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Raptors let Rockets hang around, but come away with 116-109 win — thanks to Anunoby and VanVleet

Superb defensive effort from O.G. and 30 points from Fred titled the game Toronto’s way.

Raptors vs Rockets Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors used a late first-half run to swing the momentum in their favour against the Houston Rockets last night, and although the young Rockets didn’t go away, Toronto bent but didn’t break down the stretch and came away with a 116-109 victory.

The Raptors weathered some bench-heavy minutes to start the fourth — always a risky proposition, but a necessary one, with Pascal Siakam still sidelined. The team kept a small lead thanks mainly to Dalano Banton’s energy in transition and Chris Boucher’s effort on the glass, until Fred VanVleet could return to settle things down on offense.

Trailing 92-91 with 8:40 to go, VanVleet drained a three, then dropped in a floater and a reverse layup before Otto Porter Jr. drained back-to-back threes that put the Raptors up 106-99. A quick 4-0 Rockets run gave Houston hope, until Freddy snatched it away with another three. The Rockets never got closer than four the rest of the way.

VanVleet led all scorers with 32 points, and finished 7-for-16 from downtown. Jalen Green paced the Rockets with 21 points.

It was O.G. Anunoby who stole the show though, looking like — rightly — a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He was a veritable wrecking ball in the third, swiping three steals in about three minutes (and nearly getting a fourth) as he and VanVleet locked down the Rockets on the perimeter; he chipped in 10 boards, too.

Oh, and he was just fine on offense, too, notching 24 points almost entirely on dunks and three-pointers (5-for-9).

Post game, Fred VanVleet said that it’s “amazing” playing next to Anunoby when he’s wrecking things on defense. “He’s taking it personal,” VanVleet said, adding that O.G.’s such a nice guy, “if he gets any meaner he’ll be scary. He can probably steal the ball whenever he feels like it.”

He went on to say that Anunoby looks like a Defensive Player of the Year so far. Agreed!

As for head coach Nick Nurse, he likes what he’s seeing from Anunoby on offense too, especially the way he’s using his size to get the angle on defenders and his quickness to get himself more chances.

The Raptors also got solid bench play from veterans Thad Young and Porter; although Young didn’t score, his energy and rebounding were on point, and he finished a game-high +21. Porter hit two huge threes down the stretch and finished with 14 points and six boards.

Nurse said that Young was “huge” for the team tonight, and immediately impacted the game with his rebounding. Of that veteran presence, Nurse said Young is just really good at knowing where to go, what to do, and helping other guys learn those things too.

Porter himself said that his conditioning is still coming back, he’s still getting his wind, and that he’s still learning his teammates. He said he’s looking forward to learning all their tendencies and where they like to be on the court, where they like the ball — tendencies he has on lock with Thad Young, who he’s played with before.

Of Porter, VanVleet added that he provides great spacing, has great hands, and just fits in the rotation.

The Raptors certainly didn’t look pieces that fit together to start the game — not on defense, anyway, as they gave up back to back threes to Eric Gordon and Jalen Green on the Rockets’ opening possessions. Overall the Rockets started 7-for-8, with the Raptors treating defense as if it were entirely optional; Alperen Sengun had his way with Christian Koloko in the post (Sengun started 3-for-3 from the field and 3-for-3 from the line; he finished with 17 points and eight boards). Only three early three-pointers from Anunoby kept the Raptors in the game.

The Rockets scored 37 (!?) points in the first quarter, and only two tough Trent jumpers at the end of the frame kept the Raptors within eight. The Rockets shot 14-for-20 from the field in the first, including 3-of-5 from downtown.

Aside from O.G., one early bright spot was Scottie Barnes, who took Kevin Porter Jr. down low on the first possession, where although he didn’t convert, I liked seeing that more than the lazy jump shooting of Monday; he did it again a couple plays later, this time hitting the driving lefty layup — and then he did it again, to Jalen Green, initially missing the layup but then getting his own rebound and dropping it back in.

Of course, Scottie’s next two shots were triples — both misses.

Precious Achiuwa, on the other hand, wasn’t a bright spot. He came into the game and immediately picked up an offensive foul, started the game 1-for-3 and allowed KJ Martin get behind him for a runout dunk. A couple minutes later he lost awareness of the clock on a baseline out of bounds, and had force up a three as the shot clock expired.

That’s kinda par for the course for Achiuwa lately, as coach Nurse spelled plainly out before the game. “Precious needs to play better,” Nurse said, and everyone can see that, including Achiuwa himself

Nurse said that he had a long meeting with Achiuwa, showed him some film — not a million clips, and not all just bad clips, but examples of some things he’s seeing, and giving Achiuwa the chance to talk about “what didn’t you know, what didn’t we teach you, what didn’t we put on the game plan.” Nurse said he envisions Achiuwa’s minutes to be in the high 20s, but so far, his play — primarily his execution on the defensive end — has limited him. Some nights he’s unbelievable, some nights he’s not into the game, Nurse said.

Unfortunately, it looks like Achiuwa might be limited even more in the near-term. He landed awkwardly on a wild drive in the fourth quarter, got up in considerable pain, and had to be taken out of the game — and eventually half-carried back to the locker room, unable to put any weight on his right leg. The team is calling the injury a right ankle sprain for now and he’ll be reevaluated soon.

The second quarter didn’t start any better than the first for Toronto, as the Raps opened showing a full court press — something they should be good at, given their length — but the Rockets immediately broke it and Usman Garuba jammed home an easy deuce. Eric Gordon then dropped in two free throws to give the Rockets their largest lead at 12.

Koloko was better on the defensive end in the second, but on offense, he once again went to the rim somewhat meekly, and got his shot blocked on multiple second quarter possessions. Before the game, Nurse said he likes the different look having vertical lob threat gives the team, and they like having him in different spots, getting the ball as a roller or getting a dump off in the dunker spot — but that he wants Koloko to “dunk more of ‘em,” and get better at bringing the ball up strong when he’s at the rim. (He showed a little more strength in the third, getting an and-1 on the first possession and two more foul shots a minute later).

But the reps he’s getting now as a starter will only help with his habits, timing and rhythm. “I always say the more attempts you get, the faster you get better,” Nurse said.

Koloko was on the floor for a strange Anunoby-Young-Porter-Banton lineup that actually brought the team back into the game in the second quarter. OG hit his fourth three to bring the Raptors within 4, 41-37, then threw down a monster two-hander a couple plays later to bring the Raptors within two. It was a 12-2 run that make Nick Nurse look like a genius for the early sub-outs of Achiuwa and Chris Boucher for Banton and Young.

The Rockets quickly rebuilt their eight point lead, but five straight from VanVleet and an alley-oop from Scottie to OG got the Raptors back within three. Anunoby finally tied the score at 54 off another oop, this time from Freddy — and a Barnes three gave the Raptors a 57-54 lead that they’d take into halftime.

The third was the showcase defensive effort that I expected the Raps to show all game against the young and inexperienced Rockets. O.G. and Fred basically locked down the perimeter, not letting the Rockets get anything going.

The stretch included Anunoby’s three-steals-in-three-minutes brilliance, which fuelled the transition game, getting a dunk for Gary Trent and another one for himself. VanVleet capped a 14-4 run with a triple that put the Raptors up by 12.

The Rockets didn’t go away, though, with KJ Martin and Tori Eason draining back to back threes to tie the game at 80. The Raptors weathered the storm and took an 86-82 lead into the fourth.

Dalano Banton was also a pleasant surprise for the Raptors; although he missed five of his seven shots, he brought the energy off the bench that Achiuwa wasn’t providing, and got to the line six times (hitting four).

The Raptors now head back out on the road where they’ll meet the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.