Since their series against the Brooklyn Nets began four games ago, these Toronto Raptors have committed 64 turnovers.
Of these Raptors’ key contributors, three (Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, and Patrick Patterson) are noticeably hobbled. Another – DeMar DeRozan – was knocked around numerous times during the second half of last night’s contest. Terrence Ross has been ineffective, to say the least, Landry Fields didn’t play last night due to back spasms, and Jonas Valanciunas has struggled to stay on the floor with foul trouble.
These Raptors are dealing with a major experience disadvantage, with their opponents boasting two hall-of-famers (three if you count Jason Kidd) and four former all-stars in their starting lineup.
These Raptors haven’t been granted any favours by the officiating crew. Yes, it’s been atrocious both ways, but there have been a multitude of close calls that have gone the Nets’ way – the most egregious of which arguably swung game three.
These Raptors, by the way, are heading back to Toronto with the series tied at two games apiece.
To say that the results have been a tad surprising given the product we’ve seen on the court is an understatement. At one point during last night’s game, the Raptors were 1-16 from the field in the second half and legitimately looked at a loss. The collective vitriol/confusion was evident in the Twittersphere, with every variation of “how are we winning this game?” being thrown around by someone at some point.
Yet as the clock waned down in the fourth quarter, there we stood, up by eight points. Somehow, some way, these Raptors had found a way to pull it out. Again.
From a long angle, no, it didn’t really make sense. From a long angle, though, nothing about this magical season has really made all that much sense.
Yet for some reason, this team, this group of guys, continues to rewrite the script that surrounds this franchise and this city’s sports scene. In the moment, everything makes sense.
Of course the Raptors managed to find a way to win. They’re the Raptors. And the fact that that means what it does this year tells you everything you need to know about this game.
Nobody on this team cares what makes sense any more. They’re past being told how good they’re supposed to be, how games are supposed to be won. Journeymen point guards aren’t supposed to be in the upper echelon of NBA players. Second year small forwards aren’t supposed to score 50 points in a game. One dimensional jump shooters aren’t supposed to be All Stars averaging 4 assists per contest. Teams with injured starters who can’t hit a shot are supposed to roll over, not lock down.
The Raptors threw out the script a long time ago. The result has been one hell of a roller coaster ride.
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Kyle Lowry is the man who drives the engine for the Raptors, and any breakdown of how the team was able to gut out this win starts with him. He’s been noticeably hurt all series – his limp is evident – yet he still finds the will to bum-rush into the lane like a mini Dwyane Wade, step out and take charges, and gamble for steals while saddled with five fouls. In short: this is a man who you legitimately feel would give everything for this team, and that culture has seeped its way across the locker room.
If he’ll do it for us, we need to do it for him.
Lowry ended the night with 22 points on 7-17 shooting and 4 assists – not his finest boxscore, but enough on a night where points were very difficult to come by. Having a leader like this is a damn fine quality for a basketball team to have, and in a series where the smallest of edges may tip the scales, it’s a rather large checkmark on the Raptors’ side of the tally.
Amir Johnson, of course, is the other side of this coin. Playing on a bum leg like Lowry, he showed tonight why he’s the darling of the analytics crowd – diving through the lane on pick and rolls for a very effective 17 points on 7-11 shooting. We’ve spent the entire series crowing over Johnson’s inability to expose Paul Pierce down low – his two missed three pointers in game 3 didn’t help matters – and last night was an excellent example of what happens when he’s utilized on the pick and roll against two smaller defenders. Take a look at his shot chart, which is a thing of beauty:
Although it was Amir and Lowry’s late-game heroics which sealed the game for the Raps, it was their young All-Star who got them going in the first half. It’s difficult to explain it to someone who may have missed the game, and you won’t get it from his box score line, but DeMar DeRozan was looking absolutely unstoppable for the first 20 minutes of this game. Some of his catch and shoot “no, no…. YES!!” long-twos were real, real difficult shots (two were and-1s, and another was a contested corner 3), but once he began rolling, it was hard to believe that he wasn’t going to go for 40 points in this one.
That didn’t happen, obviously, but it bodes well going forward – both in this series and in his career – to see him stepping up and taking the team on his shoulders. A friend told me last week that Paul Pierce is the perfect player for DeMar to see in his first playoff series, and it’s an apt comparison. DeRozan has already proven he can seize the moment; his most important adjustment, now, is to figure out when that moment should be.
All this waxing poetic isn’t to say that there aren’t some warts to work out. The coaching this series has been… inconsistent, let’s say, and questionable lineup decisions once again appeared to play into the game’s narrative. The most confusing lineup we saw on the floor was a Vasquez/DeRozan/Salmons/Novak/Hayes abomination that began the fourth quarter while Jonas Valanciunas sat on the sidelines for no apparent reason.
Jonas was one of the Raptor contributors who managed to avoid foul trouble – he finished the game with 4 – and his second half-benching (he was pulled with 9 minutes remaining in the third quarter, returned with 8 minutes remaining in the fourth, and played 3 and a half minutes before being removed again) was simply perplexing. It’s evident, at least to me, that Jonas > Garnett/Blatche/whoever is the biggest mismatch the Raptors have, and to simply sit him down in favour of Chuck Hayes still confuses me. In this case, though, Casey and his staff were spared repercussions (and it’s not like I didn’t understand the decision to go with Patterson and Amir late in the game), but decisions like this – where it honestly seems like the most likely outcome is that Casey forgot Jonas was sitting on his bench – are, again, small ones that could have major implications in a series this close.
The third quarter in its entirety, actually, was a disaster. The Raptors shot 19 per cent for the quarter after going through the aforementioned 1-16 rut, and a good amount of those shots were either DeRozan or Vasquez isolation plays that led to contested long jumpers. DeRozan needs to be continually reminded that he’s not Rudy Gay – he’s a highly skilled offensive player, but the team is far more effective when he’s driving and dishing and being selective in his shot attempts, rather than throwing up everything in sight. It’s a sign of immaturity and perhaps a little nervousness, and it will come, but the Jekyll and Hyde nature of that playing style came out in full force tonight. It was almost too predictable that once DeRozan was pulled late in the quarter, the offence opened up and the Raptors began digging themselves out of their hole.
In the fourth quarter, though, the mettle of these Toronto Raptors was overwhelmingly evident. Gone were the isolation plays (well, most of them) and passive defence, replaced instead by excellent ball movement and the most tenacious team D we’ve seen all season. The Nets hit their last field goal of the game with 6 minutes and 11 seconds remaining in the fourth. Think about that.
This team was able to bring their collective intensity up to the level required when it was required most – something that’s a breath of fresh air for Toronto sports fans weaned on the disappointing Raptors, Jays, and Leafs over past decades. It’s the reason that having the best fourth quarter point differential in the league wasn’t a meaningless stat.
These Raptors know how to bring their game to a new level, and what we saw tonight on the defensive end late was truly inspiring stuff, particularly when you take all the aforementioned injuries and foul trouble (both Lowry and Amir played out the game with 5) into account. It’s stretches like this where all of the warts – the DeRozan iso play, Casey’s questionable coaching decisions – don’t seem so large in retrospect. Every player on this team has a role to play, and their coach has done an excellent job of soliciting the buy-in required to play defence at that level for that extended of a period of time.
It was remarkable to watch – and yes, to echo Will’s quick reaction, I wasn’t quite sure how in the hell the Raptors managed to pull out the victory. But they did. The series is now a best of 3 affair, and, assuming the Raptors’ bodies hold up, it’s hard not to think that momentum has swung firmly back in our favour.
There are a lot of comments out there saying that the Raps, at some point, will have to string together a full game’s worth (at least) of good basketball. Maybe, though, that’s missing the point.
Have we gotten four games of a team running on all cylinders? No. Not even close.
Have we gotten four games where the Raptors have collectively outscored Brooklyn in the fourth quarter by 20 points? Yes.
Have we gotten four games of gritty, hard nosed, never say die basketball? Yes.
Have we gotten four games of solid collective team defence? Yes.
In short, what we’ve gotten is four games of Raptors basketball. And like tonight, maybe, just maybe, that’ll be enough.
Game 5 goes Wednesday. Get loud, people. Your heroes are coming home.Follow @raptorsrepublic