Weird season, eh? The Raptors began their current seven-game road trip with a nice, defensively stout win against the 27-21 Sacramento Kings. They followed it up with a Friday night dud against the Warriors, with their defense returning to its frustrating form that we’ve become used to this season. So against Portland, on the second night of a road back-to-back, folks might’ve expected the Raptors to come out looking tired. They did not.
The Raptors lit up the Moda Center in the first frame, outscoring the Blazers 37-14. With O.G. Anunoby out due to a wrist injury sustained yesterday, Precious Achiuwa drew the start alongside regular starters Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, and Pascal Siakam. While Anunoby is the Raptors’ best individual defender, can guard every position, and has a potential case for Defensive Player of the Year, Achiuwa’s insertion into the lineup brings an element of rim protection and help defense that the team is often sorely lacking. Not to mention his excellent ability to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter.
This might have been the best game of Precious Achiuwa’s career. He was active offensively as a driver and cutter, and created extra opportunities with his three offensive boards, two steals, and a block. Achiuwa has looked noticeably better finishing at the rim than last season (74% this year vs 64%), which makes his cuts and impressively agile drives far more dangerous. He finished the first half at 16 points and 10 rebounds, and ended the game with a career-high 27 points on 11/16 shooting to go with 13 rebounds. In honour of his big night, enjoy this VanVleet —> Trent —> Achiuwa fast break:
Gary Trent Jr. x Precious Achiuwa lob! pic.twitter.com/Pz1SLTvGiG— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 29, 2023
Achiuwa’s offense was a huge boost for the Raptors, but his impact on defense was instrumental to the Raptors taking such big leads. They finished the first half leading 63-44, which is a breath of the world’s freshest air when you think about the 30+ points the Raptors have routinely given up in first quarters.
This was the Raptors’ game the whole way – they didn’t give up their lead at any point for the entire 48 minutes. But the Blazers made a push in the second half that forced the Raptors to take it up a notch. Portland cut the lead to 68-56 just a few minutes into the third quarter. Pascal Siakam steadied things for them offensively, but the Raptors’ defense fell apart as Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons routinely drove straight to the basket for easy looks, taking advantage of the attention being paid to Damian Lillard. Things got dicey when, near the end of the quarter, the Raptors’ offense became a bogged down, iso-heavy mess. The Raptors’ offense is known to do this, but the refreshing part was that it happened at the end of the third rather than the fourth. With the offense losing its juice and the defense offering free vacations to the rim, the Blazers managed to cut the lead to 88-83 heading into the fourth. At this point, the Raptors could’ve folded, which we’ve seen happen many times this season. But their response was promising.
Nick Nurse subbed Achiuwa back into the game, which is good because defense is important. I cannot overstate the correlation the Raptors’ defense being good and Achiuwa being on the floor (he finished as a game-high +27). The Raptors had a couple minutes of Siakam and no-Lillard, but went just 4-2 in those minutes, and after Lillard checked back in, the Raptors gave him far too much space (any space, really) off a screen, allowing him to hit a three to make it 94-90. How did the Raptors respond? A 25-12 run, with Fred VanVleet at the helm.
His box score might not pop out necessarily (11 points, six boards, nine assists, four steals, one block), but Fred VanVleet showed that he is very much a winning point guard. After exchanging words with Nassir Little following a physical block in the third, VanVleet had an extra edge to him. With the game at 94-90, VanVleet responded with a personal 7-0 run – first he made a layup out of a timeout that helped calm things down. Next possession, he looked away the defense and threw a DIME to Siakam for an easy bucket. Then, the small but mighty VanVleet secured the offensive rebound off his own miss, surrounded by three Blazers, and laid it in. Speaking of small but mighty:
FRED VANVLEET SAID GET THAT GARBAGE OUT OF HERE! pic.twitter.com/Jlwvc2nAXB— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 29, 2023
Fred VanVleet’s huge effort changed the tenor of this game, as he scored or assisted on 17 of the Raptors’ 35 fourth-quarter points. The Blazers were forced to defend VanVleet like he was Lillard by sending double teams as he crossed halfcourt, allowing Siakam to operate four-on-three. Meanwhile, the Raptors’ defense picked back up in the fourth and could once again be described as “swarming.” VanVleet did a nice job on Lillard, including one possession where he funnelled Lillard toward the baseline – Achiuwa cut off the drive and three Raptors converged on Lillard, who stumbled and threw the ball away.
The Raptors blew the doors off, and had enough breathing room to sub out the starters up 119-102 – a 25-12 run following the timeout at 94-90. The Raptors’ starters played a pretty balanced game, with each of the starters attempting between 12 and 17 shots. Pascal Siakam finished with 23 points and four assists, while Scottie Barnes registered 18 points, 10 boards, and seven assists. Trent scored 19 and Boucher had 10 off the bench.
This game reminded us of a few things, including: a) Precious Achiuwa was a seriously good return for Lowry, and his ceiling is making my neck hurt; and b) Fred VanVleet has heard the disrespect, and he’s had enough. His numbers have been up the last month, but even disregarding the stats, he made so many winning plays in this one. Something to keep in mind as we turn the calendar to February.