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Well, that was entertaining, wasn’t it?

On the heels of one of the more hotly contested Raptors regular season games (and, by extension I guess, Raptors games) in years, it seems like there are a myriad of topics to discuss. We’ll get to those in a second, promise, but let me start with this:

I am extremely proud to be a fan of this team right now.

Are the Raptors title contenders? No, of course not. Is this core going to be completely together next season? The chances are probably against it. Do they have the abundance of natural talent that you need to eventually rival the Miamis and Indianas of the league? Probably not. Are they the scrappiest, hardest-working, most emotionally-involved team in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league?

Hell yeah.

After the Rudy Gay trade was made, a lot of attention was paid to the statistical dividends such a move paid on the floor. However, comparatively little attention has been paid to the evolving Raptor chemistry, which has arguably been a bigger driver of their success than their on-court personnel. These guys generally care about one another. They enjoy playing together, they play for each other, and they do all the little things because they know everybody else out there is going to do them, too. Last night was a vivid illustration, and the brushstrokes were in every corner of the game: from the way the bench exploded after every big shot and stop, to Terrence Ross willingly accepting a substitution late in a close game two nights removed from a 51-point effort, to Patrick Patterson ditching the mask, to Lowry’s “that was for you, D” comments after the game was over.

These guys care. And as Raptor fans, we’re uniquely qualified to talk about how rare it is to have an entire team that is on the same page in such a way. It’s so much fun to watch, and it makes it so much more rewarding to be emotionally invested in those guys.


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Anyways though, since I’m done drooling, let’s quickly recap the game:

GAME RECAP

Steve Novak started in place of DeMar DeRozan, which I thought was an unconventional but solid decision. Salmons has been excellent off the bench, and any way to keep the team’s chemistry together as much as possible is a sound coaching decision. That said – that’s the last time he’ll be mentioned in this post-game (he went 0 for 5 and was the dictionary definition of empty minutes). The first 6 minutes of the game made it look as if the story of the night would be the Raptors’ young legs just overrunning the older Nets – Ross and Lowry were both absolutely rolling (Ross from outside, Lowry from everywhere), and some key defensive stops kept all the early momentum in the Raptors’ corner.

A Jason Kidd timeout halfway through the stanza with the Raptors up 18-11 seemed to change everything, though. Suddenly, the Raptors looked like they were playing on tired legs – Deron Williams was shredding the Raptor defence the same way Lowry was taking the Nets, Andray Blatche seemed to have Jonas’ number (punctuated with an impressive alley-oop late in the quarter), and the Nets ended the first up 26-25. The Raptors were lucky to even have the score at that point after Casey went with a “four Kings” and Novak lineup that really had me questioning what the strategy was going forward – luckily, this was quickly abandoned after the quarter.

Those dueling runs were a common thread later in the game, but the second quarter was a slug-it-out affair. The Raptor bench got the best of the Nets offensively thanks to some nifty passing between the trio of Vasquez, Hayes, and Patterson, but their defensive issues (particularly Hayes, which is as weird to read as it is to type) allowed the Nets to keep the score close. After missing a few long-range shots (including airballing a 3), Patrick Patterson ditched his protective mask early in the quarter, which scared me as a fan of the team, but was understandable given the way he was shooting. Knock on wood that he stays healthy if he continues to play with a broken nose sans protection.

Anyways, halfway through the quarter most of the starters re-entered the game and a few things were quickly made clear. The first: Shaun Livingston had nothing – and I mean NOTHING – defensively for Kyle Lowry, who was winging into the lane seemingly at will and scoring over the larger Nets. Secondly, Jonas Valanciunas, after a poor start, was not going to let the ghost of Kevin Garnett intimidate him. Jonas stepped up massively in the second quarter – one sequence in particular comes to mind where, after being shook defensively by Garnett for an easy score, he demanded the ball in the post and proceeded to dunk over him. Shots fired – shots returned. Third: the Nets’ size on the wings was going to be an issue for the Raptors defensively, if not offensively. Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, and Deron Williams, as well as Mirza Teletovic, were able to exploit the Raptors’ lack of size (and in Pierce’s case being guarded by a big, mobility) to get off uncontested jumpers. And, finally, Kyle Lowry was unstoppable tonight – punctuated by this half court heave that you honest-to-god expected to go in. The half ended in a 57-57 tie, and you had a feeling that the game was turning from a run-and-gun affair into a slugfest.

The third quarter quickly validated those feelings. The first few minutes of it basically consisted of Kyle Lowry and Paul Pierce dueling back and forth – one (Pierce) taking advantage of the slower Johnson, the other by being UNSTOPPABLE. Sure, it’s hyperbole, but you had to watch the game. The Nets began the second half by double-teaming Lowry immediately on every possession, and he responded by taking it through multiple defenders again and again. Three technical fouls were called in this quarter: one each on Pierce and Garnett after they were whistled for completely legitimate foul calls, and one on Lowry that seemed like more of a makeup call than anything. Ordinarily, I’d look at this as a tit-for-tat kind of situation, but Lowry got screwed multiple times on the night – the most obvious one being an egregious “blocking” foul late in the fourth quarter that put him on the cusp of fouling out. In either case, Lowry had four fouls midway through the third, and was forced to sit – an issue that could have directly effected the outcome of the game. That’s all I’ll say on it, but let’s just say that the Raptor win saved you all 2,000 words of me ranting about the reffing tonight.

With Lowry battling foul trouble, Patterson stepped into the offensive void by hitting a couple of nice mid-range shots to put the Raptors up 1 entering the fourth. Lowry re-entered the game to start the final frame and proceeded to continue his annihilation of the Brooklyn Nets – at one point scoring on a beautiful give-and-go with Amir one possession before dropping in a tough and-one. Halfway through the frame, the Raptors were up 5 and, seemingly, in control.

That didn’t last long, though. A slew of Brooklyn jumpers – including a couple contested Pierce 3s that harkened back memories of much earlier in the millennium – had the game tied up after just two minutes, and the Nets up 3 with 17 seconds left. The Nets’ offensive explosion came at the same time as the Raptors’ outside shooting suddenly dried up – on first watch, it seemed like the team began to forego the pick-and-roll play that had served them so well by instead taking a slew of jumpers, and the play-by-play verifies that – a smart defensive adjustment by Jason Kidd that had the Raptor personnel on their heels, and the Nets firmly in control as the game entered its waning moments.

Seventeen seconds, though, is a long time in a basketball game. After a Salmons lay-up on a broken play cut the lead to 1 with 12 seconds left, the Nets called their final timeout, which allowed the Raptors to set up the penultimate possession. Deron Williams inbounded the ball, and – perhaps for the first time ever (not meant as a slight, I just can’t remember another time) – Dwayne Casey made a coaching decision that directly changed the outcome of a game into a Raptor win. In this case, the move was to allow Williams to inbound the ball without pressure, and instead having his fifth defender – Patterson – roam for a steal. You know what happened next: Patterson steals the ball and hits a clutch 7 footer with 6 seconds left, Paul Pierce misses the buzzer-beater attempt, Raptors win, Raptors win, Raptors win.

All in all, it was a hugely entertaining game with a playoff-type atmosphere and division title implications that produced some truly memorable moments, a landmark individual performance from Lowry, and a Raptors win. What more could you want?

I’m already inching up on 1500 words, here, so let’s summarize a few of the most important takeaways in some bullet points.

SOME BULLET POINTS

  • Kyle Lowry is the leader of this team, its most valuable player (sorry, DeMar), and the most deserving Raptor when it comes to All-Star consideration. Any and all arguments to the contrary should be put to rest after last night where, without DeMar, Lowry was instrumental in all facets while leading the Raptors to a win against the NBA’s hottest team. Sure, the stat line is gaudy – 31 points, 7 assists, 5 steals – but it’s all the other things he does that makes him irreplaceable. Three charges taken, combined with the litany of clutch moments he delivered, and Lowry looked like an All-Star starter, much less someone on the bubble. I’m not trying to take a cheap shot at DeRozan here – I think he should be an All-Star, too – but he doesn’t have the impact on his teammates’ attitudes and play the way Lowry does. It’s often said that a team takes on the identity of its leader, and, right now, the Raptors REEK of Kyle Lowry. And it’s great.
  • There’s a rivalry brewing between the Raptors and Nets – realistically the only two contenders for the Atlantic Division title this season – and I, for one, am all in. This game was played with a playoff-level intensity – the veteran Nets knew this game meant something, and the Raptors were ready to push back at every turn. The fiery personalities on both sides (including the absolutely infuriating Nets trio of Pierce, Garnett and Kidd), the nature of the end of the game, and the chippy play throughout means that these teams will be circling their next meeting on the schedule (FYI – March 10), and I can’t wait – both because I hate the Nets, and because that’s when we’ll get to watch Tyler Hansbrough join the fray.
  • Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson were both excellent tonight. Jonas wasn’t really covered in the game recap, but after his rough first quarter, the Nets had no answer for him down low. He still needs to work on his jumper – Garnett did not bite on his pump fake once last night – but he had a size advantage over everyone on the other team’s roster, and he was able to take advantage of it (and stand up to Garnett in the process, which was cathartic for any Raptor fan). As for Patterson, he’s quickly turning the Gay trade into an absolute steal for the Raptors – I’m not convinced that he’s not just a better player than Gay straight up. When he took that jumper at the end of the game, you just knew it was going in.
  • Dwayne Casey, welcome to the ranks of the good NBA coaches. The guy understands his team, has gotten immeasurably better (though not perfect) at making in-game decisions, and it can’t be overstated how important he is to the change in attitude and chemistry that’s permeating through the lineup. We wouldn’t have won last night if we didn’t win the coaching battle (and yes, I know it was Jason Kidd on the other sideline).

All things considered, this was a great night to be a Raptor fan. No, the team isn’t setting the world on fire like they did in the first half of January, but this was a win that felt more substantial, more real, more like a sign of things to come. It was a statement victory against a tough, veteran team, and it’s one that was sorely needed after the recent lethargic performances and DeRozan’s injury. Where do we go from here? Who knows – but wherever it is, I’m excited to go there with this team. Although if Patrick Patterson wanted to put on a freaking mask (buddy: YOUR NOSE IS BROKEN), I wouldn’t complain.