Basketball fans in Toronto got treated to both a rare appearance by superstar Luka Doncic and a thrilling game on Saturday night.
Those on hand for the early tipoff saw only the fourth career appearance in town for perennial MVP candidate Luka Doncic and a down-to-the-wire thriller, ultimately pulled out by the Raptors 105-100.
Led by all-star worthy efforts by OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, plus great work off the bench from Chris Boucher, the Raptors prevailed. They also held the great Doncic under his usual production by making life difficult for him whenever he got the ball.
Sure, Doncic got his 24 points and nine assists, but his 15 shot attempts tied a season-low — set earlier this month in a one-point win over these same Raptors.
In a league full of stars, Doncic shines among the brightest. At just 23, he already has three All-NBA first team selections under his belt and entered Saturday leading in scoring at a career-best 34 points per game.
In eight games against the Raptors Doncic had averaged a LeBron James-like 27.6 points, 10 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game, including two triple-doubles.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had said before the game the team had a “menu of things” to throw at the Slovenian sensation and they definitely did just that.
Afterward, he praised his team for executing the game plan, but also Doncic for not forcing the issue.
“I think he was making the right plays. We sent a lot of double teams at him and you’re not going to shoot too many with two guys on you,” Nurse said.
“He did split a few and get away, he did go around a few and get away and still got some shots up but he made the right plays.”
The Raptors did a solid job on Doncic for most of the night, primarily through the work of defensive terror Anunoby.
Anunoby added 26 points, tied with VanVleet for the game-high, along with 9 rebounds. “He’ll sleep well tonight,” said the nurse of the energy Anunoby had to expend in his 43 tough minutes.
VanVleet added seven assists in his return after missing three of the previous five games.
Boucher had a season-best 22 points, plus 13 rebounds.
The Raptors moved a game above .500 and expect to get Pascal Siakam back soon and hopefully Scottie Barnes not long after that.
Toronto had to unveil its 10th different starting lineup in 19 games this season and the unfamiliarity showed early, with Dallas jumping ahead by as many as 15 points.
ANUNOBY’S TIME TO SHINE
Toronto’s ability to grab some wins with so much of the starting lineup unable to play so often this season comes down to many factors, but Anunoby’s play is right near the top of the list.
After averaging 13.6 points in seven October games with a more fully-stocked Raptors team, Anunoby had gone up to 21.7 a night in November before adding another 22 against the Mavericks. All the while playing his typical top shelf defense.
“I think he’s done a really good job in totality. I think it changes night to night (based) on who we’re playing or what kind of stuff they’re throwing at him,” Nurse said.
“I think overall he’s made a lot of progress and made some pretty good plays. It’s been a good experience I think (of being the top option).”
“I think it starts with understanding the workload first of all. It’s pretty taxing to be the guy who comes down for a little bit and has the ball over and over and over again, especially when you’re not used to it,” Nurse continued.
Once Siakam and Barnes are back, it will be interesting to see how the Raptors share the offensive load.
VanVleet is impressed.
“Being able to do it on both (ends of the floor) … He played 43 minutes. 26 points. What did Luka end up with? I mean he still finished with 24 and 8, which is a bad night for him, which is crazy. But you’ve got to love the performance and he’s been doing it on a nightly basis,” VanVleet said of Anunoby.
“And that’s what we love to see. We’re going to need that from OG going forward.”
Anunoby said it isn’t easy to play so much (including the entire second half because Doncic did it as well), but credited mental toughness.
“I think he’s gonna sleep well tonight,” said Nurse.
POWELL COMES HOME
The game was not short on Canadian big men. The Raptors got strong efforts from their two Montrealers Boucher and Khem Birch, while Dallas started Toronto’s own Dwight Powell in the middle.
Powell spent a year at North York’s Earl Haig Secondary School before finishing his schooling in Florida. He’s now in his ninth NBA season and is a staple on Nurse’s Canadian national team.
“First of all, he’s a great person. High character, hard-working, no nonsense type of guy, He plays really hard,” said Nurse.
“He plays to win, he cares about his teammates and he kinda keeps getting better. He gets on the glass, his free throw shooting’s improved a little bit, at least to me. And just he’s a great team player, he plays a role and he tries to do what he can to help the team win.”
Powell battled his way back from a torn Achilles to play 58 games in 2020-21 and then all 82 last season, including 71 starts.