Raptors take step forward, cement top seed position

TORONTO — Trailing by six after a quarter of play with their home fans fearing the worst, the bench unit was tasked with coping with the same challenge they’ve faced for a few weeks now. The Boston Celtics came at them with size, using both Greg Monroe and Al Horford at power forward and centre as well as third overall pick Jayson Tatum at the point. Just a few days ago, this unit had outplayed the Raptors bench and outscored them by seven points in just nine minutes.

Having struggled to break the shackles of a labouring offence, head coach Dwane Casey made the decision to turn to seldom used Lucas Nogueira. Both Nogueira and Norman Powell have seen limited floor time this season due to the emergence of Jakob Poeltl and OG Anunoby, respectively, and while both were tried in this game, it was Nogueira whose impact was most needed in overturning the advantage of Boston’s two bigs.

“Length, lob threat, blocking shots,” Fred VanVleet said when asked about the impact of their big Brazilian. “He kind of gave us a presence at the rim. He makes those intangible plays out there that are rare for a big.”

Look at the box score and you’ll see that Nogueira finished without a single block and just two rebounds. Yet, as soon as he entered the game, he picked off a pass from Marcus Morris, ran down the floor for a dunk, contested shots at the rim, and did his usual dirty work on offence with solid screens to free up teammates. Toronto went on a 22-5 after his arrival, turning the game on its head and he was a plus-19 in what was eventually a resounding 96-78 victory.

In this latter stage of the season, even with so much at stake, teams aren’t looking to give much away. It’s about winning the wars to come in the playoffs, and sacrificing a few battles in the regular season may be worth it.

Perhaps that’s why we haven’t seen Serge Ibaka pick up Al Horford full court in semi-transition since the two teams faced each other in Toronto on Feb. 6. Or even why Jonas Valanciunas hasn’t been tried against Greg Monroe as he was when the Raptors faced the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs a year ago.

Brad Stevens joked before the game that his team has done a good job hiding their best stuff by having so many injuries they can’t even play their guys. Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart remain out, while Daniel Theis was earlier ruled out for the remainder of the season.

Having said that, the Raptors have worked extremely hard to put themselves in position to finish with the top seed. This game represented a chance to cement that slot for themselves, and so a change besides just playing Nogueira needed to happen.

Toronto Raptors centre Lucas Nogueira (92) dunks between Boston Celtics forwards Al Horford (42) and Jayson Tatum (0) during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, April 4, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Instead of trying to upsize to contend with the Celtics’ bigs, they downsized and went even smaller. Kyle Lowry joined Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet as the third point guard on the floor, with C.J. Miles as the shooter.

“They made an adjustment there, we made one tonight,” Fred VanVleet said after the game clearly not wanting to divulge much more than that. “It’s going to be like that for the rest of the way now. I thought we just fought a little harder, really, it was nothing major.”

It’s the fight head coach Dwane Casey had already warned them they’d need.

About a month-and-a-half ago, Casey made a statement after a disappointing close to a Toronto Raptors win over the Miami Heat that some in the room laughing, others puzzled, and others anticipating that his words would one day heed true.

“I know what’s coming around the corner. It’s like you’re going down a dark alley, here comes a group of guys with baseball bats, and you say, ‘Oh, hey, where’s the baseball game’? at 12 o’clock at night.”

That win improved the Raptors record to 40-16, and continued their then stranglehold atop the Atlantic division and Eastern Conference. Yet, Casey was well aware of the perils that were to come. He’d seen it all before. The blitzes, the struggles of his all-stars, and of course, LeBron James, who carries the biggest bat of them all.

Toronto got a taste of those bats over the course of the past two weeks, whether through one of LeBron’s greatest regular season performances ever with 35 points, 17 assists with zero turnovers, or Boston’s stifling defence that helped them close a tie game with five minutes remaining with a 16-5 run on their home floor.

After taking their beatings on the road, this game was a chance to show they still have what it takes. That the Raptors have plenty of bats of their own. That the Celtics finished with the top three scorers in the game and lost by 18 is a testament to how many players Toronto’s team has who can throw haymakers of their own.

“We weren’t proud of the last couple of games, how we played,” Pascal Siakam told North Pole Hoops after the game, wearing a long sleeve shirt which said, ‘Stay True to Yourself.’

“We wanted to get back to playing our type of basketball, and we could lose or win or whatever, but we just wanted to get our identity back, our swag back. We all have that confidence, we just have to go out there and play with it.”


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