Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 112-106 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
One — Entertaining: This game had Summer League vibes with how inconsequential the result was. The Raptors rested all of their regulars, the Thunder practically did the same, and they played with the leftovers. It was a very free-flowing game in the first half with no shortage of impressive shot-making, but the Raptors tightened up in the second half and closed it out emphatically. It doesn’t help the tanking push, but you can’t say the Raptors haven’t been trying with the players they’re resting.
Two — Finish: The Raptors held OKC scoreless for a four-minute stretch, which earned them a five-point lead in the final minute. But the Thunder made it a one-possession game on an and-one drive by Lu Dort, and the Raptors looked to be in trouble after burning their last timeout after a failed inbound. On the ensuing play, the Raptors inbounded to Khem Birch, who quickly flipped it to Gary Trent Jr. with Dort pestering him. Birch then set a crushing screen to pop Trent Jr. open, he got downhill and drew the help, and Trent Jr. kicked it to Chris Boucher who swished the three and clinched the win. In a season where so many bounces have gone against the Raptors, it was a relief to see them execute and finish strong for once.
Three — Closer: Boucher was awesome all night, and it’s only fitting that he hit the game-clinching shot. Boucher went shot for shot with fellow Montrealer Lu Dort in the first quarter, but while Dort cooled off, Boucher kept going and finished strong. Boucher playing at the power forward spot has given him the freedom to expand his offense, and the results are intriguing. Boucher worked two pick-and-rolls and scored both times, with a three-point foul to go with a pull-up two. He also dropped Aleksej Pokuševski on a crossover, before nailing a three, and hit a running three to beat the halftime buzzer. Defensively, there are still challenges for Boucher as more mobile players are playing on his shot-blocking instincts to get an angle on him to drive, but he is also making plays at the basket and securing key rebounds to balance it out.
Four — Insistent: Trent making the pass at the end seemed to catch the Thunder by surprise, which is understandable on a night where he took 25 shots and had just one assist on the final play. Trent was very aggressive from the jump, but he was noticeably rusty in the first quarter as he missed his first five shots, and he was just 4-of-12 at halftime. Trent rattled off a hot stretch in the third quarter when he adjusted to playing off the ball, which took the burden off him from having to create his own shot, but he reverted back into forcing his looks by the fourth quarter. There’s no doubting that he can make shots under pressure, which was already demonstrated by his 44-point night and his game-winning shot vs. Washington, but there will need to be a balance for Trent to find. He seems to love the midrange shot, which is a great counter when defenses try to run him off the line, but he can also improve in getting to the rim more often. In any case, it’s hard to judge him in a game like this where Trent is called upon to play outside of his role.
Five — Solid: Malachi Flynn continues to impress in a starting role, finishing with 15 points, seven rebounds, and five assists in the win. Flynn nailed two threes in the fourth, showed great patience in waiting for the defense to split so he could get inside for a layup, set up Boucher for a three, and worked a slick passing combination with Yuta Watanabe which resulted in another late basket for Boucher. Flynn has shown an ability to shake off slow starts to finish strong, which is a great trait for a lead guard since your playmakers can never be short on confidence, otherwise it drags the entire team down. If anything, Flynn’s best moments have come in the fourth quarter.
Six — Growing: The boxscore line of seven points on 2-of-9 shooting doesn’t flatter Birch, who had a very solid game. Birch was diligent on the defensive end as always, keeping Moses Brown scoreless after Brown dropped 20 points and 12 rebounds against the Raptors last month. Birch, of course, had not joined the Raptors at that point, and the team was mostly helpless with Aron Baynes in the middle. Just for his defense alone, Birch has been a huge upgrade, but he’s also showing expanded skills offensively. Birch had made just four threes in four years with the Magic, but has already hit two with the Raptors. And while he said post-game that it’s not a concerted effort to shoot more on his part, Birch’s confidence is continuing to grow on the Raptors. Birch also made two passes on the money spraying out to shooters while rolling downhill, and that too is a part of his game that didn’t quite peek through in Orlando.
Seven — Well-rounded: Watanabe remains a standout contributor off the bench. His shot wasn’t dropping like it was in his career night against the Magic, but Watanabe contributed in other areas with his playmaking. On at least two occasions, Watanabe was flying downhill to the rim before throwing a last-minute dump-off pass to Freddie Gillespie for the finish down low. Watanabe’s playmaking was a plus at the G-League level, but it was hidden due to his lack of aggression on his scoring. Now that he’s attacking with intent, defenders are rotating over, and his unselfishness becomes a plus.
Eight — Tactic: Now that the Raptors have actual size in the middle, they can finally start winning the possession battle and go after offensive rebounds. OKC won the offensive glass 19-7 in their last meeting, but with Birch and Boucher as the starters, and with Gillespie off the bench, the Raptors flipped it in their favor winning 16-9 in offensive rebounds. There is always the risk of bleeding points in transition if you send too many numbers forward, but the Raptors weren’t even collecting the easy rebounds that were to be won when their bigs were naturally near the rim as shots went up. Birch can out-jump his man, Boucher is more athletic than most fours, and Gillespie is a big body who is hard to box out.
Nine — Gnarly: Tanking is ugly business, and we saw it with the Raptors bench. The Raptors went with a five-man lineup of DeAndre’ Bembry, Rodney Hood, Stanley Johnson, Watanabe, and Gillespie for extended stretches in the first half, which might be the only lineup on any team all season to not even have one player on the floor averaging at least one three-point make per game. The only way the Thunder could go under more emphatically would be to break out the shovels and dig themselves a tunnel. If the Raptors truly want to tank, that’s the lineup they need to play, and as a viewer, would you really like to see an entire month of that?
Ten — Sprite: Pokuševski might be the oddest player in the NBA. He stands almost seven foot but weighs under 200 pounds, he is surprisingly tough on the defensive end, he isn’t all that quick or athletic, but he still makes plays purely on instinct. Pokuševski schooled Boucher a few times on the drive, using his shifty fakes to get an angle on Boucher, and was a nuisance for the Raptors all night. The Thunder even closed the game with Pokuševski at center, even though Dort as the shooting guard probably has 30 pounds on him. If the three starts to drop with any consistency, Pokuševski will become a league pass favourite.
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