fRaptors 107, Rockets 103 – Box

The playing field was more or less even, perhaps even tilted in the favor of the home team, but the Toronto Raptors’ victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night feels like an important one.

The Raptors, after all, had to play without their most important player in Kyle Lowry. Lowry sat out with left knee soreness, an issue that is not due to any structural damage but, because of swelling and discomfort, wasn’t worth risking. It was the right call, albeit one that threatened to sink the Raptors. When Amir Johnson exited three minutes into the game – he tweaked his troublesome right ankle, another injury with no structural damage but one that could linger – things seemed dire.

This Raptors team has at times been buoyed by its depth and at times been sunk by its apparent lack thereof. A win would require a major game from DeMar DeRozan and at least a few reserves to respond to the challenge and seize the opportunity.

“Guys stepped in and stepped up,” head coach Dwane Casey summarized after the game, and it’s tough to find fault in that simple, somewhat cliched evaluation.

Look at Tyler Hansbrough, for example. Hansbrough emerged from the doghouse for some first-half run and had maybe the best half, offensively, that he’s had as a Raptor. He finished with just seven points, three rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes, but he was the team’s best roll man in the first half when the offense was sputtering.

And look at Patrick Patterson. While he’s been a regular contributor since his acquisition, he was also in just his second game back from injury, still clearly working through rust. He hit a few shots and added some athleticism to the frontline that was desperately needed with Johnson out. Nothing special, sure, but the next guy down the line kept doing his job.

Look at Nando De Colo. A bit-player in San Antonio, De Colo still looks terrified to shoot the ball but played an important 13 minutes on Wednesday. He exited with just two assists, but he surely had another two or three so-called hockey assists, capably setting up the team’s action when Greivis Vasquez wasn’t handling the rock.

Jonas speaks...kind of

Whenever I talk to Jonas Valanciunas with the microphone off, he’s a really likeable, and often funny, guy. He’s fun and light. Turn the recorder on, though, and he gets really plain, really fast. Here’s his scrum from last night, and I almost got him to say something of value at the end (questions from RR in bold).

On resiliency
“We showed that we can play without those guys. I’m not saying that they are not important but we still have some good guys. Tyler came in, Nando did a hell of a job, Greivis did a good job. We have a long bench.”

On guys being ready
“You have to step on the court, be ready and do a good job. You come to play basketball every single night. Starters, not the starters, every guy is coming with 100 percent focus, hungry to win.”

On Dwight not playing
“I’m okay with that.” (laughing)

On Omer Asik being a capable replacement
“Yeah, he’s really strong and he knows how to play basketball.”

On the team’s FG% defense
“(How many) percent they shoot? That’s pretty good, huh? We’re just tyring to defend the basket, that’s our goal. 40 percent or 50 percent, we just want to defend the basket.”

On hitting his stride on the offensive end of late
“It’s me trusting in my coaches, teammates passing me the ball. I feel great on the offensive end.”

On improving decision making as the roll-man
“Some of the teams are blitzing, so you have to show roll to give an outlet for the point guard. You have to see all the floor.”


Even, dare I say, John Salmons played well for stretches. Checking James Harden is no easy task, but it was one that Salmons didn’t shy away from for stretches. He also must have known I was in attendance, as he hit a pair of threes and managed 12 points, his largest output since Feb. 3. He refused to accept my compliments on the two enormous, shiny chains he was wearing after the game, too. He knows.

As we go down the line, only Steve Novak had an off night, but even he managed a strong defensive performance by his standards.

And then there’s Vasquez, who was forced into starting duty and played a season-high 40 minutes. While he shot just 4-of-12, he finished with 15 points, four rebounds and eight assists, running a movement-heavy offense that finally got back to their unofficial benchmark of 20 assists each time out. It’s not necessarily surprising that Vasquez played well – he’s been much better since the All-Star break, and “I led the league in assists,” as he reminded me before the game. But again, another man stepped up.

“Every win is equally important and hopefully gives our guys some confidence to go where we need to go,” Casey said after the game.

His point about building confidence is interesting. Ideally, these are the kind of situations you run into early in the year, so that in the event injuries strike later, guys are prepared to step up. That didn’t happen with the Raptors, who have been lucky when it comes to injuries this season. Instead, the trying times are occurring late, when you’d prefer to have the team peaking. But having guys ready to step up and confident when they do so isn’t nothing – rotations shorten in the playoffs and depth becomes less of a game-by-game factor, but injuries still happen, and it’d be nice to feel more confident that the team’s success isn’t a house of cards of which Lowry is the primary support beam.

And now, we need to turn to the regulars who were still in action, because it wans’t just the depth that led to the victory.

Terrence Ross had a solid night on the offensive end and really contributed on the glass, scooping up nine defensive rebounds. He, too, took his turns on Harden, helping to keep the bearded star to 7-of-17 shooting (though it’s impossible to keep him off the line, so he still amnaged 26 points). He and DeRozan occasionally lost track of who had who in transition, leading to Chandler Parsons getting dunk after dunk, melting hearts in the process, but it was, overall, a strong outing for Trey Rozay.

Jonas Valanciunas had a fantastic second half offensively, too, picking up where Hansbrough left off. Valanciunas had 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting and five rebounds in the second half, rebounding from a 1-of-3 first half with just a single board. You can see he’s making progress on the offensive end, and while it might be slower than some would like, the turnovers are down and the field goal percentage is up – over his past 11 games, he’s averaging 14.2 points on 59.4 percent shooting, grabbing 8.6 boards and turning the ball over just 1.3 times a night. It’s coming along.

Then there’s DeRozan, and things looked bleak early. Parsons was dunking everything, and the Raptors play log to open the game made it seem like DeRozan was the one who was injured, only the team had dressed the wrong player:

11:45 – DeRozan misses 19-footer
11:26 – DeRozan makes two-point shot
11:00 – DeRozan misses two free throws
10:33 – DeRozan misses 18-footer
10:00 – DeRozan bad pass turnover
8:48 – DeRozan assist
7:54 – DeRozan lost ball turnover
5:18 – DeRozan misses 17-footer
3:43 – DeRozan misses 11-footer

So DeRozan sat down with two points and two turnovers on 1-of-5 shooting in 9:16. From that point on, DeRozan played some of his best ball for 31:47. 9-of-14 shooting, 8-of-8 at the line, a three mixed in, six boards, two dimes, two steals and a huge charge drawn down the stretch.

He started the game out playing like hot garbage, and then for three quarters he put this undermanned team on his back. His final line won’t look all that impressive – 29 points on 19 shots is solid, but he’s scored more before and shot better – but the box score can’t do justice to his offensive impact, in particular carrying the offense alone at the end of the second quarter. He shot poorly again in the fourth – 2-of-7 – but then looked to distribute, setting up a Ross bucket and a late Valanciunas layup that essentially put the game out of reach.

We can’t look past the fact that Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley sat out for Houston and Terrence Jones played just 10 minutes. As mentioned off the top, the deck was stacked just as much against Houston as it was against Toronto. The Raptors didn’t beat a Western Conference playoff team shorthanded, they beat a shorthanded Western Conference playoff team, on the second night of a back-to-back, that was just as shorthanded or worse.

That’s relevant, but it doesn’t really change the narrative here. DeRozan traded buckets with Harden, one of the league’s best scorers, and every other player took on a role slightly larger than the one they’re used to taking on. It’s a learning experience you don’t wish upon your team, because it means guys are hurt, but it’s a positive one in retrospect, one that could matter later.

As Casey said when asked about how the team will prepare in the event Lowry and Johnson can’t go on Friday, there’s not really any choice in the matter.

“Next man up.”