Takeaways: Raptors’ talent becoming undeniable, even shorthanded

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, left, passes the ball away from Portland Trail Blazers guard Kent Bazemore during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. (Craig Mitchelldyer/AP)

Though lacking the ‘prime time’ feel of the back-to-back in Los Angeles, the Toronto Raptors’ Wednesday night affair with the Portland Trail Blazers still proved to be an enlightening test as the team continued to look good despite being decimated by injuries.

Entering the Rose City to play their third game in four nights on the road, the Raptors looked due to lay an egg — and the way they started, it certainly looked like it as the Blazers, who were on the second night of a back-to-back, opened up a 13-2 advantage at the first timeout of the game and ended up battling back to enter the second half with a lead.

Then, in the fourth quarter, just after Portland went on an 11-2 run to open the frame and tie it up, the Raptors would go on a 7-2 spurt of their own to take the lead back and never relinquish it, improving the team’s record on this five-game Western Conference road swing to 3-1.

Shorthanded or not, it’s becoming pretty apparent that these Raptors are just plain good, and very much worthy of their defending champion moniker.

Here are a few more observations from the Raptors’ 114-106 victory over the Blazers on Wednesday night:

Raptors’ dynamic duo gets the job done

How’s this for a combined line? Sixty-six points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists on 25-for-44 shooting.

Coming into Wednesday night if you were to see that line you’d probably think it came from the Blazers’ duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but no, this was a Pascal Siakam-Fred VanVleet special.

Even more impressive? They did the brunt of their damage in the second half.

Of the 36 points Siakam put up, 24 came in the second half on scorching 10-of-15 shooting. And for VanVleet, 10 of his 30 came in the third quarter alone.

It’s astounding to think that a player taken 27th overall and an undrafted guy can become franchise cornerstones and look like superstars, but here we are.

Siakam and VanVleet absolutely burned the Blazers, and there’s no good argument out there as to why they can’t just do the same to any other club in the NBA.

Rotation revelations

Given the injuries the Raptors have sustained recently — quick reminder: Kyle Lowry (thumb), Serge Ibaka (ankle), OG Anunoby (eye), Patrick McCaw (knee) — the once little-used, little-known guys have become the subject of much greater importance and scrutiny. So here’s a quick glance at how each of these guys fared on Wednesday.

Starting with the good: Undrafted rookie Terence Davis had himself a night, scoring a career-high 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, including a 3-for-6 mark from deep.

It seems as though with every opportunity Davis gets to prove himself, he takes the bull by the horns and runs with it. Wednesday night was no different, and if he continues down this track, there’s absolutely no way he should be frozen out of minutes even when the Raptors get healthy again.

The same can be said of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

After a shaky start, Wednesday proved to be a third straight game of just-manic-enough effective energy play fuelled by tremendous hustle, relentless effort and even more heart.

In 26 minutes played, Hollis-Jefferson finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, but perhaps even more important than that impressive line was the defensive focus and intensity he brought (more on this below).

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And looking at the not-so-good: Chris Boucher, after having two straight solid games, looked like his energetic self out there in grabbing seven rebounds in about 14 minutes, but was only 1-of-4 from the floor.

Matt Thomas looked nothing like the deadeye shooter we’ve come to expect, going 1-for-6 from the floor and 0-for-3 from deep. Simply put, if Thomas isn’t hitting shots, there’s basically no reason at all for him to be on the floor.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse found some time to give Stanley Johnson and was rewarded with two fouls picked up in just under five minutes played.

But as bad as that sounds, Malcolm Miller’s rare appearance may have been even worse. Miller got the start in replacement of Anunoby, and even though he played slightly more than Johnson, you’d almost think he was invisible out there as the only statistics that registered was a missed three, an assist, a turnover and a minus-6 plus-minus rating.

Another night, another superstar Raptors D locks up

Here’s a super stat for you: In the last three games, the Raptors have faced perennial MVP candidates (when they’re healthy, of course) LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard. And in those contests, they’ve managed to hold them to a dismal 23.7-per cent shooting.

Specifically looking at Lillard, the Raptors held him to only nine points on 2-for-12 shooting, something that broke his Portland franchise-best streak of 230 games with at least 10 points or more.

So how are the Raptors doing this? Firstly, you have to give props to Hollis-Jefferson, who in many cases Monday against Leonard and Wednesday versus Lillard was the primary defender and revelled in the task of stopping the opposing team’s best player.

Outside of that, Nurse also deserves some major praise for his defensive strategy. He’s been very aggressive in his schemes by blitzing these star players and almost daring them to make the extra pass, otherwise they’ll be steered into a problem area and be forced into a tough shot or situation.

It’s worked thus far and up next for the Raptors will be young stud Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday. We’ll see if this same strategy holds water against the Slovenian phenom then.

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