It might have been just the wake-up call that the Toronto Raptors (24-15) needed when the four-win Philadelphia 76ers launched out of the gates with a 12-0 run to start their Saturday night showdown. Mercifully, the Raps got their act together in time to emerge with what turned out to be a relatively comfortable 106-95 win in their final game before heading overseas to face the Orlando Magic in London on Thursday.
At the end of the day, Toronto shot a coolly efficient 54.7% (41-75) from the floor against a porous Sixers’ defense. Philly native Kyle Lowry set the tone for the Raps with 25 points on 10-17 shooting, six rebounds, five assists and a game-best +20. That being said, he wasn’t quite as good as his point guard counterpart Ish Smith, who set a career-high with 28 points on 12-22 shooting, Lowry, however, had more help, with four teammates reaching double digits in points, including Jonas Valanciunas scoring 19 points on 7-10 shooting and Terrence Ross rebounding from a lower back injury with 16 points of his own.
The Raps now get four full days off before meeting the Orlando Magic at London’s O2 Arena, but resting may remain a challenge with a five-hour time difference to adjust to and several promotional stops along the way. Still, they head to the UK in pretty good shape, currently sitting third in the East despite a litany of injuries and playing five – soon to be six – more games on the road than at home.
Somewhere between Friday and Saturday night, Ross went from questionable to critical, shaking off a lower back injury that would have left the Raptors woefully thin at the small forward position to provide 23 quality minutes that produced 16 points on 6-10 shooting. I’m not so naive as to hope that Ross can suddenly bottle this one game and carry it over in the absence of DeMarre Carroll, but every bit of help on the wing will surely help.
When the efficient shooting wasn’t doing the trick on Saturday, an effective free throw presence (21-27) and some strong defense did. After the game, head coach Brett Brown recalled the words of his new associate head coach Mike D’Antoni, who likened trying to solve the Raps to coping with a short blanket: “You pull it up and your feet are cold, and you pull it down and your chest is cold. We were always trying to put out fires.”
The easy narrative in the early goings on Saturday night would be to explain that Toronto started slowly coming off of Friday’s win in Washington and took some time to find their rhythm. But that glosses over the hot start of their opponent, a club coming off of a 28-point loss that remains firmly entrenched in a culture of losing. If the Sixers can still come out playing hard enough to make their first four shots from the floor while blocking the first two of their opponent’s attempts, surely the Raps can overcome a bit of fatigue. Eventually they did, but not without a little bit of embarrassment first.
The Raps have now won 17 straight games when holding their opponent below 100 points scored.
The Raptors’ D-League outfit wrapped up their showcase visit to Santa Cruz with a 125-119 loss to the Rio Grande Vipers, leaving them winless at Kaiser Permamente Arena but not without some individual standout efforts. Against the Vipers, Ronald Roberts, Axel Toupane and Melvin Johnson went off for a combined 80 points on 32-48 (67%) shooting. The only thing that could stop them was a 74-point second half by Rio Grande, anchored by KJ McDaniels, who finished with 28 points on 10-13 shooting.
This ingenious parallel linking Sam Hinkie’s scorched earth long-term rebuilding plan to Michael Burry’s bold investment strategy as depicted in “The Big Short” gets at the crux of the schism inherent in the Sixers’ front office right now. Jerry Colangelo and Hinkie have vastly different visions for the club and the recent additions of Smith (by trade), Elton Brand (signed out of retirement) and D’Antoni (sort of ditto) point to Colangelo calling the shots. While Hinkie’s tank-til-eternity strategy had to eventually offer some dividends for people to buy in, that doesn’t necessarily make Colangelo’s approach the right one. Neither a couple of months of Smith for two second rounders nor waiving Christian Wood to sign Brand seem like particularly savvy moves that solve any problem beyond making Philly older.
Amidst much fanfare and an itinerary that is believed to be pretty full, the Raps’ jaunt to Britain includes one key mission: take care of the 20-18 Magic on Thursday (3:00pm, SN).
Prediction: Raps 105, Magic 101 (record this season: 21-17)