TORONTO — Mark the date: Oct. 30.
The Toronto Raptors were facing their first ‘crisis.’
There will be others.
But after starting with a franchise-record six-game winning streak the Raptors were undressed on the road Monday night in Milwaukee, where the Bucks looked faster, better organized and miles better defensively than Toronto, who looked awful for the first time.
One game though, and not much time to dwell on it.
“You have to [move on], ’cause the ball’s going up here in a little bit,” said Nurse before the Raptors hosted the Philadelphia 76ers at Scotiabank Arena Tuesday night. “What I’m hoping is that, when we get time here in the next couple days, is there’s some learning opportunities there.”
There is little question of that. But in the meantime, the Raptors had a game to win, an opportunity to immediately put their lone stinker (so far) in the rear view.
The Raptors didn’t fool around either, as they improved their home record to a perfect 6-0 and 7-1 overall with a 129-112 victory over the visitors, essentially leading wire-to-wire.
“Good bounce back,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry.
They looked like another team defensively than they did Monday, forcing 23 Philadelphia turnovers — 13 of them Raptors steals. “I just think we were all over the place tonight,” said Lowry. “We were very active.”
And they did it in direct response to what had come before
They won the first quarter, won the second quarter and looked like they were going to smash the game open in the third, where Kawhi Leonard had 11 of his 31 points in his return to the lineup after missing Monday’s game for rest. He added seven rebounds, four assists and four steals and was generally his usual, casually brilliant self.
There were a few scares — he left the game briefly in the first half after taking a swipe to the eye and then was on the floor for a few nervous heartbeats in the third quarter after a heavy foul delivered by the 76ers big man Joel Embiid, but got up unscathed.
Otherwise, the scare came in the form of Toronto surrendering a 25-9 run at the end of the third and carrying over to the middle of the fourth. The Raptors struggled to score. Stops were hard to come by. A three-pointer by Embiid cut Toronto’s lead to six on with 3:25 to play.
But the Raptors avoided making their ‘crisis’ any worse. Their defence stiffened as Leonard stole the ball from Ben Simmons — who finished with 11 turnovers all on his own — leading to a lay-up from Pascal Siakam (who finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds).
Lowry — who finished with 20 points and 12 assists — then found Leonard for a triple, and just like that, Toronto was up 13 with 1:56 to play. Toronto’s finished the game on a 12-1 run.
That was the difference between their effort against Milwaukee at home against the 76ers in a nutshell. It’s a stretch to say the only difference was Leonard, but it’s not a bad place to start.
“Mostly, I think it’s just his instinct for getting his hands on stuff,” said head coach Nick Nurse “…The ball’s popping around and, boom, he comes out of there with it any variety of ways. Post feeds, cross-court passes, pocket passes. I think we had 18 deflections in the first half, which is a big, big number. I think we turned them over 14 times in the first half which is another big number … when Kawhi’s up and guarding and handsy and getting his hands on balls, it kind of spreads to the other guys.
“They feed off that a little bit.”
The soft effort against the Bucks likely meant nothing other than Milwaukee is a bigger threat in the East than prognosticators may have given them credit for before the season started. Bad games happen, but good teams don’t have two in a row and the Raptors can say they passed that test.
The 76ers were on hand to help, having arrived in Toronto on the second half of their own back-to-back. But it was the process-driven youngsters that looked like they’d left their game in the charter, and the Raptors aggressiveness made them pay.
“We got some stops tonight, a lot of them. Some deflections, some rebounds,” said Nurse. “We kept them under 42 per cent — I think that’s six out of eight if not seven out of eight games we’ve had a field goal percentage under 42, so that’s going to fuel our offence much better than last night when we were watching it go through the net and had to take it out. That was probably the biggest thing.”
The defensive resistance was welcome, given it was largely absent against the Bucks, who spread the floor and largely seemed to be able get wherever they needed to go. It didn’t help that the Raptors were without Leonard, OG Anunoby (personal reasons) and Fred VanVleet (strained big toe).
Leonard returned to action, looked energized and offered the Raptors some balance on both ends of the floor, but Anunoby and VanVleet remained sidelined.
“I think obviously those are three really good defenders,” said Nurse before the game. “Those might be right up there at the top of our list as three defenders. We’re not gonna make excuses about it. When we put guys out there, they’ve gotta do a better job of executing the game plan and keeping their men in front and doing what we’re trying to do. There’s some learning from that last night. We’ve gotta make sure we learn from what happened last night.”
There were plenty of signs. Among the more encouraging ones was the awakening of the bench, which has struggled to find its rhythm with Delon Wright missing so much time to start the year, and VanVleet out.
Wright — in just his third appearance after a groin strain in exhibition play on Oct. 10 — looked more himself, and the bench benefitted. He had seven points and two assists in eight minutes in the first half. Unlike against the Bucks where the Raptors bench was completely underwater — outscored by 17 — Wright helped the Raptors extend the lead for a change.
Jonas Valanciunas was coming off his worst game of the season and bounced back in a big way as he had 15 of his 23 in the first half as well.
The Raptors passed their first test. They have an off day and a practice day before they face a new one — their first extended road trip of the season.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Lowry. “It’s a long process man … we finally get on the road for more than a day, it will be good for us.”
Their journey is just beginning.