Raptors effectively limit Pelicans’ imposing bigs in thrilling win

TORONTO — Their opponents put up 118, shot 54 percent, featured five players scoring double figures, and got to the line 25 times. You don’t see those numbers too often in a win.

And yet, on Thursday night, in one of the most thrilling, breakneck games they’ve played all year, the Toronto Raptors edged the New Orleans Pelicans, 122-118. It made for wildly entertaining viewing. But safe to say Raptors head coach Dwane Casey would have preferred a more boring contest, starting with a stiffer defensive effort.

“We can’t survive playing defence like that,” Casey said. “It’s a scoring game — you’ve got to be able to score. But you’ve got to have some semblance of defence, too. And we didn’t. We’ve got to get better. We know that. You can’t go around giving up 54 per cent from the field.”

Of course, New Orleans boasts one of the league’s toughest offences to stop, and Toronto helped prove that Thursday, as Jrue Holiday poured in 34. But the Raptors managed to remain just a step ahead offensively, hoisting 42 threes (converting 16), and figured out a way to at least contain the Pelicans’ world-destroying frontcourt of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis.

That had to be Casey’s primary concern coming in. Cousins and Davis are top-seven in the NBA in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, and free throws (both made and attempted) which speaks to the uncommon predicament they present opponents. Few teams have the resources required to stop one of them, let alone both, as they swap positions, dominate in the paint, and shoot the occasional three-pointer.

“All their bigs can shoot the three, all of them can go inside and draw fouls. Their guards can shoot the three, their guards can go in and post up,” Casey said. “They present a lot of problems. They’re a good team.”

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Casey hinted leading into the game that his strategy for combatting the overwhelming duo would be to throw a variety of looks at them, in the hope of not letting Cousins or Davis get too comfortable with their matchups. Running an unorthodox dozen-deep rotation, as the Raptors are at the moment, gave Casey more options to do just that.

It started with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, who haven’t exactly been an intimidating defensive pairing to this point (they struggled mightily late in Sunday’s demoralizing loss to Washington) but were Toronto’s most sensible tandem to oppose Cousins and Davis, in terms of protecting the rim and keeping them off the glass at least.

Valanciunas started the game with all kinds of energy, getting two great looks from Toronto’s first two possessions (converting one) and playing active defence at the other end. He had six rebounds in the game’s first seven minutes alone.

With five minutes left in the first, Valanciunas gave way to Lucas Nogueira, who assumed the Cousins assignment, while Ibaka — who wasn’t afraid to let it fly early, shooting 3-of-7 in his first eight minutes and finishing with 19 points — stuck with Davis.

But Nogueria (who did have a nice moment, plucking an offensive rebound over Cousins and finishing with a jam) picked up three fouls in his first minute, which sent him straight back to the bench for Jakob Poeltl, who picked up a foul of his own on Cousins 20 seconds later.

That gives you an idea of two things: the unique challenge Cousins and Davis present defenders, and the rotating cast Casey used to counter it. It went well early on at least, as the Raptors finished the first quarter with a two-point lead thanks to 12 points from DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 33, including an extremely uncharacteristic six three-point attempts, two of which he converted.

“I thought the rotation with JV, Jakob and Lucas wore them down a little bit,” Casey said. “I thought they did as well as you could with Cousins and Davis. They’re a handful. They’re so long, they’re so big. They can stretch the floor. … They present a lot of problems.”

Cousins (0) gets blocked by Valanciunas (17). (Nathan Denette/CP)

Of course, executing an effective defensive game plan against Cousins and Davis is one thing, but neutralizing Holiday is another. The deceptive guard gets overlooked in the shadow of that imposing Pelicans frontcourt, and he took full advantage of it Thursday, scoring 18 points through his first 15 minutes and finishing the half with 24.

But the Raptors’ second unit kept pace with sheer enthusiasm, turning a pair of strong plays by Poeltl on Cousins (who had seven turnovers in the first half) into fast breaks the other way, led by the always-sprinting Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright and OG Anunoby.

“I’m trying to take away his tendencies,” Poeltl said of stopping Cousins. “I know he’s stronger going right hand than going left. So, I’m trying to make him take a tough shot, really. I’m probably not going to block him because he has a lot of different moves. But I’m going to try to stand him up. I got him to take an offensive foul one time, and a couple other times I tried to really just stay in front of him and make him take a tough shot.”

Casey actually used the rookie Anunoby to guard Davis late in the first half, as part of a new-look unit featuring Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas. That lineup finally got Lowry involved, as he converted on a sneaky backdoor cut under the basket and a three-pointer on the very next possession after he was held unusually quiet until that point.

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Not quiet at all was Cousins, who was so frustrated leaving the floor late in the first half — after getting baited into his third foul by DeRozan — that he earned himself a technical foul while sitting on the bench during the ensuing Raptors possession. That helped Toronto end the half on an 8-2 run, carrying a six-point lead into halftime.

But the Pelicans went on an 8-0 run of their own midway through the third quarter, cutting Toronto’s advantage to one. The Raptors looked lethargic, coughing up their lead (as Dante Cunningham of all people poured in 11 points) and getting to the end of the quarter with the score tied at 92 thanks only to a pair of late threes by Wright and CJ Miles.

Casey turned to his bench unit to open the fourth, but they missed five of their first six attempts until Anunoby broke through with a corner three. Meanwhile, the Pelicans continued to feed Cousins, who finally started finding his groove offensively despite Poeltl’s best efforts.

And Holiday wasn’t slowing down, which drove Casey to put Anunoby on the floor with his starters, tasked with keeping the Pelicans guard in check. He did that and more, blowing by Holiday from the corner at one point and finishing with a strong dunk in traffic.

“I thought OG came in and really did a good job,” Casey said. “He was busting through screens. It allowed us to do some switching with their horns action. I really was proud of the way he played.

“He’s unorthodox in the way he does it, but he knows how to play on the defensive end,” Casey continued. “That kid is going to be a special defender for us.”

Back-and-forth the two teams went, the Pelicans getting big buckets from Davis and Cousins, the Raptors creating offence with their own stars, as DeRozan found Lowry from his back for a late three after an aborted drive.

The final moments were tense, but DeRozan essentially sealed it with a 16-foot pull-up with half a minute remaining. Considering how porous they were defensively, and the fact they now hit the road for a three-games-in-four-nights stretch starting with the streaking Boston Celtics, it was an important game for the Raptors to put in the win column.

“It’s everything,” DeRozan said. “[Boston’s] been playing extremely well. They’ve won 10 in a row. It’s going to be a challenge. It’s always fun going to play in the Boston Garden. With the new team that they’ve got, it’s going to be fun.”