Remember the Toronto Raptors squad that was making a habit earlier this month of building big leads and then giving their starters the fourth quarter off while their young players closed out some comfy victories? That Raptors squad was back Monday night.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan led Toronto with 20 points apiece, and the Raptors bench outscored the Pistons' reserves 54-32 as they clobbered Detroit 123-94, a team battling for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
It was a bounce-back effort for a Raptors team coming off a frustrating overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, just the fifth loss they had suffered at Air Canada Centre this season. Fresh off the all-star break that night, the Raps had angered their coach by failing to meet Milwaukee's physicality.
They wouldn't be outhustled for a second game in a row.
"We really value ourselves as a good team and think of ourselves as one of the great teams in the NBA, 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," said Raptors reserve point guard Fred Van Vleet. "We did a good job of coming in and tightening up and getting back to the way we play."
It was Toronto's first chance to face the new-look Pistons, a squad that acquired a trio of players in late January, most notably five-time all-star Blake Griffin. The Pistons were on the tail-end of a back-to-back and had lost five of their last six, including a thumping one night earlier in Charlotte. Suspecting they'd be road-wearing, Toronto came out with a fast pace.
Sitting within striking distance of the Miami Heat for the eighth playoff spot in the East, the Pistons are among a few teams Toronto could face in the first round of the playoffs should they hold on to the No.1 seed.
DeRozan rolled for 11 first-quarter points as the Raps got out to a 30-26 lead behind 55 percent shooting. But Detroit big man Andre Drummond – the NBA's leading rebounder -- was making noise on the boards, grabbing nine rebounds in that opening quarter alone. Drummond typically brings out the best in Toronto centre Jonas Valanciunas when the two teams meet, but the Piston was having the much better night this time.
Toronto's bench – now eighth in the NBA in points per game (40.7) – built the lead up to 12 points while the starters took a breather. The Raptors continued to tinker with some rotation tweaks again in this game. They brought C.J Miles into the game earlier than usual, and inserted little-used Norman Powell for the final three minutes of the second quarter instead of bringing OG Anunoby back in with the rest of the starters.
Toronto's starters relinquished a chunk of that cushion when they returned, as Reggie Bullock got hot for the Pistons. Griffin, guarded mainly by Serge Ibaka, was held to just six points on 2-of-8 shooting by halftime, and the Raps led 59-53.
Inside the third quarter, the Raptors starters went on a 19-4 run. It included a scoring burst from Anunoby who was back in with the starting crew, and rebounding from some sluggish outings of late. In a big quarter, Toronto outscored Detroit 34-22, beginning to put the game away.
The tone was far more lively than last Friday's white-knuckled affair with the Bucks. Canadian golfer Mike Weir was in the house, clubbing Raptors-themed soft golf balls into the stands, and Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey was in the crowd too – both wildly greeted by Raptors fans on a night with good vibes.
A per three games earlier this month when the Raps built a cushy lead, Toronto's starters got to put their feet up in the fourth quarter and watch the young kids comfortably close things out. They enjoyed sights such as a Griffin shoving young Raps big man Jakob Poeltl in frustration, and the young Austrian Raptor then dunking over Drummond.
Ibaka finished with 19 points and nine boards, while Pascal Siakam led Toronto's reserves with 11 points.
"I'm really impressed with Pascal, and I think he's doing a heck of a job," said Toronto Coach Dwane Casey. "His energy is an NBA skill. He sets the tone for that second unit, the speed they play with. He'll embarrass you if you don't play to his speed and tempo."
Drummond led Detroit with 18 points and 18 rebounds. Griffin was held to 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
The Raps improve to 42-17, holding first in the East. They now go on the road for games in Orlando and Washington before returning home to face the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.
The Canadian Press