Toughness was the buzzword of the night for a game that at times was barely watchable. There were no moments of sustained offensive flow, no fast breaks or transition baskets; it was tough, hard-nosed, beat-’em-up basketball and the Raptors never retreated an inch. Digest that for a moment: A team that used to have a reputation for softness more than anything, hit first, hit often, hung around and beat a veteran team at its own game.
As many of our readers remarked in tonight’s liveblog, this was one of those games the Toronto Raptors traditionally lose, either because they just never played up to the level of their opponents, or even when they did, and snatched a lead, they would inevitably crumble down the stretch and hand it right back. No such thing tonight though as despite trailing by about six points for what seemed like the first 40 minutes, the Raps staged a furious fourth-quarter rally.
“Honestly, those guys who started the fourth quarter, I believe it was DeMar (DeRozan), John (Salmons), Greivis (Vasquez), Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson, those guys won that game for us,” Kyle Lowry said. “I tip my hat to them, they won that game for us tonight. “They played with toughness, and got things going, they took the lead and got the lead to 12.”
“Now when we face adversity we don’t get down,” said DeMar DeRozan moments after he and his teammates engineered the fourth-quarter comeback that sealed an 85-79 victory in Chicago on New Year’s Eve. “Before, a lot of the times we would make excuses if something didn’t go our way and we’d get frustrated. Now everyone just stays level.” That level of confidence and self-belief is evident whenever this team has found themselves staring down any late-game adversity, and they’ve encountered their fair share of it over the past month. A year ago, the Raptors won three games in which they trailed going into the fourth quarter. This season they’ve already won five such contests, four in the last six games, all of them coming on the road.
This run has put Ujiri and the front office in an awkward position. Only two weeks ago, they were prepared to deal Lowry for future assets and dive headfirst for a top-five pick. That process may have included testing the market for DeRozan, though the Raptors are clearly growing comfortable with the idea of DeRozan as a long-term core piece. But Toronto has been winning with the kind of spirited, fun ball this city has been craving for years. And as it has done that, the rest of the tank brigade has continued to flounder around it.
What would a first-round playoff appearance do for the advancement of Ross, Valanciunas and DeRozan? Heck, let’s put the cart before the horse for a bit: If a first-round playoff win is in the cards and the three aforementioned players get a chance to play the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat in the conference semi-final, there are sure to be valuable lessons gained.
Happy New Years from everyone at Raptors Republic. We hope 2014 is a safe, healthy, and fruitful year for you and your families. Also, send me your links: firstname.lastname@example.org