DeRozan pulls Raptors from the brink against Celtics

Well, now we know who the best team is, for sure.

Raptors 114, Celtics 106| Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

There are certain moments over the course of a season to which greater importance will later be ascribed. The defining toppling of a difficult opponent, the light bulb realization of a shift in strategy, a victory pulled from the jaws of defeat. Conversely, there could be an injury, an inexplicable loss of faith or cohesion, or a defeat that allows a snowball to continue amassing size and downward momentum.

For the early part of Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, the Toronto Raptors found themselves staring down the second possibility. Coming off of two terrible collapses on a weekend back-to-back, the Raptors faced the possibility of a third consecutive loss, something they’d avoided on nine consecutive occasions. They are not built to sustain losing streaks, the thinking goes, and despite all of the fatigue accumulated over the previous three weeks, an extended stretch at home would make tabula rasa of any list of excuses. What’s more, the visiting Boston Celtics came in red-hot, boasting stronger recent performance and taking aim at Toronto’s perch atop the Atlantic Division.

For a few minutes, they looked like the team they had promised to be before tip off. Yet another change to the starting lineup sparked the team’s best start against a quality opponent in some time, even though the new starter, Patrick Patterson, was somewhat ineffective at less than 100 percent (a fact head coach Dwane Casey repeated several times after the game). The defense was engaged, and while the quarter saw the Raptors drift into a bit of sloppiness, they appeared in good shape and ready to right the ship.

That sense was fleeting. The shaky tail-end to the first bled into an abhorrent second quarter, truly one of the worst the team has played all season. One of the league’s top offenses, Toronto looked unfamiliar in their sets, turned the ball over ad nauseam (normally one of their biggest strengths), and those turnovers helped fuel the Celtics’ attack the other way. When halftime rolled around, the Raptors were in a nine-point hole and reeling. By the time Al Horford hit a three to put the Celtics up 11 midway through the third quarter, the game felt all too familiar. Toronto wasn’t at their best, or anything close to it, and a team that relies so much on chemistry and effort and a near-perfect playing of their very specific roles simply can’t take full nights off.

Shortly after, DeMar DeRozan received a technical foul.

This was, it seems, one of those big moments. With frustrations boiling over, the foul was unjustified and handed the Celtics three points, but it was symbolic. DeRozan, one of the team’s two unquestioned leaders and occasionally their most demonstrative, had enough. This was DeRozan putting a stop to the recent slide, to the Raptors playing below their standard, to the questions about whether this team is 2014-15’s team or whether they even belong in the league’s second tier. This was DeRozan letting his teammates know that they weren’t going to let a third would-be peer steal a winnable game, that they wouldn’t cough up another on home court, that they weren’t going to spend the next few weeks against easier opponents wondering whether a turnaround in play would only hold up against lesser teams. It was time to remind Boston why, in the post-game words of Jonas Valanciunas, “they’re racing for second place, we’re racing for first.”

This was DeRozan, as he and Kyle Lowry have done so many times in the past, telling both teams that a game that was getting out of hand wasn’t done, that the writing on the wall wasn’t permanent, that the Celtics were going to have to wait a little while longer to claim the No. 1 contender spot in the Eastern Conference that the Raptors have been clawing for over the last several years.

“Is that what it looked like?” DeRozan asked, smiling, when it was suggested that his mindset was to prevent a three-game losing streak.

“Not willing to lose,” he added when asked about what went into his career-high 13 rebounds.

Those reasons are simple, but so, too, was DeRozan’s message. And the Raptors, nearly to a man, fell in line. From DeRozan’s technical onward, the Raptors would outscore the Celtics 46-27. They would hold Boston to 33.3-percent shooting. They would mostly decline to turn the ball over. And DeRozan would not miss. The Raptors railed off a 12-4 run to end the third quarter, and then blew the doors off of things in the fourth.

Tweaking his rotation in unfamiliar ways for most of the night, Casey saw fit to go to an old reliable for the stretch run. When the team was assembled last year, it appeared that the starters, with Cory Joseph in place of a power forward for additional ball-handling and perimeter defense, would be one of the team’s best lineups. That showed in small samples, but DeMarre Carroll’s injury limited their usage, and this year’s closers have included Patterson and, often, a non-Valanciunas center. Casey has called on Valanciunas to be dominant in the face of difficult defensive matchups, and he has heeded those words, turning in some of his best games of the season of late. On Tuesday, he was dominant enough, even against one of his toughest theoretical checks in Al Horford, to warrant Casey going back to last year’s presumed closers.

It was the right decision, and the lesson here may be the affirmation that the Raptors have what they need in-house on most nights. Valanciunas added a career-high 23 rebounds to DeRozan’s 13 to help swing the battle on the boards emphatically, and while a few of those – and a few of the misses in his 6-of-18 line – were due to him tipping his own shots around the rim, he was the decisive victor of most wars in the paint. The Lithuanian does not have to be Bismack Biyombo on defense to warrant playing in tight games, but he has to prove the defensive situation is tenable and swing the rebounding, and that allows the Raptors to reap the benefits of his screens and his gravity on the dive or on the block at the other end. He did that here, the Raptors were demonstrably better with him on the floor, and Casey’s once-shelved closing unit played to a plus-16 in eight minutes.

“He blocked shots, he challenged others, he dominated the glass, so, yeah,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

All the while, DeRozan played the role of cleaner. Lowry was hitting from outside in support, but the crunch-time offense amounted mostly to DeRozan doing what DeRozan has done for the bulk of the season. Short Avery Bradley to let them switch across four positions, the Celtics had to stomach the possibility of Isaiah Thomas getting switched on to one of the Raptors’ stars, and whether it was in that matchup or against Jae Crowder, DeRozan was getting his shot off, however difficult. Almost all of his attempts were contested, it didn’t matter. He shot 7-of-11 from his technical onward, adding 20 of his 41 points (he finished 16-of-29 shooting). No, he didn’t tally an assist, and that’s an issue on some nights, but the Raptors needed every basket he produced here. (He was also better on defense than he normally is.).

He woke the team, he decided things were going to change, and then he made sure to see it all through to the end. His teammates followed suit, answered the physicality of a tough Celtics team (albeit one that, it should be said, very much wilted down the stretch), and came out of what their head coach called a bloodbath with a few less scars.

“Sometimes you get tired of getting beaten up,” Casey said. “That says something about our team’s character, who they are, their fight, their grit.”

For DeRozan, it was just as simple as being unwilling to lose, and then being really stubborn about it. Whether or not that moment ends up looking like an important one later in the season, one that prevented the Raptors from sliding into a longer losing skid, one that took away their cloak of resilience after multiple defeats, one that saved them from weeks of soul-searching short on a marquee win as they once again beat on the dregs, is yet to be seen. But it was a moment, and it changed the course of at least one game.

“Them moments they get you going,” DeRozan said. “They get your adrenaline and everything going, take it up to another level. Everybody else has no other choice but to follow along. “

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