The first half of tonight’s matchup between the Toronto Raptors and the Utah Jazz couldn’t have been written more graciously in a storybook – for Raptors fans at least. The first couple minutes of action were ugly as both teams combined to open the gates shooting brick after brick, but after Mike Conley pulled the lid off the basket, swishing a corner three, the floodgates opened on the other end allowing Marc Gasol to light up his former teammate, scoring 8 points in the first 5 minutes and 34 seconds of the game. By the end of the first quarter, Pascal Siakam had 19 of his 35 points on the board, while the Jazz as a whole only had 20. By halftime, the Raptors had made 13 threes, had broken up the Jazz’s offense enough times to mount 11 steals, and capitalized in the open court leading to 16 fastbreak points. The 40-point lead going into halftime represented a franchise-best half for the Raps, and everyone was having some fun taking a stab at Utah’s shoddy defense, including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Come for the bucket.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 1, 2019
The third quarter was another story though – what goes up, must come down – thank St. Nick Nurse it didn’t crash too heavily. Utah’s defensive rotations tightened up, and they took enough care of the ball to penetrate the Raps’ defense and find their shooters, which ultimately led to a 49 point quarter – the most points allowed for an opponent in a quarter in Raptors’ history – which was also 12 more than the Jazz scored in the entire first half. The onslaught of inspired play was enough to pull the Jazz to within 21 points heading into the 4th – a lead that would typically seem comfortable, but all of the momentum was on the wrong side of the court.
Luckily, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam had enough energy left in them to stop a freight train of offensive firepower to hold the Jazz under for a few more minutes, and not even allow Conley or Donovan Mitchell a chance to come back into the game before the final buzzer.
For all those who claimed that the Raptors wouldn’t be in legit contention without Kawhi Leonard, and have yet to prove it because they haven’t beaten any good teams, you can flip the season tally to three wins against winning teams after tonight. The Raptors now sit 2nd in the Eastern Conference with 15 wins and only 4 losses. 11 of said games have been played without a 5x All-Star who is the heart & soul of this team, Kyle Lowry. Kyle was originally listed as doubtful for tonight’s game, but could possibly make a return on Tuesday.
Serge Ibaka, after being out for the past 10 games as well, made his return to action off the bench tonight. In just under 21 minutes, he posted an inefficient 13 points on 14 shots. The rust is expected, which is why he played some garbage time, as a player of his caliber wouldn’t customarily do, but it gave us this funny moment to laugh about:
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 2, 2019
To the disconcert of most Raptors fans, Ibaka’s return kicked Chris Boucher out of the rotation, as Nick Nurse reverted to running his lineup 8 guys deep for the majority of the game. During Ibaka’s absence, Boucher averaged 9.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks per game, in just 17.4 minutes each night.
Rather than relishing over how defensively intimidating a frontcourt of Boucher and Ibaka could look against opponents, understand that it’s just been one game of having them both in the lineup since Boucher has proven his value. Boucher likely didn’t see any floor time because of how well the guys on the court were clicking in the first half. The possibility for Nick Nurse to mix and match lineups (as we know he likes to do) will be available all season, and sticking to an 8-man rotation all regular season would be a misguided move – one Nurse wouldn’t make.
On the other hand, it remains to be seen how Lowry’s return to the lineup could impact the rotations. It would be hard to see Nurse pulling rookie standout, Terence Davis Jr., out of the lineup for an extended run of games, but his minutes will likely take a hit, as will Norman Powell’s, as he’ll be expected to move back into a bench role. The eventual return of Patrick McCaw will further complicate Nurse’s job, as he was one of the coaches favourites throughout the preseason.
Regardless, these are all good problems to have. The Raptors’ sheer dominance on both ends of the court against a talented and fierce opponent in the first half is just a glimpse of what this team is capable of. Lowry’s return is still being heavily awaited, and the team at full-health should look significantly better than it was to start the season, given the emergence of Terence Davis Jr. and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the midst of the injuries. Also, Norman Powell finally finding his consistency will be a huge plus for the bench, as they’ll have a reliable vet to turn to when they need someone to create a shot. Freddy and Pascal are both still growing game-by-game, and are both looking at making their first All-Star appearances in Chicago 2020. Teams should be scared of this Raptors squad’s potential: they’re just beginning to scratch the surface, and show how terrifying they can be to play against.
After the Los Angeles Lakers were routed by 20-year-old Slovenian sensation, Luka Doncic, the Raptors now have the second-longest win streak in the league at 7 games, behind Milwaukee’s 11. They’ll look to extend that on Tuesday against Jimmy Butler’s 3rd seeded Miami Heat.