The Cupboard is Full, Once Again

Sometimes, 9 minutes is all you need.

A box score from last night’s game against the Nuggets will show you a few things.

It’ll show you the Raptors won by 10, in a game they led more or less wire-to-wire. It’s their first win in Denver in over a decade.

It’ll show you that the third quarter was where the Raptors did the most of their damage – outscoring the outmanned Nuggets by 9, and only allowing 17 points.

It’ll show you that the fourth quarter was the epitome of a Raptor “lull” – managing just 14 points themselves after the game was well out of reach and allowing Denver to bring the final score back to a respectable margin.

The biggest number you can get from the box score, though, has nothing to do with the score, the Raps’ field goal percentage (43.5), their impressive assist total (24 on 37 made field goals), or the number of Nuggets turnovers (25 – yikes).

It’s 10.

That’s the number of Raptors who played at least 12 minutes last night, following the return of DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson, and Tyler Hansbrough’s return to full strength following a four-minute cameo earlier in the week against Orlando.

Click here for the quick reaction and player grades from last night

Now, I don’t imagine this will be the norm – most successful NBA teams stick to a 9-man rotation, and once Casey figures out the pecking order of his bigs, someone (likely Chuck Hayes) will take a back seat. However, last night it was absolutely essential to the win, and also significant for the Raptors moving forward.

I’ll spare you a full game recap because, like the Orlando game, this one was never really in doubt. The shorthanded Nuggets – missing Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson, their top 2 point guards – managed to hang in there against the Raptors for the first half, where it appeared that defensive malaise (or maybe some of that sweet, sweet Colorado ganja) had both teams playing in a fog on that side of the floor. The Raps ended the first half up 7, and the only moment of note was an absolute evisceration of Kenneth Faried by Terrence Ross that you’ve probably seen a few times at this point. That said, it was so good, I bet you click play again.

Now that you’ve gotten that out of your system (ah, who am I kidding. Watch it again), the Raptors – justifiably – headed into the third feeling confident, despite the lack of defence being played, and that nearly got the best of them. A quick 7-2 run cut the lead to just 2 points with two and a half minutes left in the quarter. Cue the TSN turning point – a key timeout by Dwayne Casey that served to remind the Raps that there were, in fact, two halves of the basketball court. This coincided with an impressive offensive stretch by DeMar, the Raptors quickly staked themselves to a 20 point lead, and, despite some sloppy play in the fourth, never looked back.

All of this was great, yes. But it never would have happened without a full contingent of Raptors, which is what makes this win more than just a blowout victory against an injury-riddled team. All of the Raptors, save Terrence Ross (who was excellent all night), had major swaths of court time where they were wholly ineffective – and because of their bench strength, the subs came fast and furious – doubly important because of DeMar, Patterson, and Amir’s banged-up states and Denver’s altitude.

Let it not be forgotten that it was Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough who came in to spark the Raptor run in the third quarter, that the Raptors were up 7 at the break despite a wholly effective DeRozan (something that would have seemed impossible at the start of the season), and that John Salmons spurred what little offence the Raps were able to put together down the stretch. Gone are the days of Alan Anderson, Marcus Banks, and yes, even Landry Fields. The Raptors now have a full rotation of useful players at their disposal – all of whom (save Hayes) are capable of going off for 10+ points on any given night, and four of whom could reasonably be considered to carry the team’s offence if need be (and Jonas – and even 2Pat – are getting there, too).

I’ll touch more on a couple individual performances below, but for me, the underlying message of last night’s win was that it was the nail in the coffin for individual performances defining the Raptors’ success. Gone is hero ball. Gone is the Rudy/DeMar complex. Team ball is here, and if this whole group can stay healthy, so is some real consistency, and the ability to weather tough nights individually, or even defensively, as we saw yesterday.

Welcome to the new age.

A few more highlights

  • Welcome back, Tyler Hansbrough. He was all over the floor last night, finishing with an impressive 9 points and 5 boards – 3 offensive – and 2 steals in just 13 minutes. I’d imagine, at least initially, that he’ll split time with Chuck Hayes depending on the matchup, but last night against Denver’s smaller, athletic front line, he was the perfect foil (and quite possibly the most effective Raptor). He even held his own against the much larger Timofey Mozgov, forcing his way past him for an and-one and making life generally miserable for him on the offensive side of the ball.
  • On second thought, to call Tyler Hansbrough the most effective Raptor would be doing a disservice to Terrence Ross, who may have – save his 51 point explosion – had the best game of his career last night. He scored from all over the floor: hitting open 3s, cutting to the hoop, and running some very effective screen and rolls with Amir Johnson in particular that showcased the evolution of his game. On defence, Casey tasked him with guarding Randy Foye, a smaller player with a speed advantage, and Ross was, for the most part, up to the task. With Lowry and DeRozan having off-nights offensively (with DeRozan, it was more an off-three quarters, as he admittedly carried the O in the third), Ross was the consistent performer that kept the train rolling. And, you know, he made the Manimal into a poster.
  • Something needs to be done about Greivis Vasquez’ defence. I realize that the team as a whole was awful in stretches last night, but his shortfalls were by far the most obvious, and the most grievous (I’ll show myself the door). With Ross guarding Foye, he was tasked with checking Wilson Chandler and Evan Fournier, two larger players at speed disadvantages who you’d expect to attack the smaller Vasquez by shooting over him. Instead, they drove by him like he was standing still. With strong help defence, this won’t always be a problem, but that’s something that all the Raptor bigs, save Johnson, are still figuring out, and so he’s going to be a liability some nights if he can’t figure this out, which could become an issue.

That all being said – if the biggest big-picture gripe I have about last night is our backup point guard’s defensive shortcomings, then I’d say that things are going pretty well in the clubhouse. Another night, another routine win (and how much fun is it that this team has routine wins now, by the way?), and a great appetizer for tonight’s marquee matchup against Portland.

Bring them on. If last night taught us anything, we won’t be for a lack of options.

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