10 things: Raptors nail season-high 19 threes in another impressive win

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (4) shoots against Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lamar Stevens (8) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Cleveland. (Ron Schwane/AP)

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 118-107 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

1. The Raptors snapped another win streak for their second-straight win. Cleveland had won five straight, they were fully healthy at home where they were 16-2 and were looking for revenge having already dropped two losses in Toronto earlier in the year, but the result was more of the same. The Raptors led from start to finish and went up 26 points in the third quarter which led Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to bench his entire starting lineup just to see some fight out of his reserves.

The tactic worked to throw the Raptors off rhythm for brief stretches, but the Raptors still kept the Cavaliers at a comfortable distance through gritty defence and confident shot-making to collect another win. Toronto is clearly much better than what they looked like during their six-game losing streak, but will need to show this quality consistently if they are to make up for lost time.

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2. Everything looks so much better when threes are falling. Toronto hit 19 threes at 51 per cent shooting, which qualifies as their most prolific effort for the entirety of 2022 stretching back to last season. The Raptors got the majority of their threes through strong ball movement, either by hitting the paint before kicking it back out, or by pushing the pace in transition and finding shooters against a retreating defence.

There were also a few fortunate makes — Pascal Siakam nailing a 40-foot buzzer beater, Fred VanVleet completing a four-point play, Gary Trent Jr. nailing a triple while falling over come to mind — but for the most part it was just good offence. The thing is, the Raptors typically get these looks anyway but ordinarily aren’t as clinical on those same chances.

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3. Siakam literally toyed with whoever the Cavaliers tried to throw at him. He did his usual damage in transition and with his driving kickouts for three, which landed him close to another triple-double, but he also took his time to work in isolation. Cleveland tried every size of defender between Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert and Lamar Stevens in an attempt to slow down Siakam, but he took the same confident approach with each one.

Stevens and LeVert couldn’t handle Siakam’s size and ended up fouling him, whereas Mobley and Allen couldn’t match his speed. Siakam blew past Mobley with ease, and against the back-pedalling Allen, he was able to score both down low with a clever head fake to open the gap for a spinning layup, then drive hard into a step-back jumper. The only solution against Siakam at the moment is to bring a hard double team, and even then he’s great at making the right pass.

4. Scottie Barnes quieted the outside noise and bounced back with one of his strongest showings of the season. Barnes was aggressive from the very first play where he drove straight at Allen for two free throws, then took on Cleveland’s best wing defender Issac Okoro for a driving and-one to beat the clock.

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Barnes also ripped down rebounds and pushed the break, and the result was that he had more points in just the first quarter (11) than he did in his two previous games (8). Barnes especially seemed to thrive in the matchup against Mobley, who he narrowly beat out for Rookie of the Year last season. Mobley had to settle for fading jumpers that rimmed out, whereas Barnes bullied Mobley at the rim for layups. Barnes also finished strong despite the game turning physical to the point of him not even getting a call for being elbowed in the head, as Barnes beat out bigger players for a key offensive rebound that led to a three, drove for a foul against a late clock, took Mobley to the rim, and finished a put-back off Siakam’s missed shot for a dunk.

5. Barnes got the majority of his 25 points in the paint while being shifted to centre for the second-straight game. Barnes was frequently involved in actions as a screener, where he was then able to catch the pass on the move as two defenders converged on Siakam, which then allowed Barnes to either score getting downhill or whipping the next pass out to the perimeter.

Barnes isn’t naturally a centre, but his feel for the game is such that he can be effective when asked to play that role. If anything, it makes it easier for him as he can roll or finish dump-off passes, and he can also pull an opposing big out of the paint when he is initiating at the top of the floor. The key there is that Barnes needs to show a high level of focus and engagement defensively when playing centre, and on that front he was excellent. Allen and Mobley only had one offensive rebound apiece, and Barnes was in good position to deny the entry passes down low that Cleveland’s bigs so desperately rely upon.

6. O.G. Anunoby continues to torment Donovan Mitchell like no other defender in the league. Mitchell has been averaging 30 points per game on 50 per cent shooting as one of the league’s most prolific scorers, yet he finished with 12 points on 4-of-16 shooting which is actually an improvement over his eight points in his last meeting with Anunoby.

The trickiest part of Mitchell’s game is how relentless he is at getting downhill, where the combination of his quick first step and his long and powerful strides help him score in the paint or draw fouls. Anunoby cut him off at every turn, matching him for agility while holding the advantage physically, which forced Mitchell into settling for outside jumpers. He did catch Anunoby slipping once or twice on crossovers to create space to shoot, but Anunoby actually hit twice as many threes on the other end.

7. Fred VanVleet is quietly turning it around of late. VanVleet went on a tear in the third quarter, nailing back-to-back triples to start the second half, hitting a third off an offensive rebound to force Cleveland into shuffling out their entire starting five, and then capping the quarter with a four-point play. The advantage was clearly in the frontcourt, so outside of a few drive-and-kick sequences to find corner shooters, VanVleet largely played off the ball and stuck to a catch-and-shoot role. This is close to the ideal balance that the Raptors had envisioned for the team to start the year, and it can be the norm so long as Barnes and Anunoby can be that effective secondary playmaker beside Siakam.

8. Malachi Flynn’s redemption continues with yet another solid showing off the bench. He came in firing as usual, knocking in three triples to extend his lead as the Raptors’ most efficient shooter this season, while also providing a secondary ball handler while sharing the floor with VanVleet and Siakam. Flynn has clearly won back Nick Nurse’s trust as he was in to close the game with the responsibility of stopping Darius Garland who was on fire in the fourth. Flynn used his quickness and stubbornness to get around screens in order to prevent Garland from getting downhill, and knocked in a key three to keep Cleveland at bay.

9. Gary Trent Jr.’s return from injury knocked Chris Boucher out of the rotation. Trent Jr. delivered instant impact, poking a ball free for a breakaway dunk and knocking in a pair of triples in his first shift. He wasn’t as involved the rest of the way, but was active defensively which is the main ask from Nurse. Boucher would typically get into this matchup against Cleveland, but Nurse stuck to a strict eight-man rotation that also saw Christian Koloko benched despite him having started in the home opener win over the Cavaliers. Thad Young was Toronto’s lone big off the bench, although he wasn’t much of a factor, especially as a defensive deterrent.

10. The Cavaliers have built a very talented team and will definitely make the playoffs, but they have a massive hole on the wing. It’s no surprise that the Raptors’ top three players were Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes. Cleveland has nobody to throw at these types of big wings, which is why they are 0-3 against Toronto, and it’s why they will likely struggle against the likes of Boston, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. If the Cavaliers were to ever get their hands on someone like Anunoby, they would instantly become title contenders, but they already went all-in on Mitchell and are now just at the whim of the best players in the conference.

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