Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 114-106 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
One — Resilience: No matter how shorthanded they are, the Raptors just simply cannot be counted out. They’re almost like the Spurs of yesteryear, where the system is so solid that they produce results even without their top players. Nick Nurse is short four of his top eight players, and yet the Raptors have ensured themselves a winning record on their toughest road trip of the year, and came a quarter short of being undefeated on the West Coast. It’s too early for award speculation, but Nurse is at worst a top-three candidate for Coach of the Year.
Two — Dominant: This was Fred VanVleet’s best performance of the season. He ran the show on both ends, and gave a convincing impersonation of the injured Kyle Lowry. VanVleet had Damian Lillard on skates, was aggressive with the jumper, and he kept the offense running smoothly. VanVleet was also a pest on the defensive end, as he put Damian Lillard on lockdown (more below) while also recording a vital steal in the fourth quarter that changed the entire momentum of the game.
Three — Superstar: The sign of a great player is that they never lose confidence. Pascal Siakam started off slow, he missed a few easy looks around the hoop and was 6-of-18 midway through the third quarter, but then hit 9-of-10 to close. Portland made a silly decision to defend Siakam in single coverage, and while they got away with it early on, Siakam eventually broke free. He tortured the likes of Mario Hezonja and Nassir Little in the post, and finished off the Blazers with his jumpshot. Siakam nailed a pull-up three to answer C.J. McCollum in the fourth, then rose up for two midrange looks over his defender to help the Raptors pull away. Siakam finished with 36 points and was nothing short of spectacular.
Four — Scheme: It isn’t a coincidence that the Raptors have shut down LeBron James (13 points, 5-of-15 shooting), Kawhi Leonard (12 points, 2-of-11, nine turnovers), and Lillard (9 points, 2-of-11). It’s a credit to Nurse and his coaching staff for coming up with a game plan, and getting his shorthanded roster to execute without practice. Nurse instructed the Raptors to throw extra bodies at Lillard in every scenario, and the All-NBA guard never ended up finding a rhythm. Lillard did record 10 assists, but that’s a worthy concession for holding him 20 points below his scoring average.
Five — Execution: Having a plan is great, but Nurse still needed someone to execute it, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson answered the call. Fresh off his lockdown performance against Leonard, Nurse tasked Hollis-Jefferson to cover both Lillard and McCollum. Hollis-Jefferson’s length and quick feet turned Lillard into a driver on the perimeter, and that’s where the defense found success. VanVleet was also excellent against Lillard on defense, but that’s hardly a surprise after what he did to Stephen Curry in the Finals.
Six — Energy: Hollis-Jefferson didn’t start the game, but he worked his way there by the start of the third quarter and earned the right to close. Hollis-Jefferson made two sensational hustle plays down the stretch to give the Raptors an advantage. Early in the fourth, Hollis-Jefferson dove out of bounds and whipped a shove pass inbounds to save possession before landing in the crowd. Hollis-Jefferson was back at it moments later, as he won two offensive rebounds on the same possession, the second of which he managed to tip it out of the hands of two consecutive Blazers defenders to set up Siakam for a jumper. Toronto sports fans love nothing more than a hustle player, and Hollis-Jefferson is quickly winning over both Nurse and the fanbase.
Seven — Endurance: Marc Gasol started the game off terribly, but his pride eventually kicked in. Gasol was instrumental in anchoring the Raptors’ defense, he struck the delicate balance of showing high against Lillard while also not abandoning the paint, and he came up with four blocks including an emphatic swat on Lillard late in the fourth. Offensively, it’s beyond clear that Gasol’s post-up game is beyond him and that his ability to create his own look is folly, but he’s still a great playmaker and a capable three-point shooter.
Eight — Spark: Terence Davis was excellent off the bench, as he supplied the Raptors with eight points in the second quarter while the team otherwise looked sluggish. Davis’ best trait is that he’s not shy — he’s willing to take shots within the offense and he’s a menace in transition. His best play of the night was a nifty finish in transition, where he split two defenders by putting the ball behind his back.
Nine — Expand: Matt Thomas shot a measly 1-of-6 from the field, but his issue is that he’s not being as aggressive as he should be. Thomas is still mostly settling for open looks, instead of taking the leaning and twisting jumpers that the best players at his position frequent. Think J.J. Redick, Terrence Ross, or Marco Belinelli — these guys bend the defense because they take shots that others wouldn’t dare. Thomas is that level of shooter, but he’s still too nice. He needs to hunt harder for his offense.
Ten — Unfortunate: It’s not just that Norman Powell missed a few open shots, it’s that he was completely invisible. He started the game and played 27 minutes, but they were entirely unmemorable. Powell is too experienced and too capable to just disappear altogether, but unfortunately this has been a running theme throughout his career. Some nights he is a game-changer, but most times he is just inconsistent.
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