabe hit one of his two threes in the first to help extend Toronto’s lead. Siakam would go on to score 11 in the frame to put the Raptors up 30-26.
Again, the Raptors would go with an obscure bench lineup to start the second, but it paid off. Malachi Flynn, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Freddie Gillespie joined Yuta and Harris, with the latter quickly becoming the star of the lineup with five quick points. Gillespie was excellent too in earning the Raptors possessions. One notable series saw New Fred draw a foul on a screen, then shortly after throw down a vicious reverse put back dunk.
Able to win both of the first two quarters, the Raptors went into the break up by six.
The Clippers would chip away in the third quarter, though. After a 5-0 spurt of points for Siakam, an L.A. timeout would be followed by an 8-0 run — with a Kawhi three in the middle — as the Clippers would come back to tie the game at 82 before the fourth.
The Raptors offense really stymied from there, as the individual defenses of Rajon Rondo, George and Leonard came together to make life difficult for VanVleet and Siakam. Though the former would get a few crazy shots to fall, it clearly became a struggle of talent with the game winding down. At a key juncture, George would block a three-pointer and come back to make one of his own, proving to be the difference in a tight contest.
It’s make or break time now for Toronto. They need a win against the Wizards on Thursday to keep any hope of the play in tournament alive. It’s fun to see them play as intensely as they did tonight, but the general thought now is that the season is on its last gasp — we’ll see if they can keep the hope alive later this week.