A 20-point lead in the fourth quarter dissolved into a nail-biting 123-114 overtime win for the Toronto Raptors on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night.
Not so long ago, this would have been a must-watch game for fans around the NBA. The Thunder looked like sleeper contenders in the Western Conference for much of the season, but entered the game losers of three straight and nine of their last 13.
The Raptors, meanwhile, have kept their stranglehold on the Eastern Conference’s second seed despite several lineup changes and injuries — the latest being Kyle Lowry’s ankle. After going 6-5 in their last 11, however, they didn’t exactly come into Thursday’s game at peak performance either.
You wouldn’t know that early on. The Raptors scored 39 first-quarter points and toyed with the league’s fourth-best defence early. By the third quarter, Pascal Siakam was playing like Michigan-era Chris Webber, and the game seemed out of hand. But the Thunder kept coming.
Toronto weathered the storm, overcoming a fourth-quarter surge led by Thunder stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George, who fouled out of the game with 20 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, the Raptors re-asserted themselves. They guarded their basket well and didn’t allow OKC to get into a rhythm offensively, while Kawhi Leonard overcame an unusually quiet fourth to lead the way with five points in OT.
Here are takeaways from the Raptors roller-coaster ride versus the Thunder.
Siakam steps up
Another signature game for Pascal Siakam, who led the Raptors with 33 points on a nifty 14-21 from the floor, along with 13 rebounds and six assists.
The third-year Raptors forward is a leading Most Improved Player candidate and already a borderline all-star, but he had cooled a bit heading into this game. Over his previous four games, Siakam’s averages were down to 15 points per game and 42.9 per cent shooting. He was due for a breakout.
Siakam’s lethal combination of speed, size, handles, agility, hops, and power was on full display, rendering him flat-out unstoppable during stretches of Thursday’s game. The 24 year-old continues to establish himself as a clear third star for the Raptors and the way he disrupts opponents’ game plans has been invaluable this season.
It’s games like this, with one of Lowry or Leonard sidelined, that Siakam’s importance to the club and ability to take on a starring role are amplified, and in those situations he seems to step up time and time again.
He wasn’t perfect — Siakam committed an offensive foul on a game-winning layup attempt in regulation, a good call amidst a wild finish that featured some questionable ones — but he was the Raptors’ biggest difference-maker on the floor.
Clinic cut short
Four starters — Siakam, Leonard, Fred VanVleet, and Danny Green — finished with six assists and Toronto found success over the first 36 minutes by moving the ball with purpose. The extra pass was the Raptors’ best weapon on Thursday and that unselfishness helped the team to 10 three-pointers through three quarters.
In the fourth quarter, however, when the Thunder ramped up their defensive intensity, the Raptors struggled and the ball became stuck. They had zero assists for first five minutes of action while OKC cut a 20-point deficit down to 10.
The Thunder play aggressive defence and have length at all positions. They’re tenacious and it took a while for the Raptors to find their counterpunch — something to look out for when Toronto is faced with this problem the next time these teams meet.
VanVleet’s hot hand
Fred VanVleet entered Thursday’s game shooting 58 per cent from the field and an absurd 67 per cent from deep in the two games since he returned from his thumb injury. Averaging 15 games in that span, he kept his hot streak going with 23 points in 40 minutes on 8-of-16 shooting in the win.
VanVleet came out the gate with a ton of energy and, like his fellow Raptors 905 alumnus Siakam, was a difference-maker for the Raptors. His strong performance was especially helpful given the absence of Lowry, and VanVleet certainly made the most of his opportunities.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 21, 2019
He was put in positions to make plays in crunch time, and missed a key basket that would’ve put the Raptors up by four. Instead, Westbrook – who finished with a loud 41 points and 11 rebounds – corralled the board and converted a tough layup to tie it 110-110 with 4.8 seconds left.
VanVleet made up for it with a clutch floater to put the Raptors up six with one minute to go in OT, a nice capper for another promising night.
We didn’t get to see Westbrook and Lowry, who are No. 1 and No. 2 on the NBA’s assists leaderboard, but we got a matchup of two elite small forwards in Leonard and George.
George, currently second in the NBA in scoring at over 28 points per game, was quiet early and has been recovering from a shoulder injury. He had 5 fouls by the 7:45 mark of the fourth quarter and appeared to be something of a non-factor.
But, as he has all season, he played big when it mattered and hit a pair of back-to-back triples within 25 seconds to bring the Thunder to within two points with 40 seconds remaining. He fouled out on the next possession, providing this game’s biggest “what if?”
Leonard wasn’t lighting it up either and the Raptors actually went away from him a bit down the stretch — he had just one made bucket in the fourth. But he entered overtime more assertively and immediately contributed on both ends. He played active defence at the rim as OKC tried to attacked the paint, got to the free throw line on the other end and hit a fading jumper to put the Raptors up by four and helped ice the game.
Leonard finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two steals.
This was the first game of a home-and-home series that will conclude Friday in Toronto.
I, for one, am ready for Round 2.