Hanging on to Dear Life – Raptors Rapture

Kyle Lowry didn’t dress due to a knee injury, so Greivis Vasquez started at the point. His contribution was huge; 15 points and 8 assists, without a turnover. Amir Johnson injured (or re-injured) his ankle and was gone after barely 2 minutes of PT. Raps coach Dwane Casey decided on a power-forward-by-committee approach, so Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough and Steve Novak all played significant minutes. Similarly, when Greivis needed a breather, Nando De Colo got the assignment. While the lanky Frenchman doesn’t look like a star in waiting, he played steady minutes, and is already of greater value than the departed Austin Daye. The visitors were missing monster centre Dwight Howard and pesky guard Patrick Beverley, so needed the scoring of All-Star guard James Harden even more than usual. They got it, as Harden poured in 26, despite the best efforts of Terrence Ross. Our best player needed to be just that, and DeMar DeRozan was. He sleepwalked through Q1, then electrified the Air Canada Centre with 15 points in Q2. DD was 6 of 6 from the floor, including an off-the-glass 3-ball to close the half. He didn’t let up in the second half, attacking the basket while drawing fouls. He ended with 29 points in 4o minutes.

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Casey doesn’t want his team to ease back at all for the seasons’ final seven games. He’ll rest Lowry and Johnson only if they can’t play and he doesn’t want anyone to lower their intensity. “There’s a pride factor. You want to win. You want to win the division, you want to win to try to get home court. You want to try to do that. There’s no use in letting off the peddle now,” Casey said. “Every game for me is desperate but it’s not live or die or anything like that. We’re not going to risk a kid’s health to try to do that. If he can go he can and we’ll see from there.”

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Without Kyle Lowry, who should have been an all-star, it was DeMar DeRozan, who was an all-star, stepping up, scoring when his team need him to be a scorer, defending and distributing late in the game. He even took an offensive charge, forcing a key Rockets turnover late in the evening. “Old-man’s game,’’ said Casey, an old-school way of lauding today’s hoopster. “Winning plays he’s learning to make and he’s making them now other than just scoring.”

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“We just couldn’t get stops, the basketball was stuck on the offensive end, turnovers,” James Harden said, starting the list the Rockets thought they’d left to the first half of the season, when they ran through injuries the way they are now. “It was a variety of things.”

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Wednesday’s comeback from a 20-point deficit to within one point in the fourth quarter might have fallen short, but it did offer a reminder of what the Rockets had been missing. They faded down the stretch, with the Raptors holding on for a 107-103 win, but they said they did at least play a stretch with an intensity that’s been sporadic. “We just have to regroup,” said Jeremy Lin, who was 2-of-11 when he returned to the game with the Rockets down 20 and went 4-of-7 the rest of the way. “I’m proud of how hard we played, but we didn’t play great in terms of execution, in terms of coverages, a lot of little things.”

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Objectively, there are plenty of signs indicating this is a team fit to win at least one series this spring. Unfortunately, there are a couple of things beyond Toronto’s control that could make postseason success more difficult than anticipated.

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“Coach Casey is a no-nonsense coach, and I think our players are no-nonsense players, too,” says Ujiri. “There’s not a lot of BS going on. You know? They’re competitors. Kyle is a bulldog. DeMar competes. There’s no BS to them; when they don’t play well, they don’t play well honestly. It’s not because they’re dogging it; they come to work, they’re professional, the veteran guys are very professional, and that’s what you want.” In there is the key to this season, and to this team, and to not worrying too much about what calamity may come. This has been an honest season from this team, an honest effort. The city, for the first time in years, can be proud to be associated with the fight of this franchise. And it nearly didn’t happen. In February this roster was about one phone call from a controlled demolition, and the call would have carried Lowry away. But the call never came.

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It would have made for quite the interesting subplot if Lowry was able suit up against his former team, the Western Conference juggernaut Houston Rockets, but on the other hand, riding the pine actually presented an opportunity for this club. A chance for the Raptors’ brass, and it’s fans, to witness what this squad is truly made of — to answer the bell without the default-leaning on its leader for support. As astonishingly as it sounds, Lowry hasn’t missed a game all season, until now. The Raptors’ philosophy has undoubtedly transformed into a playoff-caliber brand, but as evident in Monday night’s classroom study-session of its battle with the Miami Heat, the absence of Lowry has allowed for the Raptors of old to creep back into the picture at times, otherwise known as the matador-style defense while house hunting in jump-shot city.

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The Rockets kept coming in the fourth, whittling the lead down to a single point and suddenly it looked like the Raps were going to need another of their vaunted fourth quarter performances to get out of this one alive. And indeed, that’s what they did, clamping back down on D, returning to the offensive attack centered around Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan that was so successful earlier in the game, and despite a few miscues in the final seconds, generally walked away with a very satisfying win. DeRozan led the Raps with 29 points and more importantly, made Kyle Lowry-worthy plays down the stretch at both ends to seal the W.  Jonas Valanciunas had only six rebounds but chipped in 15 points and had a team-high plus/minus mark of +15, echoing his importance in this one.

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“We have already proven we have a team. This is not two guys, three guys . . . it’s a complete team effort night in and night out,” said Vasquez, who played a season-high 40 minutes with 15 points and eight assists. “We’re only as good as the last two guys on the bench, which is Steve Novak and Landry Fields, and those two guys can play on any team in this league. “The biggest thing about our team is that we’re always ready, any of us, because you never know.” The win had major implications in Toronto’s chase for the second Atlantic Division title it the 19-year history of the franchise. Coupled with Brooklyn’s loss to the New York Knicks, the Raptors now have a 2 1/2 game lead on the Nets in the Atlantic Division with seven games left in the regular season.

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The Blazers aren’t alone in parlaying good health into exceeding expectations. The Toronto Raptors have been healthier than any other team in the league en route to a near certain Atlantic Division championship, while the Indiana Pacers have stayed healthy as part of their challenge for the top seed in the Eastern Conference postseason.