Raptors’ win vs. Blazers a reminder of how things are supposed to look

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) looks to pass as Portland Trail Blazers guard Josh Hart (11) defends during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Sometimes things work. 

After a difficult week capping a difficult month, the Toronto Raptors looked the way they are supposed to look. The best-laid plans worked out. 

They won at home against a decent team in this case — a 117-105 victory over the visiting Portland Trail Blazers. Their best players played very well and there were enough contributions from elsewhere that a wide swath of the roster can enjoy a Sunday evening feeling good about themselves. 

There has not been a lot of that going around lately. Fred VanVleet – perhaps one of the most respected players in franchise history – has been under the gun for a prolonged shooting slump and had to deal with reports that he had turned down a four-year $114 million contract extension before the season. 

Scottie Barnes, the second-year forward on who so much of Toronto’s ambitions have been based, has had an uneven second season and some of the tensions seem to be seeping to the surface as a video clip showing Barnes and veteran Thad Young having what seemed to be an unpleasant exchange of words during warm-ups at halftime seemed to suggest.

And all this while – or perhaps because – the Raptors were on a three-game losing streak and had lost five of their past six and 11 of their past 14 to fall a season-worst seven-games under .500. 

If winning is the ultimate detergent, the Raptors have been a bit messy lately.

But things were a bit more in order by Sunday evening. VanVleet was a two-way force with 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists. His consecutive threes midway through the fourth quarter were a timely roadblock in front of a brewing Portland comeback.

Siakam bounced back from a pair of sub-par outings with 27 points and six assists, including a pair of key free throws down the stretch and Barnes put in one of his most consistent efforts of the season with 22 points, nine rebounds and four assists, including a nice find for an O.G. Anunoby three in the corner that helped Toronto close Portland out. 

“You take it man. Turn one into two, turn two into three,” said VanVleet. “I think just putting one foot in front of the other right now. Just try to build on this. It was a good night for us. We had a good practice yesterday. We got better tonight and have to get better tomorrow.”

The much-maligned bench had some key minutes. Rookie Christian Koloko was 4-of-5 from the floor and battled inside in all of his 13 minutes. Toronto forced 22 turnovers, took 15 more field goals than Portland, won the offensive rebounding battle (13-10) and even made more threes (12-9) than their opponent while holding Portland to a respectable 44.7 per cent shooting. 

The Blazers were led by Damian Lillard, who scored 14 of his 34 points in the fourth but he made two of his game-high seven turnovers also.

Overall, there was a lot to like as the Raptors improved to 17-23 as Portland slipped to 19-20. 

“I think a lot of people contributed which is a small step forward, to get a bunch of contributions and get some really good, quality minutes,” said Nurse. “… Guys coming off the bench and everybody from the starting group, I thought, contributed pretty well.”

It was a quiet first visit to Scotiabank Arena for Shaedon Sharpe, the gifted rookie from London, Ont. who Portland took with the sixth overall pick in the draft this past summer and who – in a short time and while coming off the bench for Portland – has compiled a career’s worth of improbable dunks and earned himself spot in the dunk contest at all-star weekend.

He showed his leaping ability late in the third quarter when he seemed to go above the square to try and block a lay-up attempt by Precious Achiuwa. He was called for a technical foul for appearing to use his other arm to elevate himself on the play which didn’t seem right. If anything he was trying to use his arm to try and avoid hitting his head on the board. The kid’s springs are bananas.

He ended up with just a single field goal – a three – in his 14 minutes of playing time, but Portland is bullish: 

“His skill level is unmatched, it really is,” said Portland head coach Chauncey Billups before the game of Sharpe, who is averaging 7.8 points a game on 47.4 per cent shooting so far this season.  “I mean, the athlete that he is. People just talk about his dunking and things like that but it’s just special with his footwork, his ballhandling, he shoots it very easy. There is just a gracefulness about him that he is blessed with that most guys don’t have.”

In the early going it looked like the Raptors were going to be in for another long afternoon as the Trail Blazers set out to run their offense through their behemoth centre, Jusuf Nurkic. Portland made them pay with a pair of open threes after Toronto scrambled to help an over-matched Barnes who was given the task of dealing with the 6-foot-11 centre.

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But even as Portland jumped out to 14-8 lead, Toronto was showing some good signs. Chiefly a more aggressive opening from Barnes who has been largely ignored by opposing coverages who are often content to put a man on him – Nurkic in this case – and sag into the paint, challenging the Raptors wing to make them pay.

Barnes showed he was ready to do just that early as he stepped into a foul line jumper and then a triple on his way to an eight-point first quarter, his best since Dec. 23rd. Barnes had scored just a single point in quarters one through three against both Milwaukee and New York, and getting him engaged earlier was a priority, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before the game.

Just as important was Siakam taking advantage of a succession of smaller defenders the Trail Blazers had to use to cover him. Siakam was 8-of-32 over his past two games but was 6-of-9 from the floor in the first quarter for 13 points as Toronto jumped out to a 34-27 lead. 

“[I] felt good early,” said Barnes. “I’ve been working on it. I wanted to step in there with confidence, be able to take up that space, shoot some, get to the mid-range. I felt pretty good going early.”

And as for his disagreement with Young, where teammates had to separate them as they exchanged angry words?

“Just a little disagreement,” said Barnes. “It was nothing serious. … I love Thad. We hugged it out, that’s my boy, always.”

Young, the Raptors 16-year veteran who is one of the adults in the Raptors room, corroborated: 

“It’s not a big deal, it’s just brothers going back and forth and like I said, we hugged it out and dapped it up and he told me he loved me and I told him I loved him back,” said Young. “Nothing different than that.” 

The Raptors bench will have to be part of that and that was another positive Sunday. A mixture of starters and bench players gave up big runs to start the second and fourth quarters against the Knicks on Friday and the bench as a whole had been badly out-played in the two games previous to that.

Nurse went with a line-up featuring starter Gary Trent Jr. and four subs, including Chris Boucher, Christian Koloko, Malachi Flynn, Precious Achiuwa, and later Thad Young, which struck gold. By the time the rest of the Raptors’ regulars checked back in Toronto had pushed their lead to 19 points. One adjustment was to have the second unit play zone, as a means to simplify their defensive responsibilities. 

Naturally, the starters ended up giving some of it back – the opposite of the recent trend – in a 17-2 run that was largely engineered by Lillard who had a pair of steals, a pair of assists and got things started with a three-point play as the Raptors lead was trimmed to just 56-51 at half.  

But VanVleet seemed determined to not let another gettable game slip away at home. As much as his shooting stroke has been a problem for much of the season, he’s still more than capable of changing the flow of a game with his defence, playmaking, and scoring. 

“Freddie is an impact guy, to me,” said Portland head coach Chauncey Billups. “… the numbers don’t mean anything to me … his IQ is incredible. His toughness, his skillset, all those things are really high level, so, he’s a problem.”

VanVleet’s fingerprints were all over a 14-0 run Toronto used to start the second half, assisting on Toronto’s first two scores, connecting on a three blunting the point of Portland’s attack. Suddenly Toronto was up 19, matching their largest lead of the game, and they largely held onto it too, taking an 89-74 lead into the fourth. 

The game wasn’t easy from there, but the Raptors stayed with it and got a positive result, something that has been missing lately.

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