If you like offensive basketball, Friday’s game between the Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons was not for you.
Both teams shot below 40 per cent from the field and took shots that at times resembled prayers – when they could even get a shot off. It definitely wasn’t one for the record books, but after a 30-minute team meeting following a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Raptors needed to win in any way possible on the second night of a back-to-back.
The last time these clubs met it was the Pistons who came back from a 16-point deficit and outscored the Raptors in the fourth to win by one point at the Air Canada Centre. This time it was Toronto who made the late charge for the 87-75 win.
Don’t let their record fool you, this is a dangerous and defensively connected Detroit team Toronto battled with. The Pistons have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, and Portland Trail Blazers in the past two weeks. Here are my takeaways from a beautiful defensive and equally ugly offensive performance from the Raptors.
The Pistons have lost 10 of their 12 first quarters since the all-star break. The Raptors aren’t much better having lost 8 of their 12 but Toronto jumped on Detroit early causing Stan Van Gundy to call a quick timeout to berate his troops. Dwane Casey said he wanted a good start and he finally got one.
Dwane Casey also promised rotation changes after Toronto’s lacklustre effort and we saw them. Not surprisingly P.J. Tucker was the first Raptor off the bench. Much more surprisingly, Norman Powell was the last Raptors player in the 10-man rotation off the bench. Raptor rookies Jakob Poeltl and Fred VanVleet both got a call from the coach before the second-year shooting guard.
It didn’t matter what order his hard-nosed wing defenders started the game because they both were on the floor to end it. Equally aggressive offensively and defensively, Tucker finished plus-12 and Powell finished plus-11. In a game that felt like it was 1990s Eastern Conference basketball, the clubs' two “throwback” players bailed them out.
Down But Not Out
Toronto was down 11 in the second half and could have easily laid down on the second night of a back-to-back. Detroit had a nine-point lead midway through the fourth. The Raptors got four straight stops and quickly cut the lead to two. Toronto went on to unleash a 22-2 run to go up 11. Toronto held the Pistons to three points over the final nine minutes and outscored them by 21 in that span. The Raptors only have seven losses by 10 or more points this season, which is third behind only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. However, all seven of those big losses have come in their last 39 games, including two in the last week.
The Raptors were sliding in the wrong direction but tonight it seemed they made a conscious decision to give more effort and reverse their fortunes. Only time will tell if tonight was a turning point that catapults them to sustained success and consistent effort.
DeRozan Couldn’t Score But Did More
On multiple occasions DeMar DeRozan couldn’t get his shot off and was forced into a turnover or had to give the ball up to a teammate. Marcus Morris guards DeRozan as well as anybody in the league and bothered him with his length and discipline to stay down on the all-star's patented pump fake.
DeRozan started the game with zero points and 0-for-3 shooting in the first quarter. He finished with just 14 points on 3-of-9 shooting as eight of his points came from the free-throw line in 36 minutes. His lack of aggressiveness offensively was odd to see but it didn’t affect the rest of his game as he finished with eight rebounds, six assists and a plus-15.
Tucker Walks And Talks Defence
Toronto won this game the way it’ll have to win until Kyle Lowry returns, and likely after - with defence. Toronto allowed its second-lowest point total this season. The fourth quarter was the first single-digit frame of the year for the Pistons. The Raptors are now 11th in defensive efficiency and fourth and climbing since the all-star break.
No Raptors player deserves more credit for the defensive turnaround than Tucker, whose hands were active again with three steals and nine rebounds in 27 minutes. What was even more active than Tucker’s hands was his mouth. The gritty veteran constantly called huddles at the top of the circle during stoppages and communicated on defence calling out actions and help. With Lowry sidelined, the Raptors lineup is much quieter. A good defenxe is a vocal defence. Tucker has been a Raptor for a month but he’s already established himself as one of the team’s trusted leaders and their defence has been the most obvious beneficiary.
Let’s Go Raptors!
Many Pistons fans were dismayed that the Raptors contingent was loud and proud. Detroit radio analyst Rick Mahorn called it “annoying.” If the thousands of Raptors fans didn’t make the trip in a snow storm to cross the border into Michigan, the palace would have been half empty. Easily a third of the crowd was wearing Raptors red.
Although the Pistons are known for having boisterous supporters, the Raptors fans held their own. As Pistons fans left for the exits with two minutes left, “Let’s Go Raptors” serenaded them out the door. They even broke out in an “M-V-P” chant went DeMar DeRozan stepped to the free-throw line to ice the game. On the court, the Raptors seemed lethargic throughout the third. The Toronto fans picked up their energy in the building probably out of boredom and rebellion. Whatever the motive, it lifted the team on the floor and helped propel them to victory. The seeds most likely won’t align this year but a playoff matchup between these two teams, although not aesthetically pleasing, would have a March Madness-like atmosphere.