Takeaways: Raptors rebound by attacking Rockets’ defence

DeMar DeRozan scored 27 points and the Toronto Raptors built a big lead in the first half and held on for a 129-113 win over the Houston Rockets.

The Toronto Raptors put a disappointing loss in Boston on Sunday firmly in the rearview Tuesday night with their best and most impressive performance of the season.

On the road facing a Houston Rockets team that entered last night’s action riding a six-game win streak and tied with Golden State for the best record in the Western Conference, Toronto took it to the Rockets defence en route to a loud 129-113 win. It was the Raptors’ largest margin of victory since the second game of the season and Houston’s worst loss to date, despite a 37-point, 11-assist performance from James Harden.

While the Raptors led by double-digits for most of the second half, the Rockets brought the game to as close as eight points in the fourth. They had their chances to complete the comeback, but simply couldn’t hit their shots— it’s not often Eric Gordon will go scoreless from deep and him, Harden, and Ryan Anderson will combine to sink just five three-pointers on 24 attempts.

Coming into the game shooting just 33 per cent from deep, the Raptors were 14-30 from beyond the arc (46.7 per cent) against a team that makes its living behind the three-point line like no other in the NBA. Turns out that making or missing your shots can go a long way to winning or losing basketball games.

Here are (slightly more elaborate) takeaways from Toronto’s first “signature win” of the young season:

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Bench lifts Raps, starters help finish the job
It’s not that the Raptors came out of the gate poorly, which has been the case at other times this season. Early in the game they countered the Rockets warp speed pace with a series of methodical possessions that featured a slick two-way game between DeMar DeRozan and big man Jonas Valanciunas, who scored half of his 12 points in the first quarter.

But it was the second unit that came in and provided the team with a boost, which has also been the case at other times this season. The Raps reserves played with a bounce in their step and were extremely active on Tuesday. Dwane Casey and his staff utilized a three-point-guard unit, and a lineup featuring Fred Van Vleet, Kyle Lowry (more on him in a moment), Delon Wright, Serge Ibaka, and Jakob Poeltl did some serious damage in the first half. They pounced on turnover opportunities, pushed the pace, and carved up a weak Houston defence, giving Toronto a double-digit lead that would blossom to as many as 20 points by the second half.

Wright in particular stepped up to the occasion and stayed out on the floor for crucial possessions in the fourth quarter, often drawing Harden as a defensive assignment (despite his gaudy numbers, Harden shot just 8-25 from the floor and 3-11 from deep). He finished the game with a plus-18 rating in 25 minutes and was a perfect 5-5 shooting.

Wright was the most impressive reserve on the night but he wasn’t alone in that regard. Poeltl was assertive in limited action against a Rockets team that plays small, and Van Vleet was in the middle of a number of good plays on both ends of the floor finishing with eight points, three rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two three-pointers in his 15 minutes of playing time.

Arguably the Raps most important reserve, CJ Miles, was hot from the onset, checking into the game halfway into the first frame and nailing his first three three-point attempts. He finished with 19 points and was 6-9 from deep in the kind of performance he was brought to the Raptors for given his big game experience and ability to do damage from the outside.

In the second half, as Houston went on an inevitable run— you’re just not going to keep an offence like the Rockets down for long— a 20 points Raptors lead was cut down to 10 until Miles hit a pair of daggers from beyond the arc. Still, the 12-year veteran played just 16 minutes as the Raptors still need to find ways to better work him into their rotations. The Raps small-ball lineup didn’t help his cause on Tuesday, nor did a strong outing from rookie OG Anunoby at small forward (more on him in a moment, too).

The reserves’ killer effort boosted the starters, as Lowry acknowledged after the game, and down the stretch the Raptors’ all-star point guard looked more comfortable in what subtly might have been his best game of the season. Lowry did a great job of finding open shooters late in the game and dished 10 assists on the night, along with tying his season-high of 19 points. The best part was that he attempted 10 free-throws— twice as many as any other game this season— and showed the aggressiveness off the dribble that had helped him become one of the top players at his position in the East.

Throw in a fairly quiet (but team-high) 27 points from DeRozan, and the Raptors’ starters made an impact, even if it took their bench to not just hold but establish a comfortable lead.

Anunoby impresses in first career start
Anunoby got the start in place of Norman Powell, who sat out with a hip injury suffered in the first quarter of the Celtics game on Sunday. The first-year forward rookie stepped in seamlessly to provide the same staunch defence and three-point threat the team expects from Powell in that starting five— and then some.

Anunoby logged a season-high 30 minutes on Tuesday and had a team-best plus-22 rating to show for it. He took on his assignments admirably, guarding Harden tough, disrupting the ball in passing lanes and during man-to-man coverage. Although he passed out on a couple of clean looks, he scored a season-high 16 points, shot a tidy 3-4 from deep, and was active as we’ve come to expect.

He’s been the most eye-opening player on the roster this season and should be around for a long, long time. Who knows yet if he has star potential, but right now Anunoby is both understanding and accepting of the role being given to him by his coaching staff and performs the job being asked of him. Simple as it may sound, that’s often the hardest adjustment for incoming rookies, who’ve spent their amateur careers in the centre of their own basketball universe. Anunoby just gets it, and both he and his team will benefit from it.

Caboclo helps Raptors 905 to win
Earlier on Tuesday, the Raptors 905 played a thriller at home against the visiting Westchester Knicks. On the same day he learned he made the preliminary roster for Canada’s World Cup qualifier later this month in Halifax, Toronto’s own Xavier Rathan-Mayes was stellar for the Knicks and flirted with a triple double, posting 12 points, 14 assists, and eight boards.

Bruno Caboclo had another strong outing in his fourth G-League game of the season, scoring 21 points (3-5 from beyond the arc), along with 11 boards, three steals, and a block in the 905’s 112-109 win, bringing their record to 3-2 on the season.

The 905 remain at home for their next game on Saturday at 2 p.m., while the Raptors are in New Orleans Wednesday night for their second matchup versus Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and the New Orleans Pelicans in less than a week. Until then…