Sometimes, a game is just a game. Post-game, the scoreboard reads two final tallies – 101-97 Nets – just like it always does. The Raptors, after a valiant effort in which both teams both played through fatigue on the second half of a back-to-back, still have a modest lead in the Atlantic Division: they’re 3 games up on Brooklyn with 20 games to go; it’s hard to imagine that the Nets will catch the streaking Raptors, especially given the Raps’ strength of schedule from here on out. Last night was just a game; a blip, nothing more.
Sometimes, though, a game is much more than that. It’s a statement of intent, a warning from a potential playoff foe not to be taken lightly. It’s a veteran team standing up to the challenge of the young upstart, and the young upstart toeing the line and staring right back. No quarter was given last night, and none was expected, even with both teams playing on the second half of a back-to-back. The standings may not be too close, just yet; but they’re just close enough for a statement to be sent. The Raptors are probably going to win the division, yes, but they’re going to have to earn it.
Last night, the game between the Raptors and Nets became more than a game.
Was it pretty to watch? Not all the time – both teams scored in fits in spurts, with the Raptors taking a sizeable first quarter lead on the backs of Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson, giving the lead back (they were down 13 late in the third) thanks to some shoddy perimeter defence and a red-hot Deron Williams, and fighting back to tie the game late by what seemed like sheer force of will after losing an entertaining if not necessarily perfectly executed final few minutes.
The driver of the Raptor engine was undoubtedly Kyle Lowry, who (surprise, surprise) played the game at a fever pitch for every one of his 38 minutes. Sometimes, it worked to his detriment: he thrust up more than a few early-in-the-shot-clock threes that had me scratching my head, and the play call near the end of the game with the Raptors down 3 – a pick play that led to a contested attempt with Andray Blatche in Lowry’s face. His intensity also gets the better of him when it comes to dealing with the referees: last night, seemingly every call that went against Lowry, or against the Raptors with Lowry standing nearby, or against the Raptors with Lowry in the building, was followed by an earful to the referees from number 7. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and this is part of the package. We know this.
But the rest of the package? I don’t know what the Raptors would do without it.
It’s hard to make an argument at this point against extending Lowry – if Masai Ujiri balks at his asking price, Lowry’s agent can simply pull out film of game from tonight and ask: “what would the score have been without him?” My roommate and I had a brief debate about what the Raptors’ record this season would be sans Lowry, and we ultimately settled at a smidge over .500, at best. The man does things that no 6-foot tall point guard should do. Last night, he led the team in scoring, assists, rebounding – including a couple attempts where he absolutely ripped the ball out of a much bigger opponent’s hands – and steals (tied with Johnson and Hansbrough). He also drew not one, not two, but THREE charges, including a highlight-reel worthy attempt to stop a Marcus Thornton fast break in the first quarter where he – playing with two early fouls – caught the Nets’ guard from behind, slipped in front of him, and established position in a split-second. It was breathtaking, reckless, and the result of almost impossible effort. It was, in as many words, Kyle Lowry.
As is the case when most young upstarts are challenged by veteran opponents, the devil was in the execution, if not the Raptors’ effort level. DeMar DeRozan was held in check by some savvy Nets coaching and an uncharacteristically poor shooting night; Terrence Ross was largely invisible after the first quarter, and Jonas Valanciunas tried his hardest to take advantage of the league’s verticality rule and was undone by a few bad calls and some inconsistent offensive decision-making. Ironically, the worst performance of the night was turned in by John Salmons, who made a nice hoop and than chucked up a couple shots up like heat-check DeMar before ultimately making an extremely poor decision on one of the Raptors’ final plays, which ultimately ended with Ross dribbling the ball off his leg and out of bounds. These lapses, save Salmons, are to be expected from time to time from a young team, and on their own aren’t particularly worrying in the long run. The team missed Patrick Patterson and his floor-spacing ability/mobile perimeter defence a ton, as well, given the Nets’ small-ball lineups.
What is more troubling, though, was the inconsistency of Dwane Casey’s coaching decisions, which included sitting a red-hot Ross for extended minutes in the first half, not recognizing the inability of Steve Novak to play the four in a small-ball lineup (one big night does not a Patrick Patterson make), as well as the inability of Chuck Hayes to play at all, and a couple maddening inbound plays, including the aforementioned pick and roll for Lowry’s penultimate three-point attempt. In-game inconsistencies like these are not likely to get better given a seven-game series, and that makes a playoff matchup a bit terrifying given the two teams’ relatively equal skill levels at this point. You should not be outcoached by Jason Kidd. Period. End of story.
These things, by and large, are why the Raptors lost the game last night (that, and a three-point barrage late in the third quarter). And they do deserve consideration, and they’ll get their due in the Raptor front office and coaches’ room. But, for me, I choose to focus on the positives: Lowry; the superhuman effort put forth by Tyler Hansbrough, who would not be denied by any Net; the resurgence of Amir Johnson’s pick and roll play (he threw done two alley-oop layups from Lowry, mimicking my NBA 2k14 playing style); and my little brother’s unexpected appearance as the #spritefanphoto, which left me excited, yet laughing my head off.
Mostly, though, what I chose to focus on is everything this game means beyond the boxscore. Standings or no, the Brooklyn Nets have thrown down a gauntlet; one the Raptors have accepted without hesitation. The simple fact that a veteran team would play Toronto with this type of intensity in a regular-season game, on the second half of a back-to-back, shows how far the Raptors have come. The fact that they lost the game shows how far we have left to go.
One of these teams has the weight of unmet expectations, and the stopping of a torch-passing on their minds. The other one has validation – and everything still left to prove – on theirs. Twenty games left until the playoffs, and a likely rematch, where one of them will get what they want. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.