Raptors throw down the gauntlet, humble Thunder

A more complete 48 minutes have never been played by a Jay Triano coached team.

Raptors 95, Thunder 93 – Box

A more complete 48 minutes have never been played by a Jay Triano coached team. This was different than the win in Dallas because OKC did not underestimate the Raptors or come out with any complacency whatsoever. It was game-on from tip-off and the Raptors stayed toe-to-toe with the Thunder, answering every jab with a punch, and when it appeared that they were on the ropes and ready to go down, the Raptors delivered the haymakers with resounding effectiveness. The Thunder were downed in front of a raucous home crowd and the Raptors completed an unlikely series sweep.

A ear-to-ear smile appeared on my face when Reggie Evans drew an offensive foul on ex-C**tic Kendrick Perkins and then frustrated the giant pussy into a technical. Perkins was going at Amir Johnson in the first quarter by playing him very tight and physical, the Raptors power forward showed his annoyance by pushing Perkins and getting whistled for a technical of his own. Jay Triano made an excellent move of getting Evans in there who stood up for Johnson and equalized matters with Perkins rather quickly. Alex English had said before the game that the team was “ready to play” and they sure were.

The Thunder attack was countered with excellent man-to-man defense on their main weapon, Kevin Durant, by James Johnson who did not concede an inch and didn’t show any respect whatsoever to the superstar. His drives were sealed off without the need of extra help, his attack angles were taken away at the perimeter and he was kept outside the paint for the most part (shot chart). The trash-talking between the two had also started early after Durant challenged Johnson to take a corner three, and the former Bull drained it before giving Durant an earful. That kind of thing spurs every teammate on and it no doubt did a lot for the team’s confidence, which was already buoyed by the earlier victory in Toronto.

Jose Calderon had a masterful first quarter. The numbers aren’t great (1-7 FG, 3 points, 9 assists overall, 3 in the first) but what’s lost in the mix is that his composure in the face of OKC pressure in the first kept this a ball-game. OKC had jumped out to an 18-10 lead and were looking to put the hammer down, which is when Calderon guided the Raptors offense in transition and found Bargnani for a three, and then Evans for a two which quelled the pressure and brought the Raptors back. He had a calming influence early in the game, kept Westbrook under relative check and didn’t get exploited to the point where he becomes a liability.

Andrea Bargnani’s sputtering but crucial offense, Reggie Evans’ rebounding and finishing around the rim after setups, and overall great man and transition defense accounted for a 25-22 first quarter lead, a quarter where the Thunder were held to 42% shooting, a far cry from what the Raptors have been giving up lately. The Thunder were resurgent in the second with James Harden leading the way, he was getting the better of Sonny Weems and DeMar DeRozan in isolation situations and was having a defensive impact which spawned a few OKC breaks. Harden had his three going as well and finished with 13 points in the second quarter, making up for a struggling Kevin Durant (20 pts, 6-21 FG, 1-6 3FG, 5 reb). Harden’s assault didn’t soften the Raptors defensive resolve, even Sonny Weems had an inspired defensive moment where he rose high to block a sure Harden dunk.

DeMar DeRozan (16 pts, 8 reb, 7-14 FG) struggled early against Thabo Sefolosha but got stronger has the game went on, and had some key baskets in the fourth. In the first quarter though, he struggled immensely on defense and it wasn’t until midway through the second when he started making his defensive presence felt – a hard double on Durant, weak-side pressure on Perkins, that sort of thing. Andrea Bargnani’s help defense wasn’t challenged as one might have thought, mostly because James Johnson was doing a superb job on Durant, and Harden wasn’t attempting too many drives into the heart of the paint. Perkins is still coming back from his injury and the Thunder don’t have any credible offensive threats at PF/C so the pressure on Bargnani was minimized.

The Raptors were forcing the Thunder to use up the shot clock, they only conceded 9 offensive rebounds for the game, and were dilligent at getting back in transition and stopping the ball before it got past the FT line. The mixing of the zone with man was done well and I only recall the Thunder truly breaking it a couple times in the first quarter – the most memorable one an alley-oop to Durant. On the basis of their aggressive and intelligent defense, the Raptors held a very deserved 48-44 halftime lead.

Russel Westbrook is about an explosive as a point guard as there is around, I see a lot of Monta Ellis in his drives to the rim – acceleration, body control and fearlessness. The Thunder felt that since Durant was struggling they’d see what Westbrook would do with the ball in his hands a green-light to attack, and that’s exactly what the first two possessions of the third were about. As a Raptors fan, you feared for Jose Calderon and the Raptors because the ease of which Westbrook scored on those two drives did not foreshadow good things. The reason the Raptors won this game was because they always had a response to everything OKC threw at them, right after Wesbrook’s two drives, DeRozan and Bargnani went on a 10-0 run and gave the Raptors a 10 point lead.

The early part of the third is where the Raptors have often lost games, the other team usually realizes how bad they’re playing and takes it to another level. The Raptors usually come out of the third with the wrong mentality and fail to counter the increased aggression and focus of their opponents. Last night was not usual so none of that happened, the response was immediate and effective and made Scotty Brooks call a timeout that he wasn’t banking on using. Westbrook did finish with 10 points in the quarter, which is what OKC desired, except they didn’t get the run-outs and turnovers that they hoped. The Raptors won both the points-in-the-paint battle 44-38 and the fast-break point stat 15-10 – two key statistics when playing the Thunder.

Blessed with a 10 point lead entering the fourth, it now became a question of how well the Raptors would cope with the looming home-team run which was nothing short of a certainty. Would they have the required response? Yes, see below for the responses:

  • James Harden makes three FTs after a bad foul by Barbosa which cut the lead to 7, the crowd was back into it. Jerryd Bayless hits a three. Bayless showed great control of himself all game long, ran the sets well and brought the defense once again.
  • A 6-0 Thunder run cuts the lead to 4 and the arena is about to explode. Jose Calderon neatly finds Reggie Evans who finishes strong with the left-hand. Order restored.
  • Coming out of a timeout after the Thunder creep to within 4, DeRozan sticks a jumper. Calderon assist. Moments later, Bargnani drains a long three, after Calderon’s drive-and-kick. 8 point game again.
  • After the Thunder took a one-point lead, James Johnson embarrassed Kevin Durant on a blow-by dunk. Sound of silence. 3:11 left.
  • Tie-game at 93 with 41 second left, Triano runs a great play getting Barbosa open after Bargnani and Johnson set shattering screens for a wide open three. Tie game.

Russell Westbrook driving the ball on their last play didn’t fool anybody and the shot-contest was there from the wing and the bigs. When the Raptors got the ball Triano managed to run another great play. A high pick ‘n roll with Barbosa and Johnson, it forced Perkins to comeout and as Johnson rolled, the smaller Durant was stuck on him deep in the paint and Johnson did well to finish. Great roll, great decision to pass, great finish. Only a second remained for the Thunder to attempt a shot and Durant’s 18-footer was contested as usual. Game over. The Raptors overcame some key missed jumpers from Bargnani late in the game because they played the required defense which can raise your team out of any offensive funk. The effort was 100%, the game-plan was solid and the result a memorable one.

The Player of the Game for me had to be James Johnson, but Barbosa disagrees:

“We appreciate all the work Amir has done for this team. He was the man of the game for us.”

Barbosa on the final play:

“I called Amir to come up on the pick and roll. I had the option to take my man off the dribble, but when I saw Amir roll to the basket I thought that was the best play for us.”

Proud to be a Raptors fan on this night. And I’m happy for the two Raptors fans that were in the crowd, nothing like seeing the Raps on the road in a hostile environment and they deliver a great win.

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