Same story as it’s been all season long.
The Toronto Raptors are 29-14 since the Rudy Gay trade (A.G). Let that sink in. The Raptors have a 67% winning percentage over their last 43 games. That’s more than half of an entire season.
Perhaps I’m the only one looking through this lonely window to the team, but I’m still reluctant to fully trust in what’s readily apparent. In a way, I’m the spurned lover who isn’t quite ready to embrace the same suitor. The years of hype and hoopla, when I full-throatily cheered on false prophets — Linas Kleiza, Hedo Turkoglu, Jermaine O’Neal come to mind — left me cautious and jaded. I can’t help but feel hesitant.
[You know who isn’t hesitant? Andrew Thompson. Go read his quick reaction!]
Yet, all the signs are plain as day. The Raptors have the 10th-ranked offense and the 6th-ranked defense (per off/def-rating), and their A.G rankings shine even brighter. DeRozan has developed into an All-Star overnight, and Kyle Lowry finally found steady consistency and a bill of clean health. Terrence Ross has become an extremely serviceable 3-and-D guy, and his athletic potential is bursting at the seams. Jonas Valanciunas has been inconsistent, but the flashing beacon of potential is signaling to us that the shore is nearby. Amir Johnson remains as productive as ever, covering acres defensively and Patrick Patterson has been nothing short of a revelation. Why am I still doubting this team?
In truth, I have no rational answer to give, especially after performances likes last night’s 111-104 victory over the Wolves. Minnesota’s record is deceiving, as their peripheral statistics indicate that they’re a far better team than their record would suggest, and they had won 7 of their last 9 contests. They have one of the league’s 10-best players in Kevin Love, a bruising bear manning the middle in Nikola Pekovic, and a cadre of lengthy wing defenders. Aside from Ronny Turiaf and Ronnie Price, they were fully healthy, and they had a full head of steam. With Patterson out due to a right ulnar collateral sprain, I thought the Raptors were in for a long night.
Dwane Casey on the performance of his team: “I can’t say enough good things about those guys cause it’s going to take all of us, especially with Patrick being out”
And in most part, they were. The Wolves were ready and alert from the get-go. Rubio and Brewer’s pesky perimeter defense forced the Raptors into committing a litany of turnovers in the first quarter, and Amir Johnson failed to contain Kevin Love sans a double team. The Wolves made a concerted effort to run their offense through Love, and he managed 12 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists by end of the quarter. Johnson was too weak to hold his position in the post, and he was exhausted from having to close-out on Love on the perimeter. Amir’s fatigue, combined with Pekovic’s sheer bulk, led to the Wolves nabbing 6 offensive rebounds in the first quarter.
However, despite conceding the edge in both offensive rebounding and turnovers, the Raptors managed to keep the game tied at 32 apiece by shooting nearly 70% from the field.
The Raptors were firing on all cylinders. Amir Johnson attacked Love in the post and scored 9 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Terrence Ross sank all three of his field goal attempts — including two three pointers — and netted 10 points. Jonas dropped a silky-smooth jumper over Pek, Derozan sank his usual assortment of jumpshots and Lowry chipped in with four points and four assists.
The second frame featured a string of runs. The quarter started with a battle of the benches, and Toronto’s reserves thoroughly dominated their counterparts, outscoring them 10-0 over the first few minutes. Steve Novak played the role of small-ball four, and promptly drained a pair of triples.
Wolves head coach Rick Aldeman quickly reinserted his starters back into the game, which sparked a 17-2 run by Minnesota. Corey Brewer’s pesky defense smothered DeRozan, and he plucked a pair of steals. Pekovic and Love feasted on their diminutive opposition (Hansbrough played center) and JJ Barea flopped his way into being a decent NBA player. The Raptors squeaked into the half with a narrow 53-52 point lead.
The Raptors jumped ahead early in the third quarter. Terrence Ross sank yet another triple, and the Raptors found success by pushing the tempo. Credit goes to Kyle Lowry, who managed to rush ahead on the break, forcing the defense to collapse, and spotting open shooters on the perimeter with pin-point passes. He also skied for 5 rebounds in the quarter, and helped the Raptors even out the rebounding disparity. Greivis Vasquez was also very productive in the quarter, netting 7 points on four free-throws and a three pointer. He played alongside Lowry in a two-PG lineup, and he was able to capitalize on his height advantage over Barea. Toronto held a 7-point edge going into the fourth.
Dwane Casey rolled the dice and elected to start the final frame with his bench unit. Luckily, Novak sank his fourth and fifth triples of the game, and Vasquez managed to decidedly win the battle at back-up point. By keeping pace with the Wolves’ starters, Casey managed to keep DeRozan, Lowry and Johnson fresh.
The Raptors’ lead dwindled to as little as three with four minutes remaining in the game, but the Raptors were to execute effectively down the stretch. Jonas Valanciunas found Amir for a layup with a slick high-low feed from the elbow. On their next possession, Lowry and Valanciunas both grabbed an offensive rebound and managed to net extra looks for the Raptors. On their third attempt, Lowry penetrated into the lane, drew help defenders, and kicked it out to a wide open DeRozan spotting up from 17-feet. DeRozan followed up the next two possessions with a pair of free-throws, and a tough three-point dagger over Brewer. This effectively sealed the fate of the Wolves, who couldn’t stop turning the ball over on the other end.
Most impressively, the Raptors withstood the Wolves’ best punch. Kevin Love scored with a game high 26 points, and finished one assist shy of a triple double. Corey Brewer snagged 6 steals and dropped 17 points. Nikola Pekovic bullied his way to 17 points and Kevin Martin chipped in with 20 of his own, but it was not enough.
Demar Derozan on the victory: “We try to keep everybody’s spirits high even if it’s not going well on the basketball court and we don’t let nothing get down on us. That’s the cool thing about our team. We continue to keep it going.” (photo courtesy of The Associated Press)
It wasn’t enough to overcome a balanced attack led by Lowry and DeRozan. Kyle finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. DeRozan scored 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting and grabbed 7 rebounds. Ross, Amir and Novak all finished with 15 points apiece, and Jonas did his part by grabbing 9 rebounds.
The Wolves played to the best of their abilities, but the better team simply pulled away down the stretch. For the first time in many years, the Toronto Raptors are more than just the respectable darlings of the East — they’re a legitimately good team, and a threat to make some serious noise in the playoffs.
The success of this team — however serendipitous and unintentional as it may be — is real, and it’s time for this bitter bah-humbug, and any others out there, to love again.
They deserve it.