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An instant classic ends in tragedy.

Let’s just get this out of the way — last night was a kick to the stomach.

In the abstract, losing a double overtime game to the Oklahoma City Thunder by one point is an accomplishment for this undermanned Raptors team. The Thunder are, at worst, the fourth best team in the NBA (pre-Westbrook’s injury) this season. They boast the second best record in a historically competitive Western Conference. They’ve got two of the NBA’s top-2o players, including one Kevin Durant, who is challenging LeBron for the title of best player on planet Earth. Double-overtime? You might know him as the man who dropped 51 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 33980230 daggers on the Raptors last night. I’m just happy they didn’t get trampled!

  • Quick Reaction: Raptors 118, Thunder 119
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But it wasn’t just losing in double overtime. It was the expectation of the unexpected that hurt. It was holding the win in-between your hands, basking in its serendipitous glory, accidentally dropping it, and seeing it shatter upon impact with the cold hard floor. The Raptors, after fighting so valiantly through 52 minutes of meticulous, half-court basketball, led by 5 points with 22 seconds left in the game. And they lost. 5 points! 22 seconds!

Chalk one up to the growing legend of Kevin Durant.

On their previous possession, the Raptors calmly in-bounded the ball, and put it into the hands of Kyle Lowry. Being the cerebral player that he is, Lowry took his time, counting on the clock as his friend. He played to the odds. At a certain point in the game, any lead starts to look safe. Lowry gambled on arbitrage. He created a mismatch, drew Ibaka as his defender, and whittled down the shot clock. Finally, with a mere four ticks left, Lowry executed a hurried cross-over, before launching a half-hearted airball.

The Thunder put the ball in Durant’s hands, and found a counter to the Raptors’ strategy of double-teaming. Durant drew his defenders, and created a good look for Derek Fisher on the three-point line. Yes, I’m talking about 39 year old Derek Fisher in his 16th NBA season. Derek Fisher, in 2014 splashed home a patented soul-crushing, game-saving, rainbow-arching three. The Raptors’ lead was cut to two.

Regardless, most two-point leads are safe when you have the ball with 9 seconds left. Unless of course, John Salmons is in the game.

For the record, I think Salmons is a serviceable NBA player. At the ripe old age of 34, Salmons’ career is on its hind legs, but he still has a functional NBA skill-set. So long as he’s provided with sufficient rest (ie: not back-to-back), he can handle the ball, he’s serviceable in the pick-and-roll, he has the length to adequately defend most threes. He’s obviously nearing the end of his career, but he still has a place on most NBA rosters, just not last night.

John Salmons had an awful night long before his abominable sequence to end the game, and that’s after adjusting for the difficulties of defending Durant. He shot 0-for-4 from the field — all open three pointers — and provided minimal resistance against Durant. Although he provided zero dividends with his performance, Dwane Casey elected to play Salmons over Ross, de Colo or Fields down the stretch, and it burned him.

With 9 seconds left in the game, Salmons inexplicably tossed the ball right to Jeremy Lamb, who tipped it to — guess who? — Kevin Durant’. Thankfully, Salmons managed to contest Durant’s shot, and secure the rebound. He was then fouled, and headed to the free-throw line to shoot two free throws. Two would have secured a win. One would have forced a third overtime. Zero was the result.

The rest of the story is the stuff of legends. The Thunder cleared out for Durant, who calmly sunk a three right over the outstretched arms of Amir Johnson with 1.7 seconds left. The Raptors drew up a play for DeRozan on the other end, but his hurried turn-around jumper caught nothing but air. Somehow, against all the odds, the Thunder pulled out the victory.

It was a pity that the Raptors lost, because they did a lot of things right. For starters, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were excellent as usual, scoring 25 and 33 points respectively. DeRozan’s effort was particularly notable, as he drew Andre Roberson as his defender, and promptly got him to foul out in just over 14 minutes of play. He shot his fair share of fall-away jumpshots, but you can’t argue with the results, as he shot 15-of-16 from the free-throw line, which brings him to a total of 43 free-throw attempted over his last three games.

But it was the role players who stepped up, and nearly managed to get the win last night. The much-maligned Greivis Vasquez, notorious for his YOLO Vasquez plays, enjoyed his best game as a Raptor. He single-handedly carried the second unit on offense, and worked well with the starters in crunch-time. Playing against Derek Fisher mitigated his defensive shortcomings, and his presence in the two point guard lineup allowed Lowry to roam off-ball, and spot up to great effect. He scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field, and only turned the ball over once in 31 minutes of play. Unfortunately, he fouled out in double-overtime. The verdict, apparently, was that he fouled Durant’s superstardom.

And I would be remiss had I not mentioned the efforts of Amir Johnson, who played his best game of the year. He was noticeably energized, and looked as healthy as he’s ever been. The added mobility allowed him to effectively rotate on defense, which culminated in 5 blocks to his credit. He also crashed the offensive glass effectively, and tipped in a number of failed Raptors layups.

In fact, he was so mobile that Dwane Casey elected to pin him onto Durant, which actually seemed to work. Amir refused to bite on Durant’s pump-fakes (unlike Salmons), and he was strong enough to impede Durant’s drive to the basket (unlike Ross). It sounds crazy to praise his defensive efforts when his counterpart scored 51 points on the night, but Amir genuinely did a great job. As the saying goes, great offense trumps good defense.

A mobile Amir Johnson also opened up the floor offensively. The Thunder elected to blitz the ball-handler, which left Amir Johnson the option to short roll into the lane without much resistance. Amir alertly slipped the screen when the traps came, and made himself available for pocket passes out of the double. He would then catch the ball, and either attack the basket, or find open shooters.

Alas, their efforts were not enough to overcome Durant’s 51, and the ineptitude of the officiating crew. Normally, I hate chastising referees. Officiating an NBA game is a tremendously difficult task, and too often fans wrongly mistake human error for conspiracy. But last night, the whistles were most certainly in favor of OKC. The number of fouls and free-throws attempted were roughly the same, but that only tells half the story. This call on Vasquez (his 6th of the game) summed up their night.

It’s a damn shame. A few bounces (or whistles) goes their way, and the Raptors win this game. Instead, they lose for the third time in four games, and sit only 1.5 games up on Brooklyn for the Atlantic Division crown, and a slim half-game up on Chicago for third in the Eastern Conference.

Assorted Game Notes:

  • Russell Westbrook left the game in the third quarter after Kyle Lowry crashed into his thrice surgically repaired right knee (video here). After the game, Westbrook claimed that he’s pain-free, and will be evaluated sometime today.
  • Nando de Colo is officially in the rotation, as it seems. He missed all three of his field goal attempts in his 7 minutes of play, but did manage to drop a pretty dime to Amir Johnson for a dunk. He’s a crafty player who can passably shoot. Perhaps it isn’t a bad idea to award him some of Salmons’ minutes
  • Once again, Terrence Ross was invisible on the court. He can be excused for failing to check Durant, but the Raptors need him to consistently produce on offense, and 2 points on 1-for-9 shooting isn’t going to cut it.
  • Dwane Casey ran a successful ATO play! This should be noted! He drew up a pin-down for Lowry, who drained the triple to tie the game in regulation.
  • Not to pile on Salmons, but he was terrible in every aspect of the game, including on defense. He repeatedly bit on Durant’s pump-fakes on closeouts, which culminated in free-throws.
  • Dwane Casey’s strategy of trapping Durant with two defenders whenever he crossed half-court was ingenious. It took the Thunder until the very last play to figure out that “1-4, iso-Durant” was better than “Durant passes the ball to Jeremy Lamb”.
  • More praise for Dwane Casey, who elected to nail Chuck Hayes to the bench, and stick to a three-man rotation of Johnson-Valanciunas-Hansbrough.
  • Speaking of Hansbrough, he drew a technical foul on Kevin Durant (15th of the season), which was unarguably his biggest contribution last night.