Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 122-111 win over the Houston Rockets.
One — Easy: The Rockets have lost 10 straight games and aren't even doing the bare minimum. The Raptors started playing with their food after stretching their lead to 23 points, and the Rockets cut it down to six with over four minutes left. But all it took was one hard push by the Raptors starters to clinch the win, with Fred VanVleet knocking down a corner three, Kyle Lowry driving inside for a layup, Deandre' Bembry catching the defense napping with a cut along the baseline, and finally OG Anunoby sealing the win with an uncontested dunk that raised the lead back to 13. The scoreline isn't that lopsided, but this was one of the Raptors' easiest wins of the year.
Two — Chaotic: The Raptors had to scramble just to fill the coaching staff with Nick Nurse and five other staffers sidelined due to health and safety protocols. Fortunately, assistant coach Sergio Scariolo had just finished his quarantine after coaching the Spanish national team in Poland, and the suave Italian gaffer was more than up to the task. Scariolo was flanked by development coaches Jim Sann, Mark Tyndale, Jamaal Magloire, and a handful of video staffers that typically stay behind the scenes. Delays in timing kept the Raptors from going through their usual morning walkthrough, and preparations had to be limited to just a pre-game film session, but you couldn't tell by the result. Scariolo smartly matched the Rockets in playing small, adjusted his lineup when his starters fell into foul trouble, and his players went out to deliver his first NBA win.
Three — Everywhere: All the Raptors needed was a strong professional effort to collect the win, and they got it from Kyle Lowry. He was the steadying force throughout, chasing down important rebounds, knocking down threes, creating in the paint, and closing the deal in the fourth quarter. With it being an off night for Fred VanVleet, the onus fell on Lowry to prop up the second unit and he was brilliant. He found Aron Baynes for two layups, set up VanVleet and Norman Powell for open threes, and found Bembry on cuts for some of the 10 dimes in his 16th triple double. But his best assist went to his coach, as Lowry tracked down the game ball to commemorate Scariolo's first NBA win. Scariolo said those little acts by Lowry makes the team feel like "family," which is a very fitting description. Lowry really does feel like the dad of the group, even when he's taking care of coaches who are twice his age.
Four — Money: Powell was always going to thrive in an open game. The Rockets had no rim protection, so Powell was able to drive inside with ease, while also stepping into a half-dozen open threes. Powell also showed his craft, using his pump fake to great effect, getting himself to the foul line and creating space to operate. The Rockets' two best defenders are PJ Tucker and Jae'Sean Tate who both took shifts covering Powell, but he shook them off with ease. Powell finished with 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting and it somehow felt easy.
Five — Stubborn: VanVleet's job as one of the two main leaders is to stay aggressive and create for the team, but this was a bit extreme. VanVleet had his mind made up on too many drives, and that led to him getting blocked four times as part of his 6-of-23 shooting performance. VanVleet wasn't happy with the whistle even though he got to the line eight times, and a lot of the looks were just instances of VanVleet trying to force the issue against big athletic guards. The game was much easier for VanVleet when he attacked from the perimeter, whether it was off screens from his bigs, or off passes from Lowry. He made five threes to make up for his 1-for-12 performance from inside the arc.
Six — Confusing: Part of why VanVleet struggled is that the Rockets were switching on every play. VanVleet usually relies on screens to create space for him to attack, but that doesn't really exist when defenses are switching to negate any advantages. The Raptors got off to an awkward start offensively because of the switching, although with the Rockets being so apathetic in their execution, the Raptors solved it quickly. Still, that is an area in which the Raptors are vulnerable, because this is not a team that excels in isolation to exploit mismatches. Their guards are a bit too small to get a great look at the rim, Pascal Siakam is hit or miss, and there isn't a dominant big down low who can punish smaller players by creating second chances.
Seven — Clever: Bembry continues to produce, regardless if he's starting or coming off the bench. Bembry is the definition of a heady player who gets himself involved even though his number is never actually called. He camped out along the baseline, timing his movement to meet Lowry and VanVleet's drives, and setting himself up as an easy target on the dump-off pass. This is a vital skill for non-shooters, who can sometimes be a liability for the offense if their defender can provide extra help in the paint, and it takes a fair bit of intuition to beat the defense.ju
Eight — Comfortable: Baynes has found a home with the second unit, and he's even starting to give the Raptors some scoring in addition to his physicality on defense. Baynes' screening is vital in getting his guards open, especially when they are operating off the ball, and that is often the only way the second unit can generate offense. Baynes is also consistently open, and while he almost never sees a pass, an open shot for anybody is still good offense. Lowry found Baynes for two passes over the top for layups, and Baynes knocked down a baseline jumper and a three from the top. The Raptors aren't relying on Baynes for anything other than his defense, so it's a nice bonus when he can reach double-digits.
Nine — Silly: Career journeyman guard David Nwaba tried to mix it up with Lowry in the fourth quarter, and it just reeked of desperation. To his credit, Nwaba was able to bait Lowry into a double foul, and then invaded his pace and got Lowry caught on the push-off which sent Lowry to the bench with five fouls. If only the skills matched the antics, though, as Nwaba was left open all night yet he missed both his attempts from three. And when Lowry checked back in, he swiftly closed out the Rockets while Nwaba watched from the bench.
Ten — Sad: The Rockets have too much talent to be this bad. Sure, their season was derailed to start with James Harden demanding a trade, and further hampered by key free agent signing Christian Wood missing time with injury, but John Wall and Victor Oladipo should still get you to close to average, especially with a crew of capable role players. They just seem to lack leadership. The Rockets argued on the floor in the first quarter, jacked up bad threes that fuelled the Raptors' runs, and didn't really show any fight at the end. The whole team screams temporary — Oladipo is a free agent, Tucker wants out, Gordon is seeing out the rest of his generous contract, and Wall was blindsided after being uprooted from Washington. Nobody really wants to be there, and it shows.
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