TORONTO – Reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder came into the Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoon and handed the Toronto Raptors just their second loss in 20 games.
Westbrook finished 37 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists in the 132-125 victory, and scored 17 points in the fourth quarter — including 13 straight in one stretch — after re-entering the game with 7:44 remaining. He was a nightmare for the Raptors defence all game long, putting on a clinic in the pick-and-roll with Steven Adams, who finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and four assists himself.
The Raptors big men have worked together in unison all season, but neither Jonas Valanciunas nor Jakob Poeltl could find a way to contain Adams. Though similar in strength and size, it’s the New Zealander’s athleticism and relative quickness that gives him the edge over Toronto’s starting centre, and then he’s just too strong for Poeltl to cope with.
Adams helped the Thunder to 39-31 rebounding edge, and five of their 14 offensive boards. Toronto head coach Dwane Casey will be none too pleased about those numbers, since he warned just as much prior to tip-off.
“That’s (rebounding) our main concern,” Casey said. “It’s not just our 5-man, it’s a gang rebounding mentality. We’ve got to do a better job of coming back in, recognizing who we’re boxing out, recognizing where they’re coming up behind us, going to the rim, especially with Russell (Westbrook), he’s one of the best offensive rebounding point guards in the league.”
Westbrook also finished the game with five rebounds on the offensive end.
For Toronto, Kyle Lowry had one of his best performances of the season, finishing with 22 points, 10 assists and five 3-pointers in just 27 minutes but struggled with foul trouble and was disqualified from the game when he picked up his sixth with 3:18 remaining in the game.
This should be a huge sign of encouragement for the Raptors as they head towards the postseason, as their plan to rest Lowry more and not need him to make plays as often as he did in years past appears to have given him a significant lift in the big games.
In games against +.500 teams since Feb. 1, Toronto’s all-star point guard has averaged 20.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists while shooting 47.3 per cent shooting from three in 31.3 minutes per game.
For some time now, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has expressed concern over the guys in the dark alley who will be awaiting them in the postseason with big bats. Presumably, he’s referring to the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, the team to whom they have bowed out on their last two playoff trips.
It could be a general statement as well, about the specific way in which teams have looked to attack the Raptors in the postseason. Force Lowry to his right and blitz him, ditto DeMar DeRozan. The problem before was that the other Raptors weren’t accustomed to having the ball in their hands and being forced to make decisions.
Patrick Patterson — now with the Thunder — was one of their best role players during his time in Toronto, but he, too, was guilty of shying away from the spotlight when the playoffs forced it on him. To the Raptors credit, after years of plodding through the playoffs one way, they took an honest look in the mirror and accepted that too much was being asked of Lowry and DeRozan.
Cue the culture reset, and Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet have emerged as key contributors at the point of attack, C.J. Miles is always hunting down looks from beyond the arc, and Pascal Siakam’s reckless abandon is perfectly complemented by Poeltl’s polished approach.
“They’ve got great motors, they play with great energy and enthusiasm,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said before the game. “They play with no agenda and I respect that as a coach. They play to make the right play. They don’t care who scores, they’re just trying to do the right thing and play their roles. I think they’ve come to realize that they function better when they’re playing together than when they’re playing as individuals.”
Despite missing VanVleet in this game due to a right wrist contusion, the bench made their presence felt from the end of the first quarter through the second quarter with a 23-4 run that gave the Raptors a 54-44 lead with six minutes remaining in the half.
One player not mentioned along with the group that has done damage was Lucas Nogueira, and he had a surprising impact after Casey was left with no choice but to turn to him after the struggles of the two centres ahead of him in the rotation. He contributed five points and five rebounds in six minutes, leaving the game to never return with a plus-15 rating.
It’s rather curious why Casey never went back to him, especially in the early fourth quarter with the rest of the bench unit, but perhaps he anticipated Poeltl snapping out of his struggles.
Ultimately, the Thunder starters did just about enough to overcome the deficit of the respective benches.
Toronto’s bench outscored Oklahoma City’s 57-23, but the previously mentioned efforts of Westbrook and Adams were also complemented by 22 points from Paul George, 15 from Carmelo Anthony and 10 from Corey Brewer who has provided a much-needed spark to the Thunder starting lineup after they appeared to lose their way after the loss of Andre Roberson.
He was a constant pest to DeRozan — who finished with 24 points and five assists — and got the key defensive stop at the end of the game which led to plenty of controversy.
With the Raptors trailing by two with about 30 seconds remaining, DeRozan drove to the basket and appeared to have an easy layup after breaking free from Brewer, but when the Thunder forward swiped down at his arm, DeRozan lost that little bit of control and missed the tying field goal. No foul was called, and that led to frustration boiling over after Westbrook hit a bank shot to seal the victory.
DeRozan and Serge Ibaka were ejected shortly after the play for arguing with the referees, while Casey was ejected for no apparent reason.
“He smacked the s*** out of me,” DeRozan said after the game. “He (Brewer) smacked me, and he tried to smack me because I had a layup, period. I got fouled.”
The Raptors (52-18) have compiled the best home record (29-6) to this point and are chasing down the Golden State Warriors (53-17) in the hopes of hosting the NBA Finals if the two teams get that far. They also had an 11-game winning streak snapped, which would have made the loss that much more bitter to swallow.
Their next chance to get this loss of their mind will come on Tuesday when they take on the Magic in Orlando.