The Houston Rockets had just made it a game. After leading by 20 points midway through the quarter, the Toronto Raptors were wobbling with just a six-point cushion and six minutes remaining.
The tension was palpable. No team that scored 76+ first-half points had lost in 35 games. To boot, the Raptors have struggled closing games against quality opponents this season.
DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 27 points, zipped a pass to Kyle Lowry in the corner, who looked to return the favour. It’s the play he’s been making all season. Trusting, yet passive. Before he did so, though, instinct took over.
As Lowry looked to make the pass to DeRozan with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on him, Trevor Ariza had left the middle to retreat to Toronto’s shooting guard. With the paint opening up, Lowry attacked the basket and drew Clint Capela, before kicking it out to OG Anunoby wide open in the corner.
“I just gotta do me. At the end of the day, I gotta do me.” the former Rocket said after the game. “I’m trying to fit in with the offence, but, sometimes you’ve got to go outside the box.”
The Raptors, in some ways, have kept their 31-year-old point guard under wraps to start the season. He’s playing six less minutes per game than a season ago and touching the ball almost 42 times less in the frontcourt with the hope of maximizing his effectiveness beyond April.
There is nothing to gain without entering uncharted territory, and the Raptors along with Lowry are making the effort with this tweaked offence. There is an equilibrium to be found, and they may have just stumbled upon it.
The Raptors scored a season-high 129 to the Rockets 113, Lowry scored 19 points on 12 shots, assisted on 10 baskets, and had double-digit free-throw attempts as well. If there was any doubt, the best version of their best player is still available, and it’s a question of recognizing when they do in fact need to break glass.
In the face of the elite teams, they’ll need both Lowry and DeRozan at their best, and perhaps the early losses to the Warriors, Spurs, and Celtics was a needed lesson in that.
What the team is quickly learning, as well, is that the early trust they’ve displayed is paying dividends. After Lowry kicked the ball out to Toronto’s 23rd overall pick from this summer’s draft, there was no hesitation on the release. The lead was extended to nine, and Houston trailed by five possessions moments later.
Anunoby has been a godsend for the Raptors — an initially projected top 10 pick mysteriously dropping down for an injury he recovered from before the start of the season. Making the first of what will surely be many starts for his career, the former Hoosier capably defended James Harden, scored 16 points on eight shots, and even made some good reads to find the open man as a pick-and-roll ball handler. He had a game-best +22 to show for it.
Harden, who finished with 38 points and 11 assists, also finished with nine turnovers and shot just 8-for-25.
Winning the battle at the point of attack is imperative to success against Houston, and the way Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet supplemented the performance of their leader opened the door for the Raptors victory.
Wright was particularly impressive, giving Harden a taste of his own medicine with a couple of flashy euro step moves on his way 14 points on a perfect 5-for-5 from the floor. He helped orchestrate a franchise-record second quarter which saw the Raptors score 45 points, and his length along with Houston’s style even allowed Dwane Casey to pull his three-point-guard lineup out of the attic.
Lowry+bench units have historically yielded success, and this night was no different. In an effort to get C.J. Miles going, Casey also gave the long-range sniper more playing time with Lowry and DeRozan, and he responded with 19 points that scattered six timely three-pointers that kept the Raptors in it early on, and extended the lead late.
Toronto’s role players have historically been shy in the limelight, but not this group, not yet anyway.
As the Raptors continue to test the changes to their offence and players seek to find their own flow, they have to evaluate how long the leash extends for each player in walking the fine line between trusting their instincts and the pass. For Lowry, in a Raptors uniform, it’s what he’s always done.
“I think we figured out what we wanted to do exactly.”