When the Routine win becomes Un-Routine

“Kyle Lowry will not return.” OK. Don’t freak out. Don’t freak out.

In many ways, last night’s Raptor win against the Utah Jazz was yet another impressive statement in a season that’s becoming full of them – as it’s been noted numerous times in this space, one of the marks of a truly “good” team is their ability to make routine wins look routine. After a slow start, at no point last night – save for a couple hairy moments early in the fourth – did the Jazz come even remotely close to approaching the Raps. It was a routine win in every sense of the word – well, except for one.

After an apparent knee-injury and a sluggish performance, Kyle Lowry left the game late in the third quarter and went straight to the locker room, not returning. Now, I’m well aware of the irony of worrying about the loss of a player after I wrote late last week about how the Raptors’ depth is one of your biggest strengths, but no matter the sport (or team), it’s always scary when your alpha dog goes down. Lowry’s been the engine that gets this team moving, and losing him for any stretch of time will affect this team’s attitude as much as it will their on-court play. The irony of Lowry’s injury is that he was finally given some recognition from the league this morning, being named the Eastern Conference’s player of the week just days after his inexplicable All-Star snub.

It’ll also mean plenty more of Greivis Vasquez, which is a bit of a hairy proposition after the last couple of games. Tonight, he acquitted himself quite well, which would probably give the fans more comfort if he wasn’t playing the Utah Jazz. Vasquez’ promotion up the depth chart means we’ll be seeing Dwight Buycks (my pick) or Julyan Stone, too, the only bright side of which is that it’ll probably give the fans some new appreciation for Vasquez.

Frankly, though, even if Lowry’s out for a game, it’s just sad to see the core group broken up once again after such a string of chemistry-laden performances. Long-term, this is probably not an issue, and short-term, it might not even be one, either, but it was clearly the story of the game on a night where drama was in short supply.

Hopefully, the story of this game, though, is all it is. If you missed the action, here’s a recap-analysis hybrid.

Game Recap/Analysis
Big things were expected of Jonas tonight after it was announced that Derrick Favors wouldn’t suit up, and he was the story for the Raptors to begin the night. The first two Raptor buckets were open hooks by Jonas over Enes Kanter, who was thoroughly dominated by JV on the night. It might seem like an obvious matchup win for the Raptors, but don’t forget that Kanter was one of the other “promising young centers” in the league to begin the season (still is, I suppose), and there was legitimate debate over who would have more impact in the short-and-long term. He even hit a smooth-looking long jumper in the quarter, which would have looked extremely pretty if not for his three awkward looking pump-fakey things he likes to do. Hey, it works, I guess?

Jonas’ excellent quarter (he started 4/5) was unfortunately offset by some lazy Raptor switches defensively. The wings, in particular, had trouble keeping up with their Utah counterparts (accentuating the Raps’ advantage down low) – Kyle Lowry ended up defending Marvin Williams in the post on one possession, and on another, Patrick Patterson had to hedge and foul a streaking Alec Burks. The two-point guard lineup was in at this point – and they, more than any guard combination, should have someone guarding the rim after offensive free throws. It didn’t feel like the match-ups were incorrect, or the Jazz’ offensive sets particularly inspired – it was just a general malaise that one assumed would get better as the game moved along and the Raptors got their legs. Of course, we later found out that it may have been something else in regards to Lowry.. but we’ll get to that.

The second quarter began with the Raptors down 24-27 and the bench unit (plus DeMar) in the game. The second unit kicked the pressure up a notch immediately – aided in part by Rudy Gobert, who’s about as robotic as a 7-foot tall 21-year old from France can be. Watching Chuck Hayes defend Gobert in the block was entertaining; Hayes gave up 8 inches, yet had the hand-in-the-face defence working about as well as you’d imagine it would against an uncertain young player. He did have a nice block in the quarter against Amir Johnson, though, which surprised the hell out of me. I don’t want to be too hard on Gobert, actually, who finished the game with 3 blocks and 8 rebounds and certainly has some promise.

It was the work of John Salmons, DeRozan, and – surprisingly – Greivis Vasquez, though, who were the keys to turning the ship around. With his teammates finding offence easily, DeMar’s first half was centered around distribution, and his drive-and-kick game seemed as organic as one could remember it looking at any point. He had four assists in the half and had a couple of excellent possessions where he blasted through the lane, dragged the defence down with him, and found Salmons in the corner for an easy three.

Salmons, for his part, did some great work creating off the dribble – typically, I’m critical of him for his hero-ball tendencies, but his game in the second was more of what we’ve been accustomed to seeing from Terrence Ross lately. He did an excellent job creating in the lane, hitting three pointers when he was open, and generally making smart decisions with the basketball. Vasquez also got in on the drive-and-kick action and made some great passes, particularly a full-court outlet to Salmons that I’m pretty sure he ripped right out of my roommate’s NBA 2K14 playbook.

With the offence flowing, the defensive pressure soon followed, and at the half, the Raptors were up 55-44. DeMar DeRozan began the third quarter with an attack-first mentality and carried the Raptor offence early, but it was Jonas who rally stood out on both ends for the Raptors in the first 6 minutes of the stanza. With Gobert guarding him, Jonas both out-skilled and overpowered him, grabbing rebounds out of nowhere and getting whatever he wanted offensively (and if he missed the first shot, what he wanted was his own rebound). Defensively, he was contrasted quite effectively by Amir Johnson, who worked hard, but just couldn’t seem to stay in front of Marvin Williams.

Williams played the “poor man’s Thad Young” card to perfection tonight – there were a couple moments where he looked downright unstoppable against the slower (I’m guessing still not 100%) Johnson, who typically thrives in these matches laterally but suffers in a straight line. Williams’ shooting forced Amir out to the three-point line, where he was able to blow-by the less fleet-of-foot Johnson. He had his way with Patrick Patterson at times, as well, which was all the more impressive. Even with his impressive play (and Alec Burks, who I’ve never seen before but looks genuinely explosive), the Raptors found themselves up 9 with two and a half minutes left in the quarter and with the Jazz showing little signs of making it into a game.

That was when Lowry checked out. At the time, there wasn’t much indication that he was injured, save for a poor night from the field (he finished 1 for 8) and some slow feet – no trigger moment that he came up lame from, no limp the possession prior, nothing that suggested he wouldn’t return. Hopefully, it’s just symptoms of being overworked – but, as I spoke about earlier, it’s always scary when your team’s alpha dog goes down for whatever reason.

Without him, though, the Raptor offense didn’t skip a beat. Salmons continued to be the beneficiary of some great passing from Greivis Vasquez, and Patrick Patterson finally found his stride late in the quarter with some impressive rebounding and passing. After the third, the score was 71-62, and the Raps, even without Lowry, were in control.

The fourth quarter began with the Raptors utilizing the “Ross + 4 Kings” lineup, which typically struggles given Ross’ inability to function as a playmaker/scorer like Lowry, and, more recently, DeRozan have. Tonight, though, you hoped the strong play of Salmons and Vasquez could carry the unit – but the group struggled both offensively and defensively. Relying on late-in-the-shot-clock jumpers from Ross and unable to get back to stop the Jazz fast break, the Raps found themselves victim to a 8-2 run to start the quarter, resulting in a timeout by Casey and the re-introduction of Jonas and DeMar to cull the bleeding.

The biggest change after the timeout, though, was Patterson, who was all over the floor – skying for rebounds, hitting jumpers, at the free throw line, you name it. Although Patterson’s stats for night weren’t great (he finished 2 of 7 for the game), he came through at a pivotal time and allowed the Raps to fend off what turned out would be the Jazz’ final push.

The refs, apparently, got bored at this point and decided to entertain themselves by screwing the Raptors over. DeRozan’s “incidental contact” head smack is the most visceral example, but Jonas found himself the victim of suspect calls as well, particularly a possession where it appeared his arm was grabbed and turned and yet he was whistled for the foul.

Despite their best efforts, though, nobody was denying DeMar on this night. It was nice to see him carry the team’s scoring in the fourth quarter again (for the first time since his injury), particularly with Lowry unavailable. He had 9 points on 3/4 shooting in the last 6 minutes of the game, and scored in a variety of ways: mid-range jumpers, three-pointers, free throws – exactly what you’d hope to see from an All-Star. No matter what you think of DeRozan’s shot selection, he continues to rise to the occasion late in games, which has been an underrated contributor to the Raptors’ success this season. That top five in the league fourth-quarter point differential might be, objectively, where any conversation about DeMar’s budding stardom begins. The final score was 94-79. It would have been a routine, unspectacular win against a weaker team, save Lowry’s injury.

Raptors win, Raptors win, Raptors win, moving their record on this western road swing to 2-1. The Sacramento Kings are up next on Wednesday (RUDY!) and a win will guarantee a positive record on the trip. Losing Lowry is never ideal, and with a speedy point guard like Isaiah Thomas on the other side of the court, the Kings aren’t the ideal opponent in a lot of ways.

They are, though, the former home of four bench contributors who have, to varying degrees, thrived since joining the Raps. Hopefully that’s the story Wednesday night, and this routine victory will be remembered as just that, and nothing else.


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