With Canada and the USA gutting it out in a WBC classic on the other Sportsnet, it was tough for me to change the channel over for beginning of the Raps/Cavs game’s 6PM EST start. When it comes down to watching your country in a do-or-die game against their biggest international sports rival, or watching two sub-500 NBA teams duke it out in a late season game, well… you probably have an idea of which one I’d most often choose.
That said, my interest was piqued when I heard the Raps would be starting not one, but two of their rookies after Rudy Gay joined Andrea Bargnani on the bench with an injury prior to tip-off, and I’m certainly glad it was, as what followed was one of the more memorable “meaningless” Raptors games in recent memory, featuring the aforementioned rookie starters, a major first-half deficit, a dramatic second half comeback, a major injury on the other side, and a balls-of-steel Kyle Lowry shot that would have gotten him eviscerated in this column had he missed.
But we’ll get to all of that. Click here for player grades, and then let’s talk about the rooks.
It was absolutely refreshing to see Casey respond to the criticism regarding his minutes-distribution by giving Terrence Ross a start in place of Landry Fields. Sure, Fields is slightly more accomplished as an NBA player at this point in his career, but only one of these players could figure significantly into the Raptors’ long-term plans, and if tonight wasn’t the night for Ross’ first career start, then, honestly, what could be? As for his play, I thought Ross responded reasonably well from a basketball decisions standpoint, hitting a few 3s and tightening up his defence as the game went on, but where the shift was obvious was in his attitude on court – no longer worried about the quick hook, he played the game with far more patience and seemed much more relaxed on the court, a thread that’s become common over the course of the season. With luck, those minutes and reps will turn into patience no matter the amount of minutes Ross is afforded over the coming games/seasons, and, admittedly, it’s not the best quality for a player to be guaranteed minutes to become comfortable on the court, but the Raptors are in a position to give them to him for the rest of the year, so they might as well keep doing so.
We all knew what to expect of Jonas, and that’s just what he delivered: a tough, tenacious game inside and some excellent post-moves on the offensive end. He had a few defensive lapses early, but for the most part, he was solid on both sides of the floor, and complements Amir very well on offense – his size and length means that his back-to-the-basket game can be played 5 feet away from the hoop, instead of directly underneath, and that frees up Amir for offensive rebounds or a quick rotation to his block.
Speaking of Amir, waxing poetic about him is quickly becoming my schtick, but my full-fledged man crush on him was in full force tonight. He’s the understated MVP of this team, and kept the Raps in it early when it seemed like our wing defenders were whole-heartedly committed to playing little to no help defence and let the Cavaliers into the paint or with open 3s at will, which they took advantage of. Whenever a game is into that near-blowout territory, that’s when Amir shines – he simply won’t let the game get away from his team. It’s one of his most unique intangible qualities, and one that sets him apart from other bigs in the league at his level. I don’t know if he’s the future starter for this team, but you could certainly do a hell of a lot worse in the meantime, and in the future as a sixth man.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the first half was a case study in poor wing defence by the Raptors. The Cavs built their lead with a slash-and-kick game that dramatically exposed the lack of defensive effort by Toronto (I speculated aloud if the entire team had been out partying last night at one point), and the Raps seemed to attempt to counter by shooting mid-range jumpers (DeMar) and 3s (everyone else) – a strategy that’s become far too prevalent given our personnel, and one that I was hoping would take a night off given the loss of Bargnani and Gay. Not so, however, and it was only due to some hot shooting and the effort levels of Amir and Kyle Lowry (who was stellar last night) that they found themselves stuck just 9 at the half.
Halftime, of course, was when everything turned. People pointed at the Kyrie injury late in the 3rd quarter as the turning point of the game, and of course, they have reason to (we’re talking about one of the best players in the league, here), but the game had been brought back prior to that (it was tied when Kyrie went down) due to a renewed effort on defence and some great ball distribution on O, as well as the revelation that taking the ball to the hoop not only creates higher percentage shots, but also frees up space for your lower percentage ones. The defence in particular turned this game, as the Raptors’ agressive defence on Cavalier switches left them playing a much more iso-heavy game – difficult for their offensive personnel, especially when Kyrie went down, and turning some matchups (the post, in particular) from Cavalier advantage into clear ones for the Raptors.
Of course this is a Raptors game we’re talking about, and Cleveland was bound to heat up eventually, taking advantage of a few Dion Waiters makes to briefly take the lead back in the fourth and make the Raptor players work for the win in front of a sell-out crowd. A few words on the crowd while we’re here, actually – how great were they? To sell out a game of this (lack of) magnitude this late in the season, and have the home fans really bring the energy – I mean, you can criticize Toronto as a sports city all you want, but these fans genuinely care about their players, and it’s great to see. Kudos, ACC.
Now, to Lowry’s final shot that ultimately sealed the game for Toronto: I didn’t like it, you didn’t like it, Dwayne Casey didn’t like it, Brian Burke didn’t like it, and I’m pretty sure that Stephen Harper put out a press release that simply said “WTF” on it immediately after it left his hands – but it went in. Sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and say “Kyle Lowry Over Everything,” and once in a while, the basketball gods answer your call.
Sure, the shot selection was bad, but the Raptors won a game they deserved to win, the rookies got a lot of run, and the home crowd got pizza in the waning seconds. In Raptorland right now, that’s about as good as it gets.