Raptors crush tanking Pistons, NBA play-in race heats up

It was a time to simply take care of business.

No muss. No fuss. Nothing overly dramatic. Get ahead and stay ahead, beat a weak opponent soundly and escape with bodies intact and minds not unnecessarily taxed.

And the Raptors actually played to the desired script.

A wire-to-wire pasting of the shell of the Detroit Pistons — 118-97 at Scotiabank Arena on Friday night — was a rare chance to exhale for the Raptors as they chase a spot in the NBA post-season play-in tournament.

Pascal Siakam had 32 points, Fred VanVleet 18 and O.G. Anunoby 17 as Toronto won easily in the lead-in to two hugely important games to come.

The biggest bonus is that the Raptors never let the Pistons get any life, and no Toronto starter played more than Siakam’s 38 minutes.

“It seemed like there was a start to the second where they did a good job of attacking the rim and … went to the free-throw line the first three or four possessions in the second half … but then we had a nice spurt,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.

The Raptors face the Washington Wizards (a team chasing them in the play-in race) on Sunday, and the Miami Heat (a couple of spots ahead of them in the standings) on Tuesday. Those are likely to be exponentially more difficult than this one, making Friday’s uneventful win of great importance.

The Pistons played their role perfectly, too. They were without about two-thirds of the roster because of rest or injuries, quite content to play out the season with little fanfare.

“With all our veteran guys out, it showed,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said of a lineup missing Cory Joseph, Bojan Bogdanovic, Isaiah Stewart, Alec Burks and Rodney McGruder among others.

It has been an intentionally difficult season for the Pistons, who lost prized sophomore Cade Cunningham in the first month before embarking on a season-long rebuilding process.

They have the league’s worst record because of the conscious decision to develop rather than go to any lengths to win. It’s a long play but one they felt was necessary, and Casey went along with it even though it ran counter to his competitive nature.

“We won my last few years here, we won in Dallas, won in Seattle, so the losses never get easy,” he said before the game, “But the process gets easier. You’re watching guys grow, giving them minutes, seeing incremental growth in different areas: defence, decisions, shooting.

“You see that, but they don’t always get rewarded with wins. As an organization, our ownership, we’re all on the same page, which makes it much easier. The expectation is development.”

Maybe it’ll come — the Pistons have some interesting unproven youngsters and a shot at prized draft pick Victor Wembanyama — but this has been a slog of a season for players, coaches and fans.

“I stole this from (ex-Leafs coach) Mike Babcock a long time ago: It gets ugly. Development is ugly sometimes,” Casey said. “But … there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

The Raptors face an entirely different set of circumstances as the regular season winds down, and after dropping an important game to Indiana on Wednesday they needed to rebound with a solid outing. They got it from start to finish, opening with an energetic 36-point first quarter, building a 20-point halftime lead and pretty much coasting home in the second half.

Toronto was playing without Scottie Barnes (wrist), Gary Trent Jr. (elbow) and Precious Achiuwa (hamstring) for the second straight game, and once again inserted Will Barton into the starting lineup.

Barton was better Friday than Wednesday, in part because the Pistons were far less challenging than the Pacers were, and Nurse said he wasn’t married to that starting lineup if the three injured players have to miss another game or two.

“It’s a decision just to try to get (Barton) out there with those guys and get him acclimated, or not,” Nurse said before the game. “I think we go with it again and see what happens and get ready with the other guys.”

Those “other guys” are guards Jeff Dowtin Jr. and Malachi Flynn, each of whom played first-half minutes with other starters.

Dowtin is the most intriguing of that trio. His two-way contract has to be converted to a full NBA deal before the regular season ends or he’ll be lost to the team before the post-season.

“He’s a really good defender, first and foremost,” Nurse said of Dowtin. “He’s really done a solid job, and even tonight, I switched the rotation because they were running (Jaden) Ivey the whole quarter in the third and he went out there to guard him. That’s the biggest thing.”

The Raptors would have to waive another player to create a roster spot for him, but it’s unlikely Joe Wieskamp figures into any short- or long-term picture and that’s an obvious spot for Dowtin to fill.


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