Every Raptors-Cavs game this year has felt like being on the ground floor of something special. These teams, with their unconscionably good rookies Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley, and their divergent but similarly rad supporting casts, are good now, and should be among the class of the East for a very, very long time.
And even though we’ve yet to see the Raptors and Cavs play one another at full strength in the Barnes / Mobley era, the sense that these are the early days of one of the NBA’s great rarities – a legit and compelling rivalry – has been inescapable, never more so than during Thursday’s 117-104 Toronto win that definitely had some playoff-like juice to it.
Barnes visibly felt the heft of moment at the outset of his final head-to-head duel with Mobley before what should be spicy Rookie of the Year vote is tallied. In the first six minutes alone he missed four shots, kicked away a sloppy turnover in transition, and over-committed a handful of times on the defensive end leading to scores. Mobley, meanwhile, cooly converted a lob on the opening possession, whipped a lovely pass from the baseline to the corner, and generally haunted the paint in the early going as the Raptors took a while to get their gears spinning; working OG Anunoby back into the offensive flow on the fly in a massive game was always gonna be tricky.
After trailing 10-5 following their twitchy start, the Raptors – and Barnes – calmed down. He connected on a tough contested layup with Mobley on his back, tossed a no-look dime to Pascal Siakam for dunk, and finished the frame with six points on 2-of-6 shooting.
Barnes wasn’t solely responsible for the quick first quarter turnaround; if anyone was it was Siakam. When Toronto’s best player has the ball in his hands, good things tend to happen. In the first quarter, he drilled a pair of corner threes, drove straight downhill on Cleveland’s more, uhh, prone-to-getting-cooked defenders, and closed out the opening frame with 12 points, a board and an assist on 4-of-6 from the floor. On the back of his efforts, Toronto took a 25-17 lead into the second.
Thad Young has been a bit of a tricky fit on this Raptors roster, stuck between positions, without it ever being totally clear what his ideal role within his new squad is or should be. To open the second quarter, he showed off the funk and feel that have made him a Raptors target for more than half a decade. Over his best eight-plus minutes as a Raptor to date, Young chipped in eight points with an array of his bizzaro floaters to go along with a transition dunk off a steal. Defensively, he rotated and filled space the way the Raptors demand their back-line defenders do. Upon checking out with just a few minutes to go ‘til the half, he had a tidy 8-1-1 line with a steal on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting. Toronto nudged its lead up to 10, taking a 58-48 edge into the back half.
The third quarter was when this one most felt like a bout between two up-and-coming heavyweights. Darius Garland came out of the break slippery as all hell, racking up a quick nine points after scoring just five in the first 24 minutes. Flanked by the hot shooting of Lauri Markkanen, Caris LeVert and Lamar Stevens, Garland helped the Cavs reel Toronto closer, though never all the way back to level, with the Raptors eager to punch back after big time Cleveland makes. The most notable example came as Evan Mobley yammed on Chris Boucher’s head, only for Barnes to counter with a soaring two-handed jam of his own.
Boucher made a decision but it wasn't a business one, Mobley just put him on a nice little poster. pic.twitter.com/IY6vZDoU8b— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) March 25, 2022
THAT'S OUR ROOKIE OF THE MONTH @ScottBarnes561 pic.twitter.com/8Ev0S35s8H— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 25, 2022
It’s going to feel so silly that we cared about who won the 2022 Rookie of the Year. Small potatoes shit.
If the swapped dunks in the third quarter were a preview of who will be leading these teams a handful of years from now, the fourth was a display of the best player on either team right here in 2022. Granted six-plus minutes of rest thanks to an inspired Fred and the Bench Mob stretch that expanded Toronto’s lead, Siakam checked in to put the damn thing to bed. After some entirely too Chris Boucher-centric possessions coincided with the Cavs cutting the lead to just eight (100-92), Siakam calmly collected the ball in the Toronto backcourt, walked it up the floor, sized up Lauri Markkanen for an ISO drive, turned around and canned a 14-footer. After that, he slammed home a 2-on-1 pass from OG Anunoby. Next? He barreled into Markannen, and hit a cutting Barnes for a contested finish to push the lead to 106-92. Markkanen then fouled him on another turnaround jimmy for an and-1. For the dagger, he struck a pose:
“His name is Pascal ALL-NBA Siakam” pic.twitter.com/gdQVM2fghU— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 25, 2022
“Pascal obviously was dominant on the offensive end, everything he did seemed to be the right decision,” said Nick Nurse after the game.
Siakam played like things were easy for him as he dropped 35 points, five boards and six assists on 12-of-20 shooting, including a blistering 6-of-7 from downtown. No guy puts up numbers that disgusting without being excellent on his own, but the degree to which the return of OG Anunoby helped Siakam achieve that line can’t be understated. Anunoby does stuff that no one else on the Raptors can match in a “next man up” situation.
“I think it’s a big deal,” said Nurse of the return of Anunoby. “An experienced catch and shoot guy with a quick release, and a high percentage guy, is certainly gonna put some doubt into how you put two (defenders) on Pascal.”
After nearly an entire season of the Raptors feeling a guy or two short, Thursday night felt like one of their greatest displays of depth to date — amazing considering they once again didn’t have Gary Trent Jr., a man without whom they were 2-8 coming into the game with Cleveland. Between Young, Boucher’s 17 points and eight boards, some nasty Precious Achiuwa defense and 10-day man Armoni Brooks, the Raptors saw one of their most productive bench efforts of the season. Brooks, in particular, seems to be playing his way into a standard NBA deal. Nick Nurse is a fan.
“I just think it’s the willingness to take the shot. The balls coming to him a lot, he turned down one he shoulda shots but otherwise he was taking them – and he’s a really good shooter,” Nurse said of his low-usage, high-importance role when he’s on the floor. Though admittedly, it’s Brooks’ defense that seems to have his coach a little more giddy.
“He’s quick, he’s springy, he can change directions… there’s some real athletic ability there defensively,” Nurse said. Brooks finished with six points, three boards, an assists, two steals and a block in 19 minutes.
With the win, the Raptors not only clinched no worse than the final East play-in spot with their 41st win, but they drew even with the Cavs for the all-important sixth-seed and final berth into the playoffs proper. Kyrie Irving likely won’t be able to play in Toronto in a hypothetical play-in contest, but surely the Raptors don’t want to take a chance in a one-off game with Kevin freaking Durant. Losing on Thursday, with the tiebreaker already secured by Cleveland, would have made that most dreaded of outcomes extremely likely; now, it’s not just sixth that’s in reach. Chicago has a brutal closing schedule and sit just one game ahead of the Raptors for fifth after getting waxed by the Pelicans in their own Thursday night game.
With seven of the last nine at home, Siakam looking every bit a contender for one of the All-NBA forward spots, and this lanky, smothering roster looking something closer to complete by the day, there’s no reason why this team should be stuck playing a one-off crapshoot in a few weeks time.