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10 things: Shorthanded Raptors upset Luka Doncic’s Mavericks

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 105-100 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday:

One: Every win for the Toronto Raptors in its current state is impressive. Reinforcements are coming soon with Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Dalano Banton expected back next week, but for the time being they remain badly shorthanded. Outside of letdowns against OKC and Brooklyn, the Raptors have managed to be competitive with their ragtag crew, but the finish had sometimes been lacking, most notably in the collapse against Atlanta. This game was the opposite, where the Raptors overcame a slow start for a gritty wire-to-wire win over a Dallas Mavericks side led by MVP favorite Luka Doncic.

Two: The Raptors preserved the win with a perfectly executed defensive possession. Down three, the Mavericks predictably went to Doncic, who invited over a screen to attack and as they had done all game, the Raptors doubled Doncic to force someone else to beat them. Thad Young and O.G. Anunoby were hip-to-hip with their hands up, shutting off the pocket pass and the cheeky behind-the-back option so Doncic couldn’t feed Maxi Kleber at the three-point line. Instead, Kleber was made to catch it in the lane, and the Raptors were smart to stay at home on shooters instead of rushing over to cut off the rim run. Kleber tried to swing it back out but nobody was open, and when the ball flowed back into the post, Young had recovered back to his original assignment to pick off the pass and secure the win.

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Three: Outside of a few stops by Anunoby in isolation, Raptors coach Nick Nurse held firm to his usual strategy of showing double teams to Doncic. The Raptors’ main focus was forcing Doncic into long passes, trusting in their rotations to lock down the paint, then running off as many shooters as possible. It was ugly to start, as the Raptors were a mess in rotation and bled corner threes, but the Raptors clearly won the gamble. The Mavericks shot under 30 per cent from the three, while Doncic was held to just 15 field-goal attempts. Not surprisingly, Anunoby was much better in the role of guarding Doncic than Barnes, who typically gets the assignment – including allowing 35 points to the Slovenian earlier in the month – and it mostly comes down to being better at containing the drive.

Four: Aside from the issue of covering Doncic, the Raptors also had to invent some way to score in crunch time. The best solution they landed on was to feed Anunoby, either on a curl to the basket around an off-ball screen, or by finding him in the post. Fred VanVleet admitted after the game that he was exhausted — hardly a surprise when he is just recovering from illness — but Anunoby was also the one giving Dallas the most problems with his strength on the interior. Anunoby scored 12 of his 26 points in the fourth, including an Eurostep layup and a jump hook in the last two minutes, along with a corner three.

Five: Anunoby continues to show more advancement in his drives to the basket, despite receiving a consistently terrible whistle in the paint. Anunoby has shown better patience and footwork in the lane, including a tidy spin move that would have made Siakam proud. His five turnovers are regrettable, especially since three were travels, but at least those are dead-ball plays where there isn’t a transition chance. The next level for Anunoby would be finding the touch on the short pull-up jumper. Defenders are often having to be overly physical with him to equal his immense strength, so Anunoby sometimes spins away from the contact for clean separation on short jumpers, but he has yet to find the touch. Anunoby is 26-for-84 inside the arc, excluding restricted area attempts on the season, which is the biggest factor limiting his efficiency.

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Six: VanVleet was excellent in his return and played a vital role in the win. VanVleet’s pick-and-roll attack was the main focal point of the offence through three quarters, which helped establish an eight-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Nurse tried to buy him some rest, but the offence quickly dried up while the Mavericks went on a run, thus forcing VanVleet back into the match after just two minutes. VanVleet instantly revived the scoring, setting up Anunoby for three off a drive that pulled four defenders into the paint, found Chris Boucher for a lob, and set up a tic-tac-toe passing sequence that ended in Juancho Hernangomez cutting for a layup. Late in the game, VanVleet stepped aside to feature Anunoby as the primary scorer, but when one key play broke down in the last minute, VanVleet beat his man off the dribble and spun away from the double, before feeding Boucher for a floater to beat the shot clock.

Seven: Boucher’s energy was so vital that Nurse started him in the second half. In truth, Boucher has easily been one of Toronto’s five best players given their injuries, but he performs so well in his usual role that Nurse didn’t see the need to disrupt his rhythm. But in this game, the Raptors were horrendous to start and trailed 18-4 at the beginning, and it took Boucher exploding for 10 points and four offensive rebounds to bring them back to respectability. Boucher was also needed for his defence, as the Raptors needed as much length as possible to rotate over to the rim and out to the corners after trapping Doncic, which is Boucher’s specialty.

Eight: Even when Thad Young isn’t hitting his usual flip shots around the basket, he still finds ways to contribute. Young peaked in the third quarter, when he had a stretch where he forced five straight turnovers. He sacrificed his body against a charge and a moving screen, then picked off a pass and poked the ball free twice from his man, which forced a rushed kickout that led to a travel. Young was also often asked to trap above the arc against Doncic, which is how he finished the night with nine deflections to lead all players.

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Nine: Hernangomez continues to be quietly productive in an expanded role. He mostly looks to spot up for threes after his teammates collapse the lane, but he has also developed an astute sense of when to cut, especially when Young has the ball in the post. Twice in the fourth quarter, Hernangomez was able to flash to the basket right as his defender turned his head to watch the ball. Hernangomez was so productive that Nurse trusted him to close the game ahead of Gary Trent Jr.

Ten: Trent Jr. was better on defence, but still remains rusty on offence. He collected four steals, held off a bigger player for a defensive box out, and was decent in his defensive assignment. However, it’s clear that he still doesn’t fully have his legs on the jumper as all of them are short. Nurse’s decision to bench him for the fourth wasn’t out of punishment, it’s just that Hernangomez was playing better.

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