The Toronto Raptors snapped their three-game losing streak on Sunday afternoon, beating the Portland Trail Blazers 117-105 and weathering a “Dame Time” storm in the fourth quarter.
With the Raptors leading 89-74 heading into the fourth, you knew Damian Lillard was tapping his wrist, ready to lead another huge crunch time effort and steal a win. And it looked like he might do it — Lillard scored 13 points and brought the Blazers back within three with just under seven minutes to go.
But the Raptors buckled down.
Led by impressive defense on Lillard from Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby, the Raptors — leading 104-96 after Lillard hit a driving hook in the paint with 5:15 to play — held Lillard to just one point the rest of the way to seal the game.
Siakam led the Raptors in scoring with 27 points, and added six assists as well. Scottie Barnes had an excellent all-around game, scoring 22 points on 12 shots, and hauling in nine boards.
Lillard led all scorers with 34 points, and dished eight assists. Anfernee Simons chipped in 22, and Jusuf Nurkic pulled down a game-high 18 rebounds.
Lillard’s seven turnovers were huge for the Raptors, and Fred VanVleet pointed to the team’s defensive effort on Lillard after the game. “We wanted to show him multiple bodies, multiple looks,” VanVleet said. “Pascal had a couple stops, O.G. was great,” but it was those seven turnovers that let the Raptors get out and run, he said, and that was a difference maker.
Another difference maker? The shockingly, the Raptors bench!
With the Raptors leading by seven points after one quarter, a Gary-Trent-plus-bench lineup (Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Christian Koloko and Malachi Flynn) opened the second quarter for the Raptors, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, well, here comes the 10-2 Blazers run.
Shows what I know. The Trent+Bench lineup reeled off eight straight points, punctuated by a ridiculous Flynn-to-Achiuwa alley-oop; Achiuwa and Boucher each had sensational blocks in the run as well. It was a rare treat to see the Raptors reserves take care of business — and they did it with Lillard and Nurkic both on the floor, too. A zone-heavy D seemed to confuse the Blazers, and Trent soon extended the lead with back-to-back triples; all told it was a 6.5-minute, 16-4 run before a Lillard triple brought the Blazers back to within 50-34 and the Raptors bought the starters back into the game.
THAT'S A 15-0 RUN Y'ALL@PreciousAchiuwa that finish is crazy pic.twitter.com/sqPyrEFlRI— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 8, 2023
Ahead of the game, Nick Nurse said that he mixed up the bench-heavy units at the start of the second and fourth quarters of Friday’s loss to the New York Knicks to try and get something different going — to either inject a different energy or at least hold the tide — but neither one worked. It’s safe to say the Trent+Bench lineup worked well in this quarter! Afterwards, Nurse said that they’d working on that bench unit in practice, specifically, the zone defense, as they needed something to help them defensively, and avoid the cross-matching that sometimes causes confusion. The bench didn’t play quite as well in the second half, but Nurse was happy with the effort. “It was a risk but they stepped forward,” Nurse said. “We hit the lottery in the first half; it wasn’t so good in the second, but it was 13-5 in 3.5 minutes, not 90 seconds.”
Nurse also noted that they had success with Flynn running the pick-and-roll, because his screeners were actually rolling to the hoop with more consistency.
“When the defense is playing so deep you think you should pop,” Nurse said, “because that’s where the open space is. That’s true in one sense but you can still put pressure on the D if you go down hill. We got a couple dunks and layups but even when we didn’t, it didn’t stop the offense.”
But as good as the bench played in the second, the starters nearly fumbled the ball away before halftime. That 50-34 lead nearly disappeared over the next six minutes as the starters struggled to score — and then an endless stream of whistles and replays mired the game in a slog.
With the score 52-38, Siakam tripped Lillard after Lillard stripped the ball from him on a drive. That led to a video review for a flagrant-1, which it was. On the ensuing Blazers possession, Josh Hart flew in for a dunk that Barnes challenged, and rejected — only to be called for the foul. Which of course led to Nick Nurse challenging the call. And the challenge was successful! Clean block! And yet...
...the officials managed to find another foul on the play to call, a VanVleet reach-in, prior to the block. Hart hit two free throws, and that seemed to change the momentum.
Whether it was the stops in play, afternoon sleepiness, or just a bad run of shots, the starters the proceeded to give almost all of the lead back. Led by Lillard and Nurkic, the Blazers cut the lead to 58-53 at the half.
To say that the starters giving up that big lead the bench built was disappointing is a huge understatement. The team missed nine straight shots in the run, most of them wide open; the bench extended a 7-point lead by 12 and it was somehow only five at halftime!! After all the criticism the bench has received lately, the starters did ‘em dirty by not at least holding serve after that effort.
Thankfully, the starters opened the second half on a much better note, an 11-0 run with two Scottie paint buckets, a Trent free throw and threes from VanVleet and Anunoby. Suddenly down 16, Billups called for time again.
A Siakam three coming back restored the Raptors’ largest lead, 19, at 72-53. The Blazers chipped at it though, once again led by Lillard and Nurkic; Nurkic was a rock on D, stopping drives from VanVleet and Barnes, and Lillard scored 7 points over the next two minutes as the Blazers climbed back to within 12.
With the Raptors leading 80-66, Lillard found himself facing Christian Koloko on a mismatch, although he got the step, Koloko got what looked like another clean block — but was called for another foul, and when he was protested, a technical foul as well. Lillard missed the technical FT, much to the delight of the crowd, and although he hit the two foul shots, Koloko got his revenge the other way with a two handed slam off a PnR with VanVleet.
Koloko had an excellent game — he was a game high +20 on the night — and VanVleet said the rookie was huge for the Raptors. He finished with eight points and four boards, and no blocks — but the Blazers sure know who he is now.
Thad Young then came in for Koloko (who had picked up his fifth foul) and had himself a moment, scoring out of a PnR with Siakam and drawing a charge on the other end; a Young drive coming back the the other way led to a Siakam OReb and two free throws (though he missed one). A couple plays later Thad outhustled everyone for a 50-50 ball and tossed it ahead to Anunoby, who dunked (and once again restored the 19-point lead).
O.G. slam innit— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 8, 2023
VOTE ➡️ https://t.co/KDXDiFuHwj pic.twitter.com/l2VT1cBOR9
It was good to see Thad have an impact, especially after this odd exchange with Barnes after halftime:
Thad Young and Scottie Barnes getting into it #wethenorth pic.twitter.com/BTmlFHuMn2— Naughty Barnes (@ClintIrving3) January 8, 2023
It looked to me like nothing to worry about, and after the game Scottie said it was nothing serious, adding that “Thad’s my boy,” and he has “nothing but love for Thad, always.”
In any event the effort was definitely there for both units; only an Anfernee Simons buzzer-beating three cut the lead to 15, 89-74, at the end of the third.
The fourth opened with two fouls called in the first 30 seconds, but those were followed by a couple more Thad “winning moment” Young highlights — first, he stripped Lillard on a drive, then tapped out an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession that led to a Chris Boucher three.
A Lillard three, a Hart lay-in and a Grant three brought the Blazers back within 10, and when a long Lillard three cut the lead to 7, Nick Nurse was forced to call for time, leading 94-87 with 8:30 to go.
The starting lineup then returned to the following to close things out.
A Lillard three-point play, followed by VanVleet airball, which in turn was followed up a Hard layup, cut the lead all the way down to three, 95-93. But Freddy redeemed himself with back-to-back threes, both of which were so dead-on the mesh barely moved, giving the Raptors a 103-94 lead with 5:45 to go. VanVleet, by the way, finished with 14 points, shot 4-of-9 from downtown, and had seven assists and six rebounds.
The Raptors had a solid opening quarter, though they were concerning signs early. Unsurprisingly the Blazers went to Nurkic early, hoping to use his size to their advantage, and he found Jerami Grant for an easy layup to open the scoring. But it was Anfernee Simons who had the hot hand early — he hit his first two trees and was fouled on his third, as the Blazers built a 10-4 lead. Barnes was aggressive early, taking and hitting an early J and a three, when Nurkic refused to come out and guard him. Barnes also blocked a Lillard jumper, and got to the line after pushing the ball upcourt after a defensive rebound. Prior to the game, Nurse spoke about the possibility of running some plays for him to get Barnes going early; turns out, he didn’t need to — Barnes just needed to take what the defense gave him. For his part, Barnes said that he’s been seeing that look from opposing defenses for the last five or six games, and he’s adapting to that role; he said he felt good early, had been working on those shots, and knowing when to step in and take them wit confidence.
Unfortunately the Raptors’ defensive effort wasn’t there early, as a Nurkic dunk and a Hart layup in transitoin — in which no Raptor even attempted to stop the ball — forced Nurse to call an early timeout. But guess what? The Raptors responded!
Out of the timeout, the Raptors finally went to Pascal Siakam, who promptly scored on a mismatch over Lillard, then did it again the next play over Simons. Barnes then dished a beauty of an assist to Gary Trent under the hoop to tie it at 14, and the Raptors took the lead at a few plays later when Christian Koloko found Siakam for a layup. A Siakam spin-finish gave the Raptors a 20-17 lead — and forced Chauncey Billups to call his own exasperated timeout.
Spicy P can't stop spinning! @Raptors | #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/WuBsAoNc1o— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) January 8, 2023
Siakam had a monster first quarter: 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting, three rebounds and three assists, as the Raptors took a 34-27 lead into the second. Koloko was also solid in the period; though he missed a contested dunk and picked up a cheap foul, he ran the floor well, ran the pick-and-roll well, and finished the quarter with four points, two boards and two assists.
The Raptors host the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday night.