The Raptors gave us another Raptors-y game last night: great three quarters, terrible fourth.
These games sure are tantalizing, aren’t they? For the third straight game, the Toronto Raptors hung with an opponent with a much better record, giving us some highly entertaining basketball on both sides of the floor. But, once again, they couldn’t hang on to a lead in the fourth quarter. This time, it was the Utah Jazz who put the Raptors away down the stretch.
That’s one of the things that separates good teams from the pack, of course: the ability to put opponents away late when the game comes down to the wire. It’s just been a tough thing to watch this year — since we’re used to the Raptors being on the other side of such outcomes!
1. Freddy Back
It was a relief to see Fred VanVleet play well last night, at least through the first three quarters or so. He seemed to run out of steam late, which holds with what we know about guys playing post-COVID; he was 2-for-8 in the fourth, with his only three an off-balance banker with the clock winding down.
Without Kyle Lowry and Gary Trent, VanVleet and Malachi Flynn had to carry a big load last night, and it caught up to them late.
In the first half, though? VanVleet’s shot looked smoother that it has in a weeks; he was 7-for-11 for 21 points. And Flynn, well, let’s give him his own thought:
2. GO for it, Young Fella
I really enjoyed seeing Malachi Flynn attempt to challenge Rudy Gobert early in last night’s game. After a screen and roll with Khem Birch, Gobert switched on to Flynn as Flynn came through the lane. Wisely, Flynn backed out to the opposite three point line, and when Gobert came with him, Flynn tried to take the big man off the dribble.
It didn’t work — Gobert stuck with him and Flynn had to dump the ball off to VanVleet, who scored as the shot clock wound down. But I love that Flynn gave it a shot! The way his confidence has grown is amazing. Flynn had eight points and five dimes (against one turnover) through three quarters; like Fred, though, he couldn’t find the range in the fourth, shooting just 1-for-4.
3. Make the Seal
The above was part of a great start for Flynn, which included a coast-to-coast layup after corralling a Bojan Bogdanovic miss.
The best part of the layup, though, was Khem Birch sealing Royce O’Neal under the hoop, freeing Malachi up to get to the rim.
Way, way back when, before the season, I wrote about Aron Baynes’ fit with the Raptors. I thought one of the things he’d being to the team was sealing open driving lanes for guys like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. That didn’t work out — the Raptors’ spacing with Baynes was generally atrocious. Birch’s fit — just in terms of knowing where to be on the floor — is so much better.
4. Do it All, Khem
Speaking of our guy Khem — and yeah, I’m talking about Khem again! I know it seems like 40% of the thoughts every game these days are about Khem Birch, but have you seen the way this guys is playing? He’s doing everything out there!
I mentioned the seal. He’s hitting threes. He’s hitting the glass. Last night early in the second quarter he ran the floor and got a handoff from DeAndre Bembry for a two-handed jam; cut to the lane and hit a baby hook off a Yuta Watanabe dish; then pulled down a rebound, led the break and returned the favour, dishing to Watanabe for a dunk.
Birch finished with a career high six assists. How the heck did the Magic let this guy go for nothing?
5. Use the Caboose
There’s not much I enjoy in an NBA season more than seeing OG Anunoby body Rudy Gobert.
In the second quarter, OG got the ball under the hoop, and rather than go straight up and let Gobert stuff him, OG took one dribble and stuck out his rear end, forcing Gobert back a step — and giving himself the space to lay the ball in without getting swatted.
OG has used his ample strength to clear out space plenty this season — often with the end result of an offensive foul. So it was pretty cool to see him use his butt instead of his shoulder, with a much more positive result.
Meanwhile, in the fourth, OG simply grabbed a loose ball away from Gobert as Gobert flailed to the door.
You might also remember OG and Gobert getting into it in Utah last year, right before the shutdown. I don’t know why, but the… dismissive-ness with which OG seems to regard Gobert always reminds me of this:
Hooray, we get to do it all again tonight! The late start, the high-quality opponent! Let’s hope we get an equally entertaining three quarters… and, hey, maybe a fourth quarter too?