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Raptors find a way to limit Doncic as Boucher provides spark to beat Mavericks

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What to do about a player like Luka Doncic?

That was the Toronto Raptors’ problem as they settled in for a rare Saturday night home game and an even more unusual 5:00 p.m. ET start at Scotiabank Arena.

Figuring out how to defend or at least limit Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks star has become all too routine around the NBA, and just as routinely, teams have failed as Doncic is leading the NBA in scoring, ranks third in assists and has the ball in his hands more than any player in the league.

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“Listen, we have a menu of things that we can do, that we’ve done in any game. We call a timeout and say ‘we’re going to this’ and it’s in our playbook, defensively.

All those are always on the table,” said Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before the game. “We’ve got what we think is a really good game plan tonight for him and for them in totality and we’ll have to see how close that is and how long that lasts and how many adjustments we have to make.

“But we usually find ourselves going to that menu quite a bit during the game.”

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A little bit of this, a little bit of that. In the end, the Raptors succeeded in doing what few other teams have done against Dallas and Doncic this season: in holding him to 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting to go along with eight assists and seven rebounds, they made the 23-year-old seem like an ordinary superstar, rather than the transcendent Hall-of-Fame bound force he’s looked like against everyone else.

It was the right recipe as the Raptors were able to hold down his Mavericks teammates enough while getting some key performances of their own to head into an unseasonably warm Saturday evening with a 105-100 win that improved their record to 10-9 as Dallas fell to 9-9.

Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby led the Raptors with 26 points each, with Anunoby getting extra marks for his play-by-play defence on Doncic.

It was another exceptional game by Chris Boucher off the bench, contributing 22 points and 13 rebounds in 36 minutes off the bench, The lanky Montreal has proven to be one of the Raptors’ most consistent contributors by hitting the floor running once checking in throwing his frame into the paint for rebounds against bigger, stronger-seeming opponents and coming up with the ball over and over again.

It was also his fourth double-double off the bench in his past six games. His fading jumper while getting fouled as the shot clock expired nearly iced the game if he hit his free throw with 30.5 seconds left. But that was perhaps his only blemish.

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Prior to that, a pair of Anunoby drives into the teeth of the Mavericks defence had helped Toronto get over the hump. Free throws by Thad Young were the difference in the end as the Mavericks turned the ball over on their last possession when a three-point would have tied it.

Once again the Raptors’ edge on offensive rebounding – 17-4 on this night – was their primary box score differentiator.

Toronto was at least a little more healthy than they’ve been with at least VanVleet returning after being out with a non-Covid illness. Dalano Banton (illness) remained out, while also missing were Scottie Barnes (knee), Precious Achiuwa (ankle) and Pascal Siakam (groin).

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Defensively the Raptors showed the card early and often, doubling Doncic a few steps over centre on his first touch and never really veering from the tactic for most of the first half, at least. They even took a step further by leaving Anunoby beside the Mavericks star after he passed the ball on many possessions.

If the measure of success was how well they did keeping the NBA’s leading scorer (34 points per game) below his average, the early returns were good. Doncic finished the first half with 11 points, four assists and four rebounds, which included a long step-back three he hit just before the horn at the half.

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And big picture, it was mostly working. There were stretches when it looked like the rest of the Mavericks — who were often playing 4-on-3 when Doncic got off the ball, or at worst 4-on-4 when Anunoby stayed glued to Doncic whether he had the ball or not – would take advantage of all the extra room and punish Toronto for their lack of attention.

It certainly looked that was early in the game as the Mavericks zinged the ball around until it found someone for an open corner three. Spender Dinwiddie hit three of them before the game was five minutes old.

Meanwhile, the Raptors were struggling so badly on offence they only had two two-point field goals as a team. And every once in a while Doncic would get the ball back late in the shot clock and find a way to bully his 240-pound frame to paint to draw a foul or draw a foul and score.

Toronto needed a spark Boucher put his imprint on the game early. The floundering Raptors were trailing 22-7 midway through the first quarter as the trade-off of containing Doncic only to surrender open threes everywhere else seemed to be a poor calculation.

But then Boucher began his hustling assault. He scored on a putback, rebounding his own miss. Made a steal and went full court for a lay-up. Hit on a fadeaway jumper late in the clock and then scored on another putback.

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It was the tonic the lifeless Raptors needed as Toronto was able to pull themselves back into the game and trailed 29-24 at the end of the first quarter. It wasn’t glamourous work – the Raptors were only in the game because of their 10-2 advantage on the offensive glass, several of which came off their own misses – but it at least had them in touch with the Mavericks after a near-disastrous start.

The Raptors’ momentum continued in the second as the Raptors wisely took advantage of the minutes Doncic was on the bench. A triple by VanVleet punctuated what ended up being a 35-15 run since Toronto’s low point in the first quarter as the Raptors went up 42-37.

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In addition to Boucher’s contributions, the Raptors got some nice contributions from rookie Jeff Dowtin Jr., who came off the bench and chipped in with a nice pass to Boucher in traffic for a score, a driving lay-up and an offensive rebound that the 6-foot-1 guard pitched out to Juancho Hernangomez for a corner three. The Raptors’ lead was as large as seven before Doncic’s step back at the horn, but their 54-52 halftime advantage showed that Toronto’s gameplan had legs.

It has some variety too. In the second half, the Raptors went to more conventional coverage against Doncic and gained some advantage. The efforts of Anunoby allowed the Raptors to stay home on the ‘other’ Mavs. Doncic had three field goals in the third quarter for seven points, but no other Maverick had more than one.

Meanwhile, Anunoby kept forcing his way to the rim and VanVleet got to the line and the pair combined for 16 points in the third quarter to give Toronto an 81-73 lead to start the fourth.

The Raptors were able to hang on from there, while keeping Doncic largely in check. It’s not something many teams can say they’ve done this season but Toronto pulled it off and was rewarded where it matters most.

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