The Toronto Raptors needed some tonic to improve their vibe.
After a miserable tour through New Orleans and Brooklyn where the Raptors trailed in the first half by 27 and 36 points, respectively, en route to blowout losses, the mood around the club was… not great.
“I feel like we just wanted to regroup, be better,” said Scottie Barnes. “It was a bad feeling in the locker room (Friday).”
How could it not be? A team hanging on for dear life through a wave of illnesses and injuries finally gets back close to full health, posts one of its most impressive wins of the season (holding Cleveland to 88 points on Monday) to start the week and then goes on the road and just gets smashed to pieces? That’s not what good teams do, and the Raptors believe they are a good team, despite considerable evidence otherwise.
“We’re concerned,” acknowledged Raptors head coach Nick Nurse on Saturday. “… l think we’ve played some games where we look like dynamite. And we’ve had some games where we’re not so dynamite. There’s a level of consistency you’re trying to push toward. For me […] I’m anxious to try to start building. I felt like we were. And now we’ve got to keep working toward building again.”
The Magic arriving in your town are handy for that. They are a fascinating team in that they have a collection of promising pieces, from potential rookie-of-the-year Paolo Banchero to emerging second-year star Franz Wagner to the curiosity of Bol Bol, the 7-foot-2 pipe cleaner with the skills of a shooting guard. The list goes on, but having gone this deep into rebuild territory you know the Magic will make sure they finish in the bottom three in the standings to guarantee themselves one of the three best chances of winning the first overall pick in the draft lottery and a chance to draft Victor Wembanyama, a potentially franchise-changing prospect.
The future is bright, let’s say. But for the moment the Magic are terrible, as they demonstrated in falling 121-108 to the Raptors. The Magic dropped to 5-19 — leaving them alone in last place league-wide and still looking for their second road win of the season. The Raptors pulled themselves back above .500 again, this time at 12-11.
Toronto can go into their off day on Sunday reflecting on some outstanding performances, both on the floor and in the box score: O.G. Anunoby tied his season-high with 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting, Pascal Siakam just missed his third triple-double of the season, finishing with 26 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists in his best game since returning from injury while Scottie Barnes added 17 points and a season-high 14 rebounds on 8-of-10 shooting. The Raptors shot 56% from the floor, marking just the second time in a month they’ve made more than half their field goals. The Magic were led by Bol, who had 18 points, seven rebounds and a handful of eye-popping plays.
Sure, it was ‘only the Magic’, but the Raptors can’t afford to be choosy with their victories at the moment. With the best team in the NBA — the Boson Celtics — coming to Toronto on Monday, and the rapidly improving Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, things will get more difficult before Toronto heads to Orlando for two more games against the Magic next weekend.
The difference on Saturday night was that the Raptors got off to a good start and didn’t have to spend the next three quarters trying to pull themselves up from the bottom of a deep well.
The Raptors started the game ranked 26th in the NBA in net rating for the first quarter, slightly better than lottery-bound San Antonio and Houston, and just behind Oklahoma City. It’s not elite company. The Raptors’ head coach is as confused as anyone else.
“I know that’s a very relevant question, but I don’t know where to place any hope,” said Nurse who started Christian Koloko along with regulars O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Scottie Barnes, the same fivesome that gave up 41 points in the first quarter against Brooklyn on Friday night. “I really don’t. I think it’s like you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, of course I want to find a group.’ But why plan on that? It seems like that’s a little bit of a waste of time. What’s more [realistic] is to take it as it comes and make the best decisions when you’re there. It’s gonna be fluid. We’ve learned this over the last two and a half years. It’s gonna be fluid.”
Sure, the Raptors are among the league leaders in the number of starting lineups they’ve had to use, with much of that due to the injuries and illness that swept through the top of the rotation in November, but that doesn’t explain what happened this past week.
There have been discussions.
“They’re working, talking,” said Nurse. “Some guys are gathering some guys together and talking about getting off to a better start and being ready for the jump and those kinds of things. They’re very attentive and focused. They understand that’s not what is acceptable around here. They’re trying to work and get through it.”
The strategy in the early going against the Magic was to target their long line of defensive weak links and attack them. Anunoby was a blunt instrument, pounding the ball into the paint and overwhelming the likes of Banchero or Bol. He finished the first half with 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting, with six of his makes coming from inside the restricted area. Perhaps his only blemish was early in the third quarter when he tried for a 360 dunk, thinking he was home free, and Bol got his hand on the ball to force a miss when a simpler effort at the rim would have been another make at the rim for Anunoby.
Scottie Barnes — struggling of late — took a similar approach. He pounded the ball and put his shoulder through the chest of Magic rookie Caleb Houston, Barnes’ former high school teammate, who was playing against his hometown Raptors for the first time. All four of Barnes’ first-half field goals (on five attempts) were from the paint. And as if to signal both the Raptors’ physical dominance and willingness to use it, Barnes added 10 rebounds in the first half, this only a couple of nights removed from grabbing just one rebound all game against New Orleans.
The Raptors, not surprisingly, led 36-22 after the first quarter and 64-48 at the half. The competitive part of the game was largely over by then. The Raptors started the third quarter on a 10-2 run and Orlando was done. The idea of the short-handed Magic coming back from down on 24 on the second night of a back-to-back was far-fetched.
The questions were, at that point, would Anunoby get his career high? (It’s 36 and he just missed it.) Would Pascal Siakam get his third triple-double of the season? (Two rebounds short.) And how many jaw-dropping plays would Bol finish with? (I counted two: a spin dribble through traffic for a lay-up and his one-man fastbreak in the second quarter that he finished with a dunk where he it seemed like he held the ball out over the first row of fans before swooping it down on Koloko’s head).
The more important question — with a much-needed win on the books, can the good vibes provided by the Magic last past the weekend?