TORONTO — Exactly 40 games into the best start in franchise history, the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors have a signature win.
Against the well-rested defending Eastern Conference champion, against the best player in the world, against all odds with both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka unavailable — the Raptors boat raced the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday, 133-99.
Toronto scored the game’s first two points and never surrendered the lead, getting double-digit performances from seven players in a thorough, comprehensive victory. After a demoralizing, last-second loss to the Miami Heat two days earlier — a game in which nothing the Raptors tried went right — it was as decisive a turnaround as anyone could have imagined.
There were a lot of tenacious performances to point out. But here are four Raptors who made the biggest difference.
While Delon Wright has benefitted most directly from Lowry’s two-game absence, VanVleet is the Raptors point guard who’s made the most of the extra playing time, following up a quietly strong outing against the Heat with the best game of his career two nights later.
The undrafted NBA sophomore delivered an immediate impact off the bench in the first quarter, sneaking behind the Cleveland defence and making a great in-air adjustment for a nifty layup under the net before pulling up for a transition three-pointer moments later. And he brought all kinds of energy in the next frame, quarterbacking Toronto’s bench unit as it starched an overwhelmed Cavaliers lineup.
“I think that was one of our advantages tonight, especially the second unit — just playing fast,” VanVleet said. “The first unit did a good job of setting the tone defensively, and we came in and continued that — got stops, played in transition.
“We’ve got to use that as one of our advantages — our youth and speed and fresh legs. We’ve got to take advantage of that.”
That effort from VanVleet — he had 13 points in the first half — and the rest of Toronto’s second unit made the biggest difference in this one, as the Raptors went to the dressing room at halftime with 36 points off the bench while the Cavaliers had 40 as a team.
And when you’re shooting like VanVleet was Thursday, the last thing you’re going to do is stop. He added three buckets from distance in the second half, finishing 6-of-8 from three-point range with a game-high — and career-high — 22 points.
And as the game wore on, VanVleet made it his mission to get teammates involved, particularly the slumping Norman Powell, who enjoyed his best night in weeks with 14 points and a plus-23 in 27 minutes. Late in the game, VanVleet told Powell he probably could’ve scored 30 if he wasn’t being so generous with the ball.
“I was sacrificing for him to get back going. He still hasn’t congratulated me yet — he’s been giving me crap all night,” VanVleet said with a grin. “So, next time it probably won’t happen. I’ll probably go for the points.”
Against Miami, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey went to Lucas Nogueira as his first centre off the bench late in the first quarter. But Thursday it was Poeltl who got the call, and he rewarded his coach with a tremendous first-half shift at both ends of the floor.
There was a huge block on Isaiah Thomas; another on Jae Crowder; a bevy of hard-fought rebounds and points down low; and a team-high plus-29 when all was said and done. Both Poeltl and Raptors starting centre Jonas Valanciunas had productive nights, putting up double-doubles and helping Toronto decimate the Cavaliers on the glass, 63-35.
That’s essentially a complete reversal from two days prior, when Toronto was out-rebounded, 64-37, by the Heat. But while the Cavaliers are certainly susceptible to strong play in the paint — Cleveland runs a bunch of small lineups and Tristan Thompson was the only true big man it had Thursday — Poeltl pointed to another factor for why things turned around so drastically.
“I think today was mainly about our effort,” he said. “Against Miami, we were slow. We couldn’t get anything going on offence. We didn’t move the ball properly. And then we got into that rhythm where the shots didn’t fall and we just couldn’t get out of that hole. Today, we just started off the game with a different mentality.
“I think that was part of the problem against Miami — everybody felt like they had to step up individually,” he continued. “Today, we had a different mindset. We said, ‘OK, everybody’s going to play hard and play together — and play the way we want to play.’ And it just looked so much smoother. The ball was flying around the court so much faster. It leads to easier shots, and that’s how we got going.”
Thursday morning, as the Raptors were preparing for this game, Casey challenged his team to take more three-pointers, and to take them with conviction.
Tuesday against Miami, Toronto attempted only 21 shots from range (and only six in the first half) which simply isn’t enough to win against a premier team like Cleveland.
Flash forward to Thursday and Toronto was launching endlessly from beyond the arc, putting up 42 three-pointers and hitting 18. Much of that began with Miles, who took over for the suspended Ibaka in the starting lineup and took four three-pointers in the first quarter alone.
Miles finished 4-of-7 from beyond the arc (the most he’s hit since Dec. 27), while only two Raptors who saw the floor — Poeltl and Nogueira — didn’t attempt at least one three.
“We still have work to do as far as moving the ball and making that part of our personality every night,” Casey said. “But tonight was good. We just have to get consistent.”
DeRozan was one of Toronto’s most important players Thursday, but not in the volume-shooting, piling-up-points way you might expect. Rather, DeRozan made his mark by facilitating.
The ball still went through him constantly whenever he was on the floor. But rather than force the issue against a Cavaliers defence that was clearly keying on him, DeRozan was exceptionally unselfish, finding his teammates, spreading the ball around, and putting up seven assists in the first half alone.
Later in the game, as the Cavaliers gave him more space and shifted defensive attention to other Raptors, DeRozan started taking his opportunities, pulling up for threes and flashing the mid-range game he’s built his career on. That let him finish with 13 points. But he scored only two in the first half, as the Raptors built a massive lead while DeRozan took only six shots.
“He did a great job,” Casey said. “He let the game come to him. He was inviting and embracing the double-teams and then picking them apart.”
This was a tremendous response for DeRozan, who struggled two days prior against Miami as he tried to carry a massive offensive load in Lowry’s absence. DeRozan shot 10-of-29 in that game as the Heat frustrated him with blitzes and double-teams, never letting him breathe when he had the ball.
But the Raptors’ spacing was much improved Thursday, which allowed DeRozan to make better decisions under duress.
“We were just understanding what we needed to do,” DeRozan said. “We were kind of shell-shocked not having Kyle [against Miami.] We had to understand how that was going to work.
“We looked at the mistakes we made without Kyle being out there and how we could get the ball moving — and we did.”