It was a game with playoff implications – not something you normally expect between two clubs as far apart in the standings as the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors are at this stage of the season, but we can explain.
The Nets seem like a strong bet to finish in the top two in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors, in 12th place as the night began – somehow, someway – still have a good chance to finish as high as ninth or 10th in the East, which would earn them two sudden-death chances in a play-in tournament to grab the eighth seed.
Which means there is a scenario where the Raptors could end up playing the Nets – a juggernaut on paper but a group that has a hard time staying on the floor – in the first round of the playoffs.
But which version of the Nets is the question – an even more pressing one than what version of the Raptors might be healthy and available then.
Rookie head coach Steve Nash has no idea. His trio of superstars – Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden – has played just seven games together due to injuries and other absences. Durant (thigh bruise) and Harden (hamstring) were watching form the sidelines at Amalie Arena on Wednesday night.
“I mean, we could have guys in and out of [the lineup] the rest of the way, and not just the regular season, but for the playoffs, you just never know,” the former Canadian national team star said before the game.
Toronto got a taste of what the Nets can look like at their best when the two teams met in Brooklyn on Feb. 5. The Raptors won that one but Brooklyn had Irving, Durant and Harden available for the second quarter – before Durant was pulled from the game due to health and safety protocols – and it was a scary sight as the Nets put up 40 points on a 13-of-20 shooting display that featured 12 assists and 7-of-10 from deep.
It was the kind of effortless dominance that makes the Nets legitimate title contenders – maybe even a favourite. But they’re less formidable otherwise, and the Raptors looked a lot more like themselves with a full roster for once as they easily handled the Nets, 114-103, for their fourth straight win, improving their record to 25-34.
“I think the big thing with us was we haven't been on the floor together, we haven't had — I would say — the swagger that we've had before," said Kyle Lowry, who was making just his third appearance in the last 14 games.
How did he feel after so much time off?
“I’m very well rested. I’m very healthy and very, very, very, very, well rested,” he said about the amount of time he’s missed – in theory — due to an infected toe but what seemed like an effort by the Raptors to angle for an improved draft position.
He’s been busy off the court too, and was quite eager to talk about the honourary doctorate he’s going to be receiving from Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.
What kind of doctor will he be?
“Doctor of greatness,” said Lowry.
That swagger eventually did make itself felt on the floor. There were plenty of moments where the Raptors had all the confidence you might expect from a group that is healthy, fresh and talented.
“I think tonight our pace was unbelievable. OG [Anunoby] got us going early; he played some great defence tonight,” said Lowry, who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists on 4-of-12 shooting. “Pascal [Siakam] got into his rhythm a little bit more. Myself and Freddie [VanVleet] missed some open shots, but you know we got into the paint, and we made some shots late, but you know we just continued to get better right throughout the game.
“We knew it wasn't gonna be perfect right away. Yeah, we've been teammates now a long time but you know getting myself back on the floor again, Freddie, OG, getting us all back together. You know it takes a little bit but we figured it out.”
The Raptors' potential and the Nets' fragility are factors to keep in mind as Toronto battles Chicago and Washington in a neck-and-neck race for the 10th spot, with Indiana just a couple of games ahead in ninth. The Raptors are in 11th for the moment, a half-game behind Washington.
For the first time since March 29, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had his core players available. In addition to Lowry, VanVleet made his second appearance in nine games, while Siakam, Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. returned after shorter absences.
It was also the first time the incumbent Raptors had played with Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, the centre combination that has provided some length and athleticism that has been missing in the middle, and Nurse – if he needed — could look at Malachi Flynn, Yuta Watanabe and DeAndre' Bembry to round out a deep bench.
It’s not the profile of a sub-.500 team and the fact that Toronto’s reserves have carved out a 4-2 record over their past six games as the Raptors seemed to be aggressively trying to improve their draft position by resting their key players suggest a team that’s deeper than it was to start the year.
Nurse’s expectations before the game were low – he forecasted clunkiness – but he was pleasantly surprised.
“Well, it did start that way [clunky],” Nurse said. “[But] I think the chemistry built throughout the game. I think our guys did a really good job of adjusting offensively especially. …. Obviously we were creating a lot of good shots. I thought all the way through, I thought maybe we got a little tired or maybe late missed a bunch of open ones [but] I'm pretty happy with the performance. I think it's a good step forward with a long way to go, but a really good step forward tonight.”
The Raptors were the better team for all but the first quarter. They dominated the middle portion of the game and held firm down the stretch as they were led by Siakam with 27 and Anunoby with 25. Defensively, they limited the Nets to 39.6 per cent shooting for the game.
The Raptors finished the second quarter on a 17-7 run that allowed them to start the third frame trailing 58-56 after the Nets led by 12 with 4:37 left in the half. But as the game wore on, the Nets were worn away by the Raptors' depth and energy – as a whole the team hadn’t played since Sunday, let alone the additional rest some of the regulars have had.
The game turned in the third quarter when the Raptors looked the fresher, more energized, and certainly deeper team. Their starters nearly knocked the Nets out of the park with a 36-23 run that featured 11 points from Anunoby, nine from Siakam and 16 combined from VanVleet and Lowry.
The Raptors pushed their lead to 18 with 3:52 to play in the third on a VanVleet triple, and it looked like the rest of 2020-21 had never happened.
There were other contributions. The Raptors' centre tandem of Birch and Gillespie showed what was missing for most of the year. Their box score numbers weren’t all that impressive — they combined for 12 points and 12 rebounds — but they kept loose balls alive, moved the ball well, chased down six offensive rebounds and protected the rim with Gillespie – who started his second 10-day contract on Sunday – counting five blocks and Birch another.
Nurse gave five players off his bench at least 11 minutes and all scored at least four points.
But otherwise the Raptors – seemingly tanking just 10 days ago – are healthy and beginning to roll.
If it keeps up they could even end up facing the Nets again in the post-season and with no guarantee of what team Brooklyn will be able to field then.
After a season this strange, a healthy Raptors team giving a short-handed Nets squad a run for its money — should it ever come to that — might not even be the strangest thing to have happened.