It wasn’t easy – in fact it was downright hairy in the fourth quarter – but Toronto used a big first quarter to take an early lead, went up by as many as 19 in the second quarter, and weathered the second-half storm to seal it.
The story of the game, other than the final score of course, was the Toronto debut of RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, both acquired on Saturday in a trade with the New York Knicks for OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, and Malachi Flynn.
Both former Knicks started for the Raps, and it was particularly cool seeing Barrett get introduced in front of his home town crowd, and come out for the tip in the red and white.
RJ Barrett, Toronto Raptor. pic.twitter.com/USRMtLnOC9— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 2, 2024
Even cooler? The immediate impact the pair made on the court.
The Raptors looked like a much more cohesive unit with their new additions – the pieces looked like they fit together more, and the roster seemed more balanced throughout the top 7. The team played with a different tempo, thanks to the speed of Barrett and Quickley; it may not have resulted in more fast-break points, but the Raptors got the ball up the floor more quickly, got into their offense faster, and seemed to give themselves more high-quality opportunities thanks to the creative threat both players represent.
Barrett finished with 19 points and 9 rebounds; Quickley, who spent a chunk of the game in foul trouble, finished with 14 points and 6 boards.
Although the new guys got the headlines on this night, we can’t let a masterful Pascal Siakam performance get lost in the mix. Siakam led all scorers with 36 points on just 20 shots, including 5-of-8 from downtown; he made mincemeat of most Cavs defenders, especially an overmatched Max Strus, and the three-point shooting really opened up the midrange game for him. Seeing all the socials light up with calls for the Raptors to just extend the guy already also felt like a big W!
The other two Raptors starters also scored in double figures; Scottie Barnes finished with 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, and Jakob Poeltl had 14-11-4. Poeltl missed three late free throws, but also pulled down a couple of huge fourth-quarter rebounds, so we’ll let the misses slide... this time.
Donovan Mitchell had 26-7-7 for the Cavs, and Caris LeVert scored 31 off the bench.
The Raptors spent the early minutes of the game feeling each other out and adjusting to each other. Quickley missed his first shot, a drive to the hoop, but on the Raptors’ second possession, Barrett came off a Poeltl screen and found Quickley for a triple above the break.
It took Barrett a few more minutes to score his first points, a reverse layup around Jarrett Allen.
RJ's first bucket as a Toronto Raptor pic.twitter.com/UVXuxKe0tL— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 2, 2024
That Barrett bucket broke a 28-28 first-quarter tie, and the Raptors finished the frame on a 13-4 run; the 41 they scored in the opening quarter was a season-high. Siakam scored 13 in the frame, and the Raptors shot an uncharacteristic 7-for-10 from downtown.
Leading 47-40 with 9 minutes to go in the half, the Raptors went on another run, this time a 12-0 stretch that gave them their biggest lead of the night, 59-40.
Cleveland then started whittling away, getting to within 8 at half time – but they saved their best for the fourth quarter.
Entering the frame trailing 98-91, the Cavs went on a 9-3 run – the last four coming from former Sixer and Raptor killer Georges Niang, all at the hoop – to cut Toronto’s lead to 101-100.
The teams traded buckets over the next two minutes, and the Raptors caught a break when Strus knocked down a three that would have given the Cavs the lead – but he stepped out of bounds a second before. The relief didn’t last long for Toronto; Quickley scored a floater on the next play, but Sam Merrell splashed one of his four triples on the night to tie it up. Mitchell drained a three on the Cavs’ next possession to give Cleveland a 111-108 lead.
Poeltl then missed two free throws, but the Raptors caught another break when Mitchell was called for a clear path foul, giving Barnes two free throws – that he hit – and the ball back. Siakam scored a tough and-1 over Jarrett Allen on the ensuing possession, for ostensibly a five-point play that gave them back a two-point cushion.
Until LeVert drained a deep triple as the shot clock expired on the next possession.
The teams again went bucket-for-bucket (and also missed free throw-for-missed free throw) and found themselves tied at 118 with 1:40 to go. Barnes scored on a beautiful finger roll around Allen to make it 120-118, and then the teams proceeded to miss their next five combined shots, before the Raptors sealed it at the line.
Quickley was as advertised; he scored at all three levels, and demonstrated some keen passing, including a beautiful pocket pass to Poeltl early on that led to a two-handed jam. He was aggressive on D, also — too aggressive, as it turned out, as foul trouble limited him to 28 minutes.
Barrett was also as advertised, and not always in the good ways. He was inconsistent on the night; when it was good, it was bully drives to the basket where he used his strength to get the ball up on the rim (shades of OG!); when it was bad, it was forced shots when he should have passed, and forced passes when he should have shot. He also gave up an alarming number of blow-bys, though I’ll say that the Raptors defense looked particularly bad on the perimeter, without Anunoby to cover their mistakes.
All told it was a promising start. Questions still remain about Darko Rajakovic’s rotations; Dennis Schroder played way more down the stretch than I was comfortable with, and the first big off the bench was Thad Young... who played two first-quarter minutes before being replaced by Chris Boucher, and was never seen again. Otto Porter Jr., another player who would surely benefit from Quickley’s playmaking (and who might have helped on that leaky perimeter D) remained glued to the bench.
But now is not the time to complain — it’s the time to enjoy the win, and the fresh start, and hope for more wins (and a Siakam extension) in the coming days.