First of all, the New Orleans Pelicans are really good.
Their record doesn’t quite reflect the full quality, though they improved to 13-8 with their 126-108 blowout win over the Toronto Raptors and are in third place in the Western Conference.
They are oozing talent and have a lineup with high-end weapons in Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and CJ McCollum, along with depth at every position and role players of every shape and fashion. And let’s not forget they have one of the most valuable collections of future draft assets thanks to the trade with the Los Angeles Lakers for Anthony Davis that is looking like a massive win for the Pelicans three seasons later.
But second of all, the Raptors (11-10) simply didn’t play with the energy and zeal they need to in order to win — or even be competitive — with a quality opponent that is starting to find its rhythm like the Pelicans seem to be.
It didn’t help that Fred VanVleet was ejected in the opening seconds of the third quarter for daring to clap and say ‘come on’ in front of a referee. He had picked his first technical foul in the first half. It was VanVleet’s first career ejection. The Raptors were down 25 at the time.
To make things worse, Chris Boucher took a nasty hit on what was a clean block of a dunk attempt by Larry Nance Jr. with 1:24 left in the game. He stayed on the court for a while, was in evident pain and headed for the locker room seeming to favour his shoulder.
At least there appeared to be good news for Boucher afterward.
Nevertheless, it was a frustrating night all around.
Who knows if his body will hold up long enough that he can put together full seasons and stack them year over year? Let’s hope so.
Williamson has been good this season so far — averaging 22.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and four assists on 57.8 per cent shooting — but he’s clearly just beginning to round into game shape after missing all of last season following foot surgery.
On Wednesday night, he exhibited why — when he’s operating on all cylinders — he’s such a mesmerizing talent.
He made multiple plays in the first quarter alone where all you could do was just shake your head. On his first basket, he had a clean blow by on Thad Young from the foul line. He didn’t even make a move. He just exploded, Young got tossed aside, and Williamson laid it up gently.
A moment later, Williamson got the ball on the move on a dribble handoff going left and … forget about it. No one is stopping someone that fast and strong with a full head of steam.
A minute or so later, he picked up a loose ball after an errant pass by VanVleet and sprinted through both his team and the Raptors for a one-man rumble to the rim that covered 80 feet in about three seconds. Young thought about stepping in and reaching for the ball but remembered he had children and though the better of it.
O.G. Anunoby is well on his way to being recognized as an all-NBA defender and Williamson beat him on the baseline like he was a pylon.
It’s mind-boggling. At halftime, Williamson had 17 points, four assists and two steals while taking just eight shots. He finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks on 12-of-15 shooting.
Now, once upon a time the Raptors slowed down Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs and also shut down Joel Embiid. Everyone can be stopped. Maybe someone will figure out how to make Williamson go right one day?
But at his best, Williamson will be really, really, really hard to stop for anyone.
Oh, and when the game was in the balance as the Raptors had cut a 31-point Pelicans lead to 11 with five minutes to play? Williamson jumped off two feet and somehow blocked a Pascal Siakam floater in the paint and then beat a trap at the other end for a dunk. He then made a steal and scored on the fastbreak to put the lead back to 15.
Just an amazing player. For basketball’s sake, hopefully he can stay healthy.
Other teams have injuries, too
There’s no arguing that the Raptors’ season has been shaped by injuries through the first 20 games.
On Wednesday, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse rolled out his 12th starting lineup when Young joined Scottie Barnes, Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby at the opening tip.
But other teams also have dealt with the injury bug, and the Pelicans are one of them. Williamson has missed six games and Ingram has also missed six, including Wednesday night, as did McCollum, who missed his fourth straight game while in health-and-safety protocols.
On Friday, Toronto will be in Brooklyn and won’t have to figure out Ben Simmons, who has started to play much better for the Nets. Simmons has already been ruled out with a calf strain, and on it goes.
Which is why game like Wednesday’s are so frustrating if you’ve been waiting for the Raptors to build some momentum. They’re as healthy as team can expect to be, with just Precious Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr. out; they’ve had a favourable, home-heavy schedule of late and they travelled to New Orleans on Tuesday. There were no excuses.
They simply got they butts handed to them by a team down two starters.
Gary Trent Jr. – bench mobster?
Here’s the thing about Trent Jr.: he absolutely played himself out of the starting lineup that he had lived in for 85 straight games going back to the second game of last season.
All shooters have slumps, but when your slump lasts a month and your coach isn’t happy with your defence either, don’t be surprised if changes are made.
Bringing Trent Jr. off the bench makes sense because he gives the Raptors punch they don’t have in their second unit and — frankly — if Toronto is going to be the kind of team it wants to be, Trent Jr. profiles as an elite sixth man rather than a starting two guard. Might as well find out if he can do it.
And who knows? Maybe he likes it and somehow they find a way to sign him in the summer if he opts out of his contract and becomes a free agent. If they don’t? Well, at least they didn’t spend a whole season trying to bend their lineup to keep him happy.
Trent Jr. has been great coming off the bench in two games now. He’s rebounding, driving the ball and being disruptive on defence. He was very good against Cleveland on Monday (14 points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes) but spectacular on Wednesday as he put up a season-high 35 points while knocking down five threes and shooting 12-of-20 from the floor. He snagged three steals as well.
In general, he looked like a guy who wants to earn starters’ minutes, if not a starting spot. His best moments came late in the third quarter when he had nine points in a 13-6 run that cut the Pelicans’ lead to 102-78. Trent had 15 of in the third quarter alone and 25 in the second half.
Siakam keeps it going
Early on, Siakam looked like he was going to have a night.
It was an interesting contrast with Williamson, who overpowered the entire Raptors defence time and again. I
Instead, Siakam’s finesse game was firing. He started with a pull-up jumper, then spun with his left hand, hit a three on a pin down and then a jump hook in the lane. Four baskets, each a different flavour and all against Herb Jones, the second-year forward who is gaining a reputation as one of the NBA’s best young defenders.
He had no chance in single coverage against Siakam and the Pelicans quickly went zone.
Siakam made some nice defensive plays, too: a chase down block in the first half and a strip of his old pal Jonas Valanciunas early in the fourth as the Raptors were desperately trying crawl back into the game. He finished with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists, though he did cough up five of the Raptors’ 16 turnovers.
Defence is supposed to travel, no?
It didn’t against New Orleans. The Pelicans shot 72.7 per cent in the first quarter, 54.5 per cent in the second quarter and 50 per cent in the third quarter, which — in a nutshell — is how you end up down 31 late in the third quarter and down 24 to start the fourth.
From that point, on Toronto was pretty good as it won the fourth quarter 30-24 by — guess what — finally stringing some stops together. The Raptors held the Pelicans to 36.4 per cent shooting in the fourth. The doubles were a little crisper, the second efforts a little more committed and they did just enough to force some extra misses.
Hopefully, the defence they left behind in Toronto when they held Cleveland to 88 points will meet them in Brooklyn on Friday.