My, what a difference a night can make.
For most of this game, Arse’s opening paragraph from the Miami (and Philly) recap seemed to hold true – in typical fashion, the Raptors built up a sizeable lead, only to lose it late in the fourth due to some questionable shot selection, substitution patterns, and refereeing (not nearly as egregious as it’s been in the past – though a pretty blatant Glen Davis travel late wasn’t called). Lather, rinse, repeat, and you have yourself a Raptors game.
Tonight, though, the basketball gods decided it was time to reward our fan base for the seemingly endless heartache we’ve had to endure this season, in the form of a DeMar DeRozan buzzer-beater that seems more unlikely every time you watch it. The play itself had all the hallmarks of a classically mis-managed final Raptors possession: broken play? Check. DeMar shooting a low-percentage fadeaway jumper (and by the way, how hilarious was it when Matt Devlin called him “the best mid-range shooting guard in the league” early in the game)? Check. Double covered? Double check. Everything about this play made it seem like the Raptors were headed for yet another overtime, and, likely, another excruciating loss.
But this time, something was different: for once this season, the shot went in. We’ll talk more about DeMar’s game in a bit (click here for the Quick Reaction and player grades), but suffice it to say that in the fourth quarter of last night’s game he took a major step towards both ending his slump and becoming the team’s alpha dog. He might not be ideal, but he’s the best option we’ve got, and it was refreshing to see the team deferring to the guy who’s supposed to be their offensive leader late in the game for once. Criticize his shot selection all you want, but the guy generally cares about this team and making himself the best player he can be, and I was happy to see him hit the game-winner.
The first half of this game was dominated by a few storylines: the Raptors’ inability to defend the pick and roll, the Magic’s hot 3 point shooting, and Amir Johnson. With most of the Raptors struggling on the offensive end, Amir found himself cast as the team’s focal point on that end, and he responded with an impressively varied game that’s quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception. His ability to hit that patented 16 footer was key, as both Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic, as well as Gustavo Ayon, were making life rough for the Raps in the lane. It seemed the defensive game plan early for the Magic was to stay home and force the Raptors to shoot, and it worked reasonably effectively, with the Raptors shooting just well enough (47% at the half) to stay up a point at the break.
On defence, the inability of the Raptor wings to effectively switch marks on the pick-and-roll reared its ugly head once again, as both Vucevic and Big Baby found themselves open for mid-range jumpers time and time again. I’m hesitant to put too much blame on the Raptor bigs, who rightly switched off their mark onto the speedy Jameer Nelson, but the least the wing players can do in return for the numerous times they’re bailed out by Ed and Amir is contest elbow jumpers, even if they’re undersized. Look at Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic’s shot chart for the first quarter:
That’s 5 for 7 from outside the restricted zone, and 1 for 3 from inside (and the make was from a tip-in off a missed jump shot) – a good graphical indicator that the Raptors’ defensive issues with the Magic bigs weren’t in one-on-one situations, but when they found themselves open off the pick and roll. I don’t know exactly what the solution for this is, save for a renewed commitment to team defence (and to be fair, the wings were likely exhausted tonight after playing against one of the league’s best wing rotations last night), but that, as well as the Magic’s 3 point shooting (some of which were also results of poor switches) were what kept Orlando in the game early.
The Raptors blew the game open somewhat in the third quarter thanks to some strong shooting from Jose, Amir, and even Landry Fields (since he hasn’t hit a 3 this year, that has to have been the longest jumper he’s hit this season, right?), as well as a bit more pep in their step on defence. In his post-halftime interview, Casey preached effort and said he was hoping his charges would get out and run, and this strategy seemed to manifest itself most on defence as our guards constantly hawked for turnovers – leaving the Magic open from the 3 point line, but also keeping the ball out of the lane (due to the open looks from outside). When the ball did get into the lane, it was sent back more than once by Amir, who did what a seven footer should do when challenged by a backup point guard. Amir finished with 3 blocks tonight, though he altered far more shots than that in the 3rd quarter when the Raps were basically daring the Magic to either shoot or take their chances with him at the hoop. The Raptors ended the quarter up 9 and seemingly in control in what was mostly a dull game to that point – though, as Raptor fans, we know that the way these games typically end is anything but dull.
The fourth quarter began Casey choosing to run his offense through Kyle Lowry and Ed Davis, the two Raptor regulars arguably having the worst offensive games to that point, and, predictably, the first play of the quarter had Lowry throwing an uncatchable pass to Davis in the post that resulted in a turnover. It certainly wasn’t Lowry’s night tonight – he looked tired on defence and out of sorts on offense, playing far more passively than he should be against a Magic lineup whose only big on the floor that point was Glen Davis (tangent: why the heck wasn’t Nikola Vucevic – only the Magic’s most effective player – not on the floor in the fourth quarter?). I’m a staunch of a Lowry defender as anyone, and I think his value to this team hasn’t come close to being realized yet, but his play tonight (and last night) is going to make it harder for the Raptors to win many games when the bench doesn’t have a consistent scoring option (and no, I’m not counting Anderson, who gets his on the back of taking an inordinate amount of shot attempts). If the role you’ve been given is bench sparkplug, then you’d best spark the team, and it seemed like tonight Kyle was disinterested in doing that (though he did seem very upset at himself on the bench – far be it from me to question his heart).
The Magic’s comeback was largely a product of a stagnant Raptor offense brought on by the ineffective Lowry and Anderson chucking up a couple of ill-advised three point attempts which led to Orlando fast-breaks, and, before you know it, J.J. Redick was knocking down a four point play and the game was tied. It was only with 5 minutes left in the game and the Magic completely back that Casey replaced Lowry and Davis with Calderon and Amir – yet another case of Dwane making the right move, at the wrong time.
Luckily, for the Raptors, the script was a bit different tonight than it’s been over the past few months, and that can be attributed to one DeMar DeRozan, who’s clearly been reading all the helpful suggestions the RR writing staff has given him over the past month. DeMar had 14 points in the quarter and 22 for the game on 10 of 17 shooting (not to mention a career-high-tying 7 assists), and finally showcased the variation in his game that can make him such an effective offensive player, hitting jumpers when open and throwing down a thunderous dunk in traffic after some early hesitation in the lane. For reference, here’s an “ideal” DD shot chart from a game in November that Blake referenced in his column earlier this week:
And here’s his shot chart from last night:
This all led up to the aforementioned DeMar shot, which, in addition to giving the Raptors the game, gave their fans a sense of relief in knowing that yes, this team can pull out a close one every once in a while, even given all our flaws. Sure, it might only be one of 10, 12, hell, even 15 of these games this season, but it’s a start.