The Toronto Raptors are good. The Detroit Pistons might be eventually but are very much still figuring it out. Sometimes, a game comes down to facts as simple as those, and the Raptors asserted the appreciable gap in team quality quite thoroughly on Monday, beating Detroit 123-94 at the Air Canada Centre to get back on the right track after a post-break overtime loss on Friday.
The Raptors felt the game out a little slow, struggling to score initially outside of Kyle Lowry’s hot start from long-range. There were uncharacteristic turnovers up and down the lineup, in uncharacteristic spots from uncharacteristic players. The Pistons would only turn the six first-quarter miscues into six points, thanks in part to some nice transition effort from the Toronto power forwards. You’re not safe with Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam in pursuit. The half-court defense was less impressive, with Ish Smith doing his usual Raptor-killer dance early and Andre Drummond winning Round One against Jonas Valanciunas.
An early timeout saw the Raptors find the plot on offense, and it started with DeMar DeRozan. He’d wind up scoring 11 points with three assists in the quarter, missing only a corner three and navigating attention well to exploit switches and traps, traps the Pistons couldn’t leverage the same way in this meeting without Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris. His energy fed the second unit as part of an en-masse substitution, with Siakam hitting the floor like a shot of epinephrine, protecting the rim, getting in passing lanes, running in transition, and staying ready for the inevitable dump-off from Jakob Poeltl. Dwight Buycks kept the run from getting too egregious, though, starting his Revenge Game with a quarter-ending three.
That didn’t slow the bench much, and a quick 5-2 run led to a Pistons timeout to prevent a further slide. Detroit had used Drummond the entirety of the first to get him some minutes away from Valanciunas, and that meant playing with Griffin as the de-facto five at the top of the second. Poeltl responded well, forcing Griffin into a tough two and then finishing a lob from Siakam the other way. A quick backcourt turnover produced a Delon Wright three, and the Pistons were burning their second timeout in 150 seconds to start the quarter, suddenly down 12. It was Buycks leading the response again, but Wright was too good scrambling the defense and pushing off of misses mand Poeltl and Siakam remained effective, especially with the latter’s playmaking.
“I call him our Draymond Green the way he brings up the ball and get us into things and get us open shots. He’s got a little iso game too,” DeRozan said. Asked for other similarities, he offered, “No, no one talks more crap than Draymond. Noboby.”
Dwane Casey took a brief look at a three-point guard lineup as starters staggered back in, then Wright with the starters, and neither look slowed the team down, though Reggie Bullock continued a half-long back-cutting trend. The Drummond-Valanciunas matchup picked up, with the latter hitting a nice spinning shot and the former blocking a shot after the whistle that led to some good-natured ribbing. Norman Powell then got a three-minute look in place of OG Anunoby, and it did not go well. Detroit made a legitimate counter-push late, getting free for a couple more cuts and frustrating Lowry into a technical foul. Lowry and Ibaka hit threes to maintain some distance, but cold shooting in the final minutes allowed the Pistons, once down 12, to enter the break stuck just six, far too close a score given how most of the game had gone to that point.
“Just wanted to give Norm some run more than anything else,” Casey said. “It wasn’t’ anything OG had done, just to kind of keep everybody involved, engaged and going. We’re going to need Norm. At some point, we’re going to need him, his skillset of being able to attack, shoot the ball and what he brings to the table.”
The starters remembered what’s what out of the gate, quickly railing off an 16-2 run to reassert control of the game. DeRozan continued torturing Pistons’ defenders, Valanciunas turned Drummond away on a drive, Ibaka continued a strong two-way game, and Anunoby got involved in the offense with a nice cut and a transition leak-out, all while the Raptors grew cognizant of cutters. With Lowry shooting so well – and taking charges up 20 because he can’t turn it off – and every Raptors outside of Valanciunas getting involved offensively, the talent gap here was just asserting itself. Had DeRozan connected on a big dunk midway through the frame that caught back iron, the Pistons may have just folded and put Aaron Gray in.
“I thought they set the tone in the second half,” Casey said. “We knew that they had played last night, so we wanted to make sure we used our speed and kept the pace. That’s something we didn’t do in the first game back from the all-star break and I thought tonight it was a lot better.”
The Pistons found a momentary groove with Drummond against Poeltl and Buycks running the show, and the Raptors will lament in film the number of open layups they conceded intermittently. Anunoby ended that mini-run with an outlet to Ibaka, and the game sort of descended into entropy from there. VanVleet bounced back from a rough first half, the Raptors’ shooting as a whole went a little awry otherwise, the Pistons whipped inaccurate passes around and turned offensive rebounds into nothing, and the end result was the Raptors once again up 18 heading into a fourth quarter.
Frustration set in for Detroit, with Griffin picking up a technical foul after scoring, upset either with being unable to stay within 20 against a bench group or with grabbing zero rebounds in 30 minutes. Stan Van Gundy didn’t waive the white flag, allowing Casey to show off his depth a little bit and give Malcolm Miller a career-high nine minutes of run (“our 13th man/two-way player is really good and can play an entire quarter and we won’t give anything up,” is a low-key stunt). Griffin then shoved Siakam and wanted little of VanVleet stepping between them, so VanVleet received a tech and Poeltl cocked that joint back and banged on the Pistons to effectively end this one with six minutes left.
This is the kind of game the Raptors have had so often of late, and while it isn’t particularly helpful in terms of sharpening the edges they need to sharpen, it sure does speak to how good they are most nights. They continue to be elite at home and damn near unbeatable when both units play well, ringing up double-digit victories that don’t require the stars to play the fourth even against playoff and fringe-playoff teams. That type of performance is encouraging from a macro-predictive standpoint, it just doesn’t help with the micro areas the Raptors continue to try to iron out the odd time games end up close. It’s the weirdest good problem to have that I’ve ever seen a team encounter. Even their “mercy” lineup is usually too good, with Lucas Nogueira hitting threes and throwing beautiful high-lows and Powell having some fun minutes.
In any case, you take the encouraging away from it. Detroit is mediocre but fighting for their life, and the Raptors punked them. The stars were terrific in low-usage roles, Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka combining for 59 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists while using just 45 possessions. The bench was great nearly to a man, Anunoby got involved on offense, and while Valanciunas did little on the offensive end, he was still a plus-14. The team once again dished 30-plus assists and hit a lot of threes at a good clip. There were very few causes for complaint, in performance or scheme.
“We really value ourselves as a good team and think of ourselves as one of the great teams in the NBA,” VanVleet said. “So any time you drop one like that, it feels bad around here and you just wanna come back in and get that taste and wash it away. I thought we handled it perfectly and came in with the right approach. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for improvement and things we still have to get better at, but we did a good job of coming in and tightening up and getting back to the way we play.”
A tidy one, this, and the Raptors might be well served resting a few players in the next meeting to help Detroit get the eighth seed. (I’m only half-joking.) Oh, and BRUNO played in Sacramento. It was a perfect day.