That was fun to watch. If you’re a fan of defensive basketball, then this was the game for you, and by “the” game I mean perhaps the only game you have experienced ever where the Raps played lockdown basketball for a full 48 minutes. AltRaps nailed it with the word: inspired. This team comes into Dallas shorthanded, without two everyday starters and a rotation player, then proceed to lose another two of their starters and still pull out the win. That’s some winning spirit. In the end, it was Barbosa, DeRozan, Julian Wright, Ed Davis, and Amir Johnson holding the fort to pull off the improbable victory. You could call them all members of the “New Colangelo” squad, signifying a recent shift to more athletic, defensive-minded players. The only problem is, that they were thrust into major roles not by choice, as this organization still puts a heavy premium on one-dimensional offensive players, but by necessity. Tonight, we realized that you can win not only by outscoring another team, but by giving up less points than the opponent. When it comes to the playoffs (let’s play make-believe!), this is how games are won more often than not.
For the second game in as many nights, the Raptors got off to a great start, playing strong defense. They forced Jason Kidd to commit uncharacteristic turnovers early on, but the real turning point in the quarter and arguably the game was when when Joey Dorsey checked out of the game with 2 quick fouls and 8:52 to go in the first quarter. In the ensuing 90 seconds, this is what Easy Ed accomplished: 6 point, 2 rebounds and a blocked shot. A few more rebounds, blocked shots and 3 steals later, Davis had already the makings of a career game by halftime. The Johnson/Davis frontcourt is just nasty. They may not be the biggest, tallest guys out there, but they are deceptively long and have excellent hops for their size. Having one guy like that is one thing, but when you have two patrolling the paint like that, it plants seeds of doubt in the opposing players mind. The Mavs turned into a jumpshooting team and ended up down 23-13 by the end of the quarter.
13 point quarter? When’s the last time we’ve seen that? Sure, Dirk Nowitzki was missing and that surely had something to do with it, but this team is 24 and 5 (now 6) and this is at home. They have Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Jason Terry. Shawn Marion can do some damage. It’s not exactly an offensive wasteland. It’s baffling. Is it possible that Andrea Bargnani is as much of a liability of defense as Tom Liston’s dirty little stats have painted him as? There was nothing easy at the rim, practically everything was contested and despite a lot of Dallas missed shots, the offensive rebounds were kept to a minimum.
The second quarter looked like a carbon copy of the Memphis game. Raptors squander lead quickly with a barrage of turnovers, leading to a 12-0 run to tie the game at 25. Pesky little Jose Juan Barea gave the Raptors trouble with his speed and deft passing, but Linas Kleiza wasn’t ready to take the shame of being fooled twice, having a solid quarter punctuated by a couple of line-drive three balls to restore the lead to 46-40 at the half. It was a good test of the intestinal fortitude to not completely wilt after the inevitable home-team run, and to enter the second half with the lead still intact definitely helped the mindset going into the third quarter.
Want to know what stopped that 12-0 run not turning into something horrific like 20-2? The crowd is amped up, game is now tied at 27 and Jerryd Bayless misses a short jumper, front rim, and Ed Davis swoops in for the offensive rebound and putback in one fluid motion. The next offensive possession, Barbosa get’s blocked and Ed Davis gets his hands on the ball and gets fouled. He hits a free throw and grabs his third offensive board in less then a minute, Kleiza ends up scoring. This is what they call an insurance policy, where you can afford to fail because your bigs are there to bail you out. It’s what Reggie Evans was giving us, but unfortunately not much of anything else. Ed gives you that something else. This was the first game where he showed Toronto what he could be some day.
The Raptors turned the Mavericks into a jumpshooting team, but the shots weren’t falling in the second half. A great start, featuring Joey Dorsey and DeMar DeRozan, pushed the lead to double digits. DeMar’s shot was on, and dare I say that the absence of Bargnani has benefitted him already. You give him more touches, he does tend to produce. It’s a more traditional setup too, where the bigs are setting screens and/or rolling to the rim and he’s got space to operate on the perimeter to spot up or just create something off the dribble. This team is learning to play without their main offensive weapon, and it showed signs that other players can step up to fill that void.
The game could have easily turned yet again for the Mavericks when Linas Kleiza got ejected midway through the third quarter just as Dallas had closed it to a 5-point deficit. Kleiza was having yet another solid game, but all it really did was unleash the force that is Julian Wright, who is quickly winning some Raptor hearts over with his fine defensive play and surprisingly good court vision. The team just plays better with him on the floor. Dallas only managed 17 points in the fourth quarter and he was a big reason why. He can break down offenses with his dribble, which is quite decent for his size, so it’s not like he can’t do anything on that end. Let’s hope he gets consistent minutes. Minutes that might have Sonny Weems’ name on them.
It was a one possession game until Leandro Barbosa, our point guard by default, took over with 6 consecutive points (he tends to do that a lot in second halves) and a nice assist to Ed Davis for an 8-0 run burst. With the defense playing the way it had, that was all she wrote for the Mavericks, as they continued taking and missing outside shots. It was really fun to watch this team, especially in the foruth quarter, just frustrate the hell out of the opposition with their length and quickness. All fairly new Colangelo recruits, and decent ones at that. What can you say about Amir Johnson. The dude is clearly in some pain, but just laid it all out there tonight. The stats don’t tell the story for him. You play him 40 minutes, especially when he’s healthy and not in foul trouble, you’ve just made your team that much better. That’s how much regard I have for the guy’s ability. Let’s just hope that New Colangelo is coming to the same realization that not only do you need these kind of players to complement your team, but they need to be part of the core, the identity of the team. And more inspired victories should follow.