The Raptors suffered their worst loss of the year Thursday in San Antonio. The game against the Spurs was the equivalent of being in a hurricane. It was loud, it was messy, and you just wanted it to be over. No matter how good a season has gone, a game like that always brings fear. Fear that a team will dwell on a specific loss. As a fan, you hope a poor performance can be shrugged off.
The NBA schedule makers didn’t seem to care if the Raptors would be suffering from PTSD after their loss in San Antonio. Toronto was scheduled to play back to back nights against the #1 and #3 seeds in the eastern conference. Sandwiched in between both teams, this was a crucial weekend for the Raptors and their leverage in tiebreaker situations.
First up was Milwaukee on Saturday night. The Bucks have had Toronto’s number this year and came in with the best offence in the league. That offence was clicking on all gears in the first quarter of Saturday’s game. But, for as good as Milwaukee played, Toronto was able to weather the storm and end the quarter only down seven.
The Raptors seemed to be unwilling to settle for contested three-point shots and instead worked forcefully to get easier two-point looks. Trading 2’s for 3’s with all else being equal would be a poor strategy, especially against the best three-point shooting team in the league. But the Raptors used an aggressive in your face defence to go along with their style of offence and actually shot a high percentage in the first half. The strategy seemed to work as Toronto’s starters were able to grab the lead midway through the second quarter. That lead was soon erased when the bench came in. This was not a night to remember for the Raptors reserves. The bench was rendered useless and only scored a total of 5 points.
In the second half, Toronto gave Milwaukee a clinic in timely shooting. Hitting shots that swung the momentum of the game. Shots that seemed to be worth more than the points they put up on the scoreboard. These type of shots are shots that answer an opponent’s big three, or shots that go in to keep a run going. As a fan, these shots get you out of your seat. With the worst three-point shooting percentage in the league since mid-December, Saturday was a pleasant surprise. The Raptors starting were firing on all cylinders, shooting a high percentage. Three balls began to fall. Maybe it was the plethora of high percentage two’s in the first half that helped Toronto out of the shooting funk, and regain confidence in their long balls.
The win Saturday was a nice refresher for the team and Kawhi after the hurricane they experienced in Texas. The Raptors showed they have one of the most diverse and talented starting 5’s in the league, even with Kyle Lowry out. Efficient and timely shooting along with tough defence helped trump out Milwaukee. This win can help Toronto split the season series with the Bucks next time they face off.
As if playing in San Antonio and Milwaukee wasn’t enough for one week, the Raptors had to fly home to play Indiana on Sunday. The Pacers arrived in Toronto before the Raptors, they even got to watch the Bucks game.
It was a long week and if Toronto came out sluggish it would have been acceptable. The starters played long minutes the night before and only arrived in Toronto at 2:30 am Sunday morning. Instead, the Raptors came out flying. Ibaka seems to be out of his funk, hitting 78% of his field goals. Danny Green also had an effective night, hitting 5 of 8 three-point attempts. With Kawhi sitting out, Kyle Lowry returned with a vengeance that saw him playing with his usual pitbull attitude.
But the real treat against the Pacers was Toronto’s bench performance. Called out by Nick Nurse for their poor performance the night before, the bench received the message and answered the call. Norman Powell was excellent, and the only Raptor to score more than 20 points.
What the Raptors showed against Indiana was that they are a complete team. Without their superstar Kawhi, they relied on ball movement and high percentage shots to grab the win. Toronto finished the night with 30 assists on 44 made field goals. A perfect example of how this team can be a lot more than the sum of the parts.
These two wins showed the grit and fight in this year’s Raptors team. The Raptors are for real, and the league better take notice. Like a Swiss army knife, Toronto is versatile and can win in many ways. One night their stars carry the load beating one of the league’s best players, even when he puts up 47 points and 18 rebounds. The next night, with their star on the bench, they have eight players in double figures. The Raptors don’t rely on any one player or style of player, and that is what makes them so dangerous and fun to watch.
On a night their shots aren’t falling, they can beat you with tough nose defence. On nights when the game becomes a shootout, guess what we have guys who can hit shots. Want to speed the game up, no problem we have guys who can run the floor. How about slowing the game down? Don’t worry we have guys for that too.
This weekend was a good litmus test for Toronto. Brushing off the emotional roller coaster in San Antonio the Raptors bounced back with two big wins against conference rivals on back to back nights. As a Raptors fan disappointment in big games used to be a common feeling, now it’s something different. This year’s team seems to embrace big moments, not shy away from them like previous years. Keep the big games coming, we're ready!
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