The Toronto Raptors’ task as the season winds down is simple: win enough games in their final 10 starts to give themselves a chance to move up in the Eastern Conference standings if any of the teams ahead of them show signs they might slide down.
The seventh-place Raptors had a golden opportunity to improve their chances as they hosted the sixth-place Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena.
For the first time in four tries, they took advantage as they sent the Cavaliers home with a 117-104 loss. The win pulled Toronto into a virtual tie in the Eastern Conference standings as Toronto improved to 41-32, the same mark as the Cavs, who lost for the second straight game.
The Raptors won for the seventh time in nine starts.
Cleveland holds the tiebreaker between the two teams as the Cavs won the season series 3-1, but Toronto has seven of its next nine games at Scotiabank Arena and at least took a big step towards keeping up its hopes of moving ahead of the Cavs, grabbing the sixth seed and avoiding the play-in tournament.
As well. the Raptors are just a game behind fifth-place Chicago.
No wonder there was a playoff vibe around the match-up.
“It was a big game. I think every game is a big game,” said Pascal Siakam, who was brilliant with a game-high 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting, including a career-high tying six threes on seven attempts to go along with six assists.
“There’s, what, nine, 10 games left? All these games count, so when we go out there that’s our mentality, try to win every single one of them. And I think, yeah, it’s a big opponent, they’re in front of us in the standings and we’re trying to crawl up. So, yeah, it was a big game.”
The Raptors took control early in the first quarter and kept a firm grim for the rest of the way. Toronto never led by less than five in the second half and kept it in double figures most of the time, though Cleveland never stopped making the Raptors earn it.
The Cavs cut Toronto’s lead to eight with 4:21 to play but Siakam hit a 14-foot jumper to push it back to 10, dunked in transition on a great pass from OG Anunoby to extend the edge to 12 and assisted on a Scottie Barnes lay-up that put Toronto up 14 with 2:53 left.
The Raptors got something from all corners, but were buoyed by the return of Anunoby after missing 15 games with a fractured finger. He had 14 points in 26 minutes and his shooting was especially welcome with Gary Trent Jr. out with a sprained big toe.
“[He’s] another person out there you can kick the ball out to,” said Siakam, who assisted on three of Anunoby’s four triples. “I think that he’s going to be open if they help off of him … and he’s going to make those shots. Definitely glad to have him back.”
The Raptors bench — a weak point so often this season — was essential to the win as they outscored Cleveland 43-37. Chris Boucher led the way with with 17 points and eight rebounds with Precious Achiuwa and Thad Young contributing 10 and eight points each as Toronto shot 47.7 per cent from the floor and a sizzling 16-of-37 from deep, which was the difference as Cleveland was just 12-of-30 from three.
“I told the guys before the game, Chris and Precious and Thad, they have to feel you when you hit the game. When you guys hit the game, they need to feel you, just your speed and your length and your rebounding, we need one of those relentless nights on the glass from you guys’,” said coach Nick Nurse.
The game was also the last chance for two of the NBA’s best first-year players to make their case for the rookie-of-the-year award. In the end neither Barnes nor Evan Mobley provided an emphatic argument. They both played well — Barnes had 11 points, six rebounds and four assists, while Mobley had 11 points, eight rebounds and three blocks — and ultimately did what they’ve each done all season: make plays in all facets of the game to help their team in ways big and small.
They each had some highlight quality plays – Mobley flashing his length and quickness by getting to the rim for a dunk with one dribble from the top of the three-point arc; Barnes with a pair of no-look passes in transition – but in some ways they were most notable because they played to each team’s respective game plan and did what was needed in a critical regular-season contest.
Did the rookie-of-the-year race tip on their head-to-head match-up? No, but the Raptors winning and inching closer to pulling ahead of Cleveland in the standings could help Barnes’ cause.
For all the discussion leading up the game about the matchup between the two elite rookies, a bigger concern for the Raptors was what do with Cavaliers point guard Darius Garland, who came into the game averaging 26.4 points and a league-best 11.5 assists in March . When the two teams last met earlier in the month, Fred VanVleet was out of the lineup and Garland dominated, repeatedly getting to the paint and the rim and either scoring or leading his teammates into lay-ups and dunks.
But having VanVleet — an all-star this season as much for his defense as his shooting — on the floor gave the Raptors some hope they could contain the Cavs all-star.
It wasn’t a big scoring night for VanVleet – he finished with 10 points and eight assists while taking just nine shots as the Cavs were aggressively trying to force the ball out of his hands – but he was there defensively as Toronto was able to hold Garland to just 18 points and 10 assists while bothering him into four turnovers.
“Freddy sees a night where they’re covering him pretty much with two all night but he still absolutely made some unbelievably great plays defensively where he’s coming around, you know how he blindsides guy and rips the ball away from them,” said Nurse.
It took a little while for the Raptors to find their offense against the Cavs, who have the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense, but eventually they did in the form of a 15-0 run that gave Toronto a 25-17 lead to start the second quarter. The spark came from Siakam, who is making a push for some post-season recognition of his own in the form of being named to an all-NBA team.
He started the Raptors run with a corner three, scored in transition after a steal by VanVleet and scored again when Barnes found him in transition with a gorgeous no-look pass on the break as Siakam put up 12 in the opening quarter.
The Raptors were just getting started. With Anunoby back starting the Raptors bench instantly got little deeper and better. It showed in the second quarter as Boucher provided an instant jolt of energy and Young some veteran smarts. The pair combined on a wing three for Boucher to start the second quarter — the first of 11 points in the period for Boucher — while Young scored eight points as the two were a combined 8-of-9 from the floor.
Anunoby made his presence felt early too. In addition to his ability defend everyone from Garland to Mobley, he provided a dose of perimeter shooting Toronto has been missing so badly, having shot just 32.4 per cent from three in his absence, the second-worst mark in the league since the all- star break. Anunoby hit his second and third triples of the half in the final three minutes of the second quarter as Toronto started the third with a 58-48 lead.
A big part of the Raptors’ early success was keeping a lid on Mobley and Garland, who combined for just seven points on 3-of-10 shooting. Barnes had seven points on his own and showed his playmaking chops with some high-end passes for scores in transition and the half-court.
The Raptors built on what the established in the first half and can hope that a key win at a key point of the season can be the foundation of their run to a playoff spot and beyond.