How do you challenge the NBA-best Houston Rockets?
You beat them at their own game. In a night that celebrated Toronto Raptors’ representative Drake and his OVO brand, the Raptors paced the night’s shooting efforts while quelling those of the Rockets.
The three ball is the Rockets’ most heralded offensive threat. More than Clint Capella’s thunderous jams, or Chris Paul and James Harden’s ankle-slashing crossovers, the Rockets are liable to pull up from just about anywhere behind the arc.
Coming into the evening, the Rockets shot a league-leading 42 3-point attempts per game, but the Raptors weren’t far behind – Toronto musters 32.8 a night, good for third best. While the Rockets were sure to prepare for a Toronto’s deep roster and defensive might, they found themselves on the wrong side of a 58-43 lead and the kicker? The went 1-for-9 from downtown.
It follows that if you shoot a lot you’re going to miss a lot. That’s just the nature of high volume heaves. But being held to just nine attempts in the first half and 27 for the game, most of which were desperation, close the gap chucks, had the Rockets off their rhythm while the Raptors shot with ease. Part of the first half lead was the result of 24 points from three, on 18 attempts; Toronto’s triples served an even greater purpose, saving them when their offense stagnated, and the turnovers mounted in the second half.
In addition to the 3-pointers pacing the Raptors’ offense, Toronto’s commitment to moving the rock kept the Rockets out of reach. Lowry and Van Vleet had six and five respectively, but plenty more faces shared the ball when necessary. Even though the Rockets climbed back and nearly pushed the game into overtime, the victory solidified a few key aspects of the Raptors’ success. For one, Serge Ibaka not being the Raptors’ third superstar is integral to their success. The 6’10” forward had a modest 11 points on 5-for-10 from the field, but each of his attempts kept the Rockets’ defense reeling.
Ibaka’s shot chart this season shows his continued preference for the long-ball, and his track record as an interior threat constantly leaves him available to score outside the paint. When he wasn’t fading away from Clint Capella for a wide open three, Ibaka secured a mismatch on Harden or Paul that gave him the leverage to shoot over their heads. Make no mistake, Ibaka has only dropped 20-plus points seven times this year, all but one of which came in 2017. Still, his 12.7 points per game has proved to been surefire enough to give the Raptors a three-and-D threat without attracting enough attention that requires opponents to hone in on him on defense. Shooting almost 50 percent from the floor with a third of his attempts from deep, Ibaka plays the role of a dark horse nicely, akin to a taller, inside-out version of Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs championship days.
Is “switchability” a word? If not, its Webster’s entry is sure to have the Raptors team portrait emblazoned next to it soon enough. The third best defensive team in the association, Toronto’s only impediment to pure, POSITIONLESS basketball is Jonas Valanciunas, and even he has reduced his defensive liability dramatically. Valanciunas entered the season with a conscious effort to reduce his body fat, returning him to his once spry form he boasted earlier in his career, according to a TSN preseason report.
But more importantly, the Raptors never backed down from subduing Harden, or anyone else for that matter. Second-year guard Fred VanVleet was willing and able to pickup Harden and Paul full court down the stretch, and some combination of Pascal Siakam, CJ Miles and Norman Powell are versatile enough to contest the rest of the Rockets.
While Harden still went for 40 – something he’s accomplished eight times before last night – the VanVleet pressure caught Harden and Paul off guard. Twice VanVleet ran the two into traps, forcing bad passes leading to turnovers and momentum shifts in Toronto’s favor.
Though the Raptors almost blew the lead, the composure coach Dwane Casey has instilled in this, 11-man deep squad is paramount to their playoff success. Shutting down Harden or LeBron James-caliber players isn’t the goal in Toronto – the focus is neutralizing the ancillary and momentum-shifting pieces that start hot streaks and erase leads.