In a period of time where anything can change at any given moment, the Toronto Raptors having some hope — cautious as it may be — is worthy of celebration.
Here they are, getting healthy again, with their top seven rotation players out of health and safety protocols and contributing in meaningful ways (even starting together on a regular basis, which is bold all on its own).
Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are playing their best ball of the season, with the former red hot from distance and the latter continuing to expand his passing game into elite territory. OG Anunoby has continued to play all five positions and answer any defensive demand. Scottie Barnes continues to make revelatory plays, nightly. Gary Trent Jr. has become a two-way force. It’s only been four days in 2022, but everything seems great so far.
On Tuesday, the Raptors kept the good times rolling before an important, difficult stretch in their schedule, blowing out the middling San Antonio Spurs at Scotiabank Arena, 129-104.
Back to .500 at 17-17 for the first time in 20 games, the Raptors now look forward to playing the Bucks, Jazz, and Suns in quick succession over the next seven days. Not a make-or-break stretch, but one that should give us another litmus test of where the Raptors are as an aspiring playoff team (assuming, as always, that everyone remains healthy).
Toronto was led on Tuesday, yet again, by VanVleet. Scoring 33 points on 12-for-23 shooting, including 7-for-14 from deep, Fred was a heavy beneficiary of having off-ball space created for him and the Raptors’ excellence in transition. It’s the fourth time in five games that VanVleet has passed the 30-point threshold.
Fred VanVleet over his last 5 games:— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 5, 2022
31 points, 9 assists, 6-14 3P.
27 points, 12 assists, 6-10 3P.
31 points, 9 assists, 4-13 3P.
35 points, 5 assists, 7-13 3P.
33 points, 7 assists, 7-14 3P.
Raptors were +79 with him, -14 without him.
Looks like an all-star to me.
Toronto was out and running a lot in this one, as Nick Nurse put a joyous rotation on display. After starting Barnes, Siakam and OG up front again, Nurse never cowtowed to going smaller against a length Spurs team — playing Khem Birch, Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa off the bench for an all-forward lineup twice, in the second quarter and again in the fourth. While the starters did their usual thing, with VanVleet and Trent Jr. clouding passing lanes, the Spurs seemed really discombobulated by the Raptors’ big look, unable to find the creases their rapid ball movement usually creates.
Toronto won the fast break battle 25-10 and points off turnovers 26-13, which basically was where this game was won and lost.
Fred wasn’t alone on the scoreboard. Pascal Siakam had 18 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, dodging some first quarter foul trouble to have another impressive outing. A game-high +26, Siakam ran much of the half court offense to perfection for Toronto, finding shooters on off-ball action, demanding the ball in mismatches and generally showing the same elite decision-making that he has since returning from a second bout with COVID.
Gary Trent Jr. added 21 points of his own, while Scottie Barnes flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 11 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. The Spurs were led by 19 points from former Raptor Jakob Poeltl, who also had 12 boards (four on the offensive end).
Tonight’s game was closest in the first quarter, as the Raptors small lineup started slow. Khem Birch came in for Barnes just 2:30 in as Poeltl quickly established himself as a force inside, but even he couldn’t keep pace with his former teammate VanVleet. Fred and Trent Jr. combined to score 20 of the Raptors’ first 24 points, as Toronto went into the second with a lead, 30-29.
They began to extend their lead after that. Toronto’s supersize forwards look perplexed a hybrid bench lineup from the Spurs, who were missing their star in Dejounte Murray, and Toronto made them pay on the other end — making six of their first 12 threes and continuing a 50% clip into halftime.
Justin Champagnie also made an impact off the bench here, splashing two corner threes that helped push Toronto’s lead into double digits.
In the second half, the Spurs ran out of answers. Poeltl was really the only noticeable player for the visitors, save for some nice buckets from Canadian Josh Primo — who led the Spurs’ bench brigade with 15 points (4-for-10 in 27 minutes). They continued to flounder in the half court, leading to more punishing shots from the Raptors. The nail in the coffin was a 24-6 Raptors run through the middle part of the fourth quarter, taking this from in range for San Antonio to a true blowout.
None of the Raptors starters played more than 34 minutes, which is good news. They’ll need all that energy, as the team has a quick turnaround before playing the Bucks in Milwaukee tomorrow night.