There is a buzz at the ACC that hasn’t been there since the last time the Raptors made the playoffs.  There is a lot to be said for that considering the doldrums this franchise has been mired in for the last four years.  I had not heard a truly heartfelt Lets Go Raptors cry in years, and last night, it was ever-present as Lowry walked it up the court in a tie game late in the fourth quarter against the division’s best team.  This was playoff atmosphere as we know it.

The game was full of elements of the Rudy Gay era, both good and bad.   The disjointed isolation-heavy offense that’s become the earmark of late reappeared in full color in the first quarter, and the only thing preventing the Raptors from being down big early were Kyle Lowry and his four massive threes in the quarter.  Games are won in the fourth quarter, but you have to stay in it to win it and Lowry’s threes which came in a stretch where the Raptors were struggling to find any sort of continuity is what kept the Knicks from extending a lead.

Landry Fields got the start to face Carmelo Anthony and the defense that the Knick All-Star saw was varied once again.  In an unused dribble scenario the Raptors played him single coverage, on the first dribble they brought a wing over almost immediately, and in the post they threw different looks at him.  Fields did an admirable job using his length to disrupt Anthony and even Alan Anderson did some measure of good.  The Raptors also used a zone as early as the first quarter, so you can say there was a lot going on if you’re into defensive basketball, even if both teams shot over 55% in the first!

[Related: Quick Reaction: Raptors 100, Knicks 98]

DeMar DeRozan (6-13 FG, 18 pts, 6 ast) and Rudy Gay (11-24 FG, 32 pts, 6 reb, 4 ast) didn’t have great starts out of the gate for different reasons.  Shumpert and Kidd were taking a page out of Tony Allen’s book and playing their respective covers tight.  Whereas Rudy simply missed his elevated jumpers, DeRozan found it tough to lose Kidd off the bounce because of his slow handles.  The Raptors had nine turnovers at the half in the face of a Knick defense that used half-court traps and challenged Raptor guards to use the dribble.

The Knicks got their points off turnovers (13 off 9) and ‘Melo had 13 in the high-scoring first quarter to get the Knicks going; after that things settled down.   To me the first truly pre-planned and well executed Raptor possession happened in the second quarter when – and you don’t see this much – Gay caught the ball in the post, patiently dribbled, drew the double, and passed it out for an open jumper.  It was a rare case of inside-outside play from the Raptors.  The Raptors did cool down with 10 straight misses, which was countered by an equally inadept Knick stretch where turnovers were the norm.  In short, the benches for both teams failed to provide any sort of edge.  The Raptors had to feel lucky to be only down three since Gay only had 6 points and DeRozan was made to work awfully hard for his 8 (zero in the second quarter).

The sub-plots here were rebounding, which the Knicks held a consistent edge in (42-31), partly because of Johnson coming off the bench, Bargnani netting zero in 13 minutes, the Knick guards being very aggressive, and the Raptors using lineups with only one true big.  Jonas Valanciunas was, to a man, matching Chandler when he was in there (10 rebounds in 21 minutes), Lowry (15 pts, 7 ast) was much better defensively against Felton than in New York, and Anderson was having one of his 1-8 games.

Rudy Gay had 17 points in the third quarter which the Raptors won 31-19 to take a 9-point edge into the fourth.  If I had to ask what was different here, I’d say it was the Raptors being much more patient on offense and guiding Gay’s shot-selection rather than having him go at people from the top.  They worked Gay in the post, off the pick ‘n roll so that the Knicks were switching Shumpert off of him which had Gay matched up against the ilk of Kidd and Felton.  The results were much better as he was able to get cleaner looks near the rim and from mid-range, and once those started falling the jumper came trotting along.  I hate to simplify this to just that but it is what it is.  The offensive momentum, combined with the crowd getting into it, fueled the defense and the Raptors were balling.

As they held a 9-point lead late in the third, I was planning for the fourth quarter.  When Casey called a timeout with 55 seconds left in the third, I thought he was going to take Gay out to get a rest which would be extended because of the quarter break, thus allowing him to come in sooner in the fourth.  He didn’t do any of that which was surprising because he pulled Lowry at 2:21, presumably to do the same.

Of course, the 9-point lead was blown quickly to start the fourth, primarily by a lineup of Anderson, Bargnani, Fields, DeRozan, and Lucas.  Why neither of Lowry and Gay, our two most reliable offensive performers, didn’t start the critical quarter is a mystery.   When you see Anderson trying to go at Anthony and Chandler it should be a sign that things need to be changed.  Lucas, who had had a decent stint in the second, was having a nightmare stretch here.  To be fair to him, the guys he was playing with at the time weren’t exactly having solid games or posing a threat of any kind.    Lowry finally entered the game at the 6:09 mark, which is more than 8 minutes of basketball time plus a quarter break.  By that time, the Knicks had taken a two-point lead.  Oh, did I mention that Valanciunas didn’t play the entire fourth quarter?

By the time Gay returned, the Knicks had made an adjustment which saw them double Gay in any remotely vulnerable situation, forcing him to make a pass across dangerous wing passing lane.  Gay made some good reads, but also kept the Knicks guessing by turning against the double and taking it at the rim where he got fouled for two critical free throws to make it 91-89 Raptors with 3:53 left.  Anthony was doing much the same as the offenses ran entirely through the two main guys for the teams.  With the game tied at 95 with 45 seconds left, Lowry dribbled the ball up the court against zero Knick pressure with the crowd chanting loudly behind him.  There was no movement whatsoever and this was going to be another dreaded one-on-one move, and this time Lowry delivered by driving it at the heart of the Knick defense past Felton and laid it against Chandler.  Big time move – Raptors up 2 with 28 seconds left.  A defensive breakdown followed and Lowry did well to foul Chandler who had a clear dunk.  He missed  a critical free throw and from there on it was foul shots for Gay to ice it.

One key play which you might’ve missed helped decide the outcome of this game.  Late in the game, with 50 seconds left and the score tied, the Raptors defense conceded an Anthony on Lowry mismatch which the Knicks failed to take advantage of because Johnson showed right behind Anthony and recovered well to react to Chandler’s cut.  This prevented the pass from going into the post and the possession ended with Felton missing a three.  That’s two points saved.  Easily.

There needs to be a massive amount of credit given to the defense, which was stretched due to Casey playing a lineup which had Johnson at center and Gay at the four for a big chunk of the fourth quarter.  The perimeter defense was excellent, especially on Felton and J.R Smith, and Amir Johnson’s work was epic in meeting drives and cuts down the lane.  This will not show up in the stat-sheet for him, but it should be recognized.  The rebounding edge the Raptors are conceding is a result of the lineup Casey is choosing to put out (no true center in there).  It makes the defense more mobile and against New York you can get away with it, especially when they don’t play Stoudemire and Chandler together.  That was probably my biggest fear heading down the stretch, and I’m a little surprised Mike Woodson didn’t take full advantage of that.

I’d like to reiterate what Garret said in the Quick Reaction post regarding Andrea Bargnani getting booed:

Was unfairly booed by the home crowd, but his string of woeful performances continued tonight – he looked listless on defense and wasn’t even close on his two shot attempts (to be fair, one was extremely late in the shot clock). That all being said, I felt bad for him after the reaction he was getting from the fans – he’s an emotional guy and it clearly affected him. Fan etiquette rule number 1: If the guy’s on your team and he’s not doing something incredibly stupid, don’t boo him.

I realize he makes a ridiculous amount of money and people pay good money to attend games, but it’s not exactly cool to boo a guy who is clearly struggling but is at least trying to be a functioning member of the team.  Given the lineups that Casey is using, Bargnani’s being called in to provide instant production and I actually am a believer he can do that.  It’s a role that needs some adjustment time, some coaching, and a little bit of patience.  He’s here for the rest of the season at least and no matter what you think of him, I feel that we all should support him.  It obviously affects him negatively (forget the Caliper test) and we should recognize that booing doesn’t do anyone any good.  Boo the team/GM/coach after a listless performance to send a message regarding effort, but don’t single out an individual player. I’ve been a critic of the guy for very good reasons but the booing is idiotic.  And note that given the lack of financial inflexibility on the roster, Bargnani’s improvement and transition to a good bench player is the biggest step this team can make from now till the end of the season.  We talk about Ross and Valanciunas “panning out” as key players, but just as important – especially if he doesn’t have takers – is the team finding a meaningful role for Bargnani.

Here’s Lowry telling us what he thinks of the booing:

The gap is 4 1/2 with Milwaukee hosting Atlanta tonight.  Enjoy the excitement, it’s a rare feeling around these parts.

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