Raptors’ fast start, with a big lineup, leads to blowout over Wizards

Michael Grange and Eric Smith look at the massive contributions from Norm Powell and Marc Gasol, who are making a difference for the Raptors and proved it in a win over the Wizards.

TORONTO – Standing at a combined 33-foot-three and weighing in at 1,148 pounds, the Toronto Raptors’ starting lineup had the measurements to match their pre-historic nickname.

In fact, so gigantic was this Raptors starting five, they were actually nearly a full foot taller than their Washington Wizards opponent, a fact that proved prophetic for the outcome of this Friday night affair, as the Raptors dwarfed the Wizards, 140-111 – a final score that matched a franchise record for most points scored in a game, and a new record for most points put up in regulation.

Utilizing a starting lineup of Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry – the only real “little guy” included in the group – this jumbo-sized unit helped the Raptors to an 18-7 lead on 7-for-11 shooting before Gasol was first subbed off for Norman Powell with 6:04 left in the opening quarter.

The Raptors finished the first quarter with 38 points on 65.2 per cent shooting, a blistering start that was nearly spoiled by the sight of Lowry hobbling off the floor with an apparent knee injury until he returned to the bench shortly afterward and looked fine, saying after the game that his knee was “sore, but it’s OK.”

Lowry scare aside, Friday’s hot first quarter was also reminiscent of the 38-point, 69.9-per-cent opening period they enjoyed Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In that game against the Thunder, Toronto led by as much as 30, but saw its lead evaporate to as little as three before pulling away. Friday, however, against a far inferior Wizards team, there would be no such near-miracle comeback needed as the Raptors built a lead as large as 33 and cruised to an easy victory that should serve them well heading into the latter half of a back-to-back (at Minnesota on Saturday evening).

Looking beyond the quality of competition Washington proved to be, however, with Friday being the second consecutive game in which the Raptors found incredible offensive success after starting such a huge lineup, it’s worth asking if there’s something more at play with this humongous group of starters and how it affects the team out of the gate.

“I liked that we looked big out there,” Nurse said before Friday’s game, in reference to the lineup he started against the Thunder. “We just looked big, and long, and wide. Almost a little bit intimidating at the defensive end to start the game.”

And to his point, with this giant starting unit, the Raptors’ defence has appeared noticeably better in some aspects, particularly in terms of getting deflections and forcing turnovers.

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“It just makes you long,” Nurse said of his towering starting lineup after the game. “If you can handle those two things and get your defence set up, it just makes you long. We’ve got a high number of steals with that lineup.”

The Raptors had 16 steals, to be exact, with 10 alone coming from four members of their starting group. This helped contribute to 28 Washington turnovers and spoke to another key aspect that we’ve seen from this starting unit.

Although Nurse specifically mentioned his team’s defence, the menacing nature of the size and length the Raptors have in their most recent starting groups seems to impact more than just that aspect; it looks like it impacts the swagger and demeanour of their individual players, too – to the point that it’s led to back-to-back historically great offensive performances.

“I thought we were out guarding right from the start and disrupting their rhythm, jarring the ball loose; our hands have been pretty good lately,” Nurse said. “Getting us out running, I think the pace certainly helps us and obviously the passing and shooting were good, too.”

In Wednesday’s game, the Raptors had seven players reach double-digit scoring, a feat that was matched on Friday.

“It’s good when we play that way,” Nurse said. “Good to look down and see a number of guys in double figures, a bunch of guys shooting a high percentage.”

Granted, this balanced assault we’ve seen of late isn’t necessarily because Nurse decided to go big to start the game. It more likely has to do with the fact this is a team that has nearly all of its top players back from injury and has more talent to spread the ball around. But the impact of this large lineup is apparent in the form of three particular players: Marc Gasol, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell.

Friday was Gasol’s second game back after a 12-game absence because of a hamstring ailment. He finished the game with 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting — but more important than how he finished was how he started.

The biggest knock on what has nearly been a full calendar year of Gasol in Toronto has been has hesitation to shoot the ball in search of better options. Still, though, an open shot’s an open shot and, generally, you don’t want to give up those looks. Over his past two games, that reluctance to pull the trigger that drove Raptors fans insane has not been there and replacing it has been, perhaps, the most dangerous offensive output we’ve ever seen of Gasol as a Raptor.

“It was just looking at the basket,” Gasol said of his recent shooting surge and some of the work he put in while hurt. “I took in a few things from the shot and taking a little time [working] on mechanics more than anything. Balance, just the good stuff but it’s mostly mental. Obviously having time to see it and seeing the ball go in a couple of times that always helps.”

Gasol scored five of the Raptors’ initial 12 points, first making a pump fake and then making an aggressive move into the paint and finishing with an old-school running hook shot, before drilling his first of six triples on the night.

No one can really say for sure, but with the Raptors starting a more traditional front court with Ibaka starting alongside him, it looks like Gasol is a lot more comfortable searching for his own offence early, which then carries over for the rest of the contest.

Another apparent beneficiary of this humongous starting group has been Anunoby. Two nights after having himself a 21-point, five-assist and five-rebound game, he followed up with an 18-point, six-rebound line Friday as he’s seamlessly taken to the two-guard spot.

And on defence, Anunoby looks like he’s back to the level he flashed near the beginning of the season, perhaps because, as a shooting guard, the first matchup he sees likely can’t handle his superior strength, while his lateral quickness allows him to stay in front of just about anybody.

“What I do like is he’s had to guard smaller guys here the last couple of nights and he’s really gone out there and worked on his man,” Nurse said of Anunoby.

Either way, Anunoby starting as the off-guard has worked quite well so far.

But the most impressive Raptor on Friday, as was the case Wednesday, was Powell, who had a game-high 28 points off the bench on 10-for-17 shooting.

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Powell, of course, missed 11 games with a shoulder injury before he returned against the San Antonio Spurs last Sunday. In that game, he appeared to pick up right where he’d left off in playing what’s probably the best, most consistent basketball of his career.

However, in this run, Powell’s had the luxury of starting as his ascent coincided with a rough span of Raptors injuries. And that what makes what we’ve seen from him over his last two games so impressive. The fact he’s been able to keep up his strong play as a reserve is a potentially huge development for the Raptors moving forward.

One of the weaknesses of the Raptors has been a lack of consistent bench scoring, but Powell is helping to solve that problem.

This is all thanks to Nurse’s decision to start big.

There’s no guarantee that this is something the Raptors will continue to use moving forward, but the returns on it, as small a sample size as two games is, have come back absolutely golden so far.

“My mindset right now is to mix it up a little here and there,” Nurse said. “It’s one of those things: Who knew it would be a good lineup? That’s kind of why we’ve tried it. … So obviously we’ll use it a little bit until something makes us change it.”

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