Exhale: This win feels like a relief more than anything else. The Raptors had played some of their worst basketball in recent weeks and couldn’t afford to slide into third with a loss to the hated Celtics. It wasn’t easy, but the Raptors took care of business and righted the ship before this upcoming creampuff schedule.
As a player, when do you know when you’ve hit another level in your career?
DeRozan: I don’t think you know. It’s really not something you’re conscious of because you’re putting in the work in the moment. You expect however you’re playing to come along if you’re putting in the work. And I think in the long run when you’re able to look at your body of work, you’ll be able to see the progression you make.
The 114-106 victory was by no means a dominant performance by the Raptors but there’s just something about this team that will not allow a three-game losing streak to happen.
The last time the Raptors lost three in a row it was November of 2015.
“Boston’s a very good team, a well-coached team, their constitution is tough, physical, hard and we meet that,” an obviously proud Dwane Casey said after the game. “They’re going to be our rival for a while.”
The Raptors head coach called the game a bloodbath and crowed like a proud father about how his team met every physical challenge the Celtics threw at them.
“Sometimes you get tired of getting beaten up,” Casey said. “If you’re playing on the playground, at least when I was young, you get tired of getting beaten up by the bully and all at once you fought back. And that’s what we did. I thought our guys fought back.”
DeRozan wasn’t ready to admit the Celtics were that rivalry the team has been searching for, but he’s fine if that is what this becomes.
“I don’t know,” he said of this becoming a nasty rivalry. “I think we are due for a rivalry, if it’s them I don’t know. But it’s definitely fun when we play against a Boston team.”
“Is that what it looked like?” he said with a knowing smile. “Yeah. It sucks to lose. You are going to lose games in this league but you don’t want to make it something consistent. More than one and if it’s two you want to get into a mode where you are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure you get that win and get that monkey off your back.”
DeRozan took the poor monkey and threw it to the floor. He was very angry with the monkey.
Down nine with six minutes left DeRozan took over, one contested two-point shot at a time, a performance that looked like it had been taken from a time capsule buried in 1977.
“DeRozan made some shots that are very, very, difficult shots,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
It was beautiful, if you’re into perfectly preserved retro art. He scored 12 points in the final six minutes as the Raptors outscored Boston 23-6 down the stretch on their way to a 114-106 comeback win.
If there was ever any doubt, DeRozan takes very personally all this winning and losing; this might have been his signature expression of it.
“He’s a tough kid,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “He didn’t grow up in Compton [California] for nothing.”
On the backs of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors rallied from 16-points down to win a crucial divisional matchup with the Celtics. Josh Lewenberg and Leo Rautins have more on Toronto’s all-stars stepping up and discuss Jonas Valanciunas being a monster on the boards.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) January 11, 2017
CLOSING IT OUT
With DeMar DeRozan on the bench to start the fourth, the Celtics extended their lead to eight points before he re-entered the game. An Al Horford three made the Boston lead nine before a DeRozan pull-up jumper kicked off a Raptors flurry and a 13-4 run to tie the game at 104 with 2:23 remaining. After a pair of disappointing fourth quarters in their previous two losses, Toronto was rock solid down the stretch against the Celtics, closing the game on a 10-2 run. Most important, the Raptors were solid on both ends of the floor to close out the game, as they controlled the boards and defended under the basket with Jonas Valanciunas coming up with a pair of huge blocks to protect Toronto’s lead.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) January 11, 2017
There were certainly mistakes and awkward attempts at recovery by Valanciunas early, but for the most part, he helped to steady the Raptors’ defense. The bleeding was at its most profuse when Valanciunas sat. A makeshift bench unit to start the second quarter (the rotations were thrown out of whack by Patterson FINALLY getting to start) erased the accomplishments of an excellent defensive showing in the opening 12 minutes. With Valanciunas playing just two minutes in the second through a combination of regularly scheduled rest and foul trouble, the Celtics dropped 37 points on 16-of-24 shooting. When on the court, Valanciunas posted an uncharacteristic 94.1 defensive rating.
That number looks extra impressive when you consider it wasn’t even propped up by Patrick Patterson the way it normally would be. Typically, Valanciunas’ success on defense is tied to Toronto’s best big man defender. On Tuesday, Patterson, still not 100 percent according to Dwane Casey, was largely invisible. He shared just 14 minutes of floor time with Valanciunas, and posted a personal defensive rating of 110.4 in his first start of the year.
In the fourth quarter, Valanciunas rode shotgun to DeRozan. Trailing by nine with six minutes remaining, DeRozan brought back glimpses of the opening two weeks of the season. Without Avery Bradley in the lineup, the Celtics had no way of diverting DeRozan away from his desired spots on the floor.
The big third frame was part of a big second half for DeRozan, who scored 31 of his 41 points after the break. Once he was out of the box, the Celtics couldn’t get him back in it. DeRozan got it going to the basket and in the mid-range, where he excels. No matter who the Celtics threw at him, he got it done over and over.
Jonas Valanciunas was also big, literally and figuratively, for the Raptors. He finished with 18 points, 23 rebounds and 2 blocks in less than 28 minutes. He was all over the glass on both ends, finishing with 11 offensive rebounds. Rebounding has been a weakness all year for Boston, and Toronto took advantage to the nth degree.
Kyle Lowry was also big for Toronto with 24 points, including a key 4-point play when the Raptors were trailing by two points late in the 4th quarter. Lowry spent a lot of the night off the ball, with Cory Joseph running the offense, and the Celtics struggled to adjust to handling him off screens.
The Celtics led 100-91 with six minutes left, but surrendered a 23-6 game-closing run, during which DeRozan racked up 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Even his lone miss resulted in two points for Toronto; Valunciunas fought off Olynyk for the rebound and drew two free throws for his efforts.
“We’ve got to shore up the rebounding,” Stevens said. “That’s a huge part of our defensive issues. I thought they were clearly the more physical team for those 12 minutes.”
During that possession and a short number of others late in the game, the Celtics tried switching Thomas onto DeRozan despite a huge size difference. Like every other strategy they attempted, that one proved incapable of slowing down the rumbling All-Star.
“We actually had not avoided switching, because Isaiah is much better guarding in those situations than people would think based on his size. And he actually challenged him great twice,” Stevens said. “He challenged him as well as anybody I thought, because he’s low to the ground and then he made him miss the first. They ended up getting the tip-in. But I mean if our smallest guy is challenging the shot, it should be advantageous for our rebounding.”
“He scores on everybody,” Thomas explained. “So you just have to try and contest shots and make it tough on him. I was right there a few times. I mean, I’m a lot shorter than he is, but at the same time I contested it. That’s all you can ask for. When guys get in a rhythm it doesn’t really matter who you have on them.”
“It was a bloodbath,” Casey said afterward, referring the physical bent of the contest. “It was nip and tuck all the way.”
Although a game against the Celtics these days is anything but a soft touch, Tuesday’s game did offer a bit of schedule relief for the Raptors as it represented just the second time they have played consecutive games at home in more than a month.
The Raptors were wearing their retro Toronto Huskies uniform for the event.
Toronto came into the game eager to move on from an unsightly two-game losing skid, coughing up big leads to both the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets in back-to-back outings over the weekend.
It has been more than a calendar year since Toronto last dropped three in a row.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) January 11, 2017
“He’s going to bring a lot,” said DeMarre Carroll, ahead of Toronto’s bounce-back 114-106 win over the streaking Celtics, Sullinger’s former club. “A lot of people forgot about Jared. They forgot we got that in our back pocket.”
When he is available to play again – likely around late January-to-early February – his integration into Toronto’s lineup should be interesting. The son of a coach, Sullinger has earned rave reviews for his basketball intellect while on the sideline, but it will take time for him to get acclimated and, most importantly, back into game shape.
Like any addition to the rotation – and that’s what he will be, an addition – there’s a learning curve, a feeling out process for him, the coaching staff and the rest of the players. Outside of a few practices just prior to sustaining the injury in Toronto’s first pre-season game, Sullinger is essentially an unknown commodity to most of his teammates.
Although he’s probably not the saviour at power forward – Toronto’s weakest position – he should help; the question is, to what degree?
That’s something the Raptors were uncertain of even when they signed him in July. In need of a replacement for both Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo, and after striking out on a few big fish at the position (Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol and Paul Millsap among them), Sullinger became a reasonable fallback option at an affordable cost ($5.63 million over one year). Coming off a down season – his fourth in Boston – and having battled weight issues in the past, he was far from a safe bet. Still, the Raptors were intrigued by his skill set and obvious motivation to have a bounce-back campaign.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) January 11, 2017
A Celtics team that has routinely taken care of business against lesser foes this season — Boston is 0-4 against the Raptors and Cavaliers but 13-3 versus the rest of the East — looked a bit disheveled after the Raptors rallied Tuesday. It seems fair to wonder if there’s a bit of a mental hurdle that these Celtics must overcome to truly compete with the Raptors.
The Celtics have three months to figure things out. As we near the midpoint of the 2016-17 season, playoff seedings are tenuous at best, but ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives both Toronto (65.5 percent chance at the No. 2 seed) and Boston (71.4 percent chance at the No. 3 seed) heavy odds to finish where they currently stand.
Although the Celtics still have to prove they can win a playoff series, BPI offers a 42.4 percent chance that Boston and Toronto will meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals. No other two-team matchup is nearly as likely (for instance, a Celtics-Cavaliers semis matchup has the next-best odds, at 21.2 percent).
Another loss to a quality foe will mean a rehash of Boston’s struggles against good teams this season. Boston is 0-8 against the teams ahead of it in the league standings. The Celtics are still searching for a win against a truly elite opponent. Despite all of Isaiah Thomas’ fourth-quarter wizardry lately, he couldn’t rescue Boston on Tuesday.
That the Celtics’ upswing coincides with Toronto’s first real period of a struggle only makes things more interesting.
“We’re looking at a team that’s one of the top teams in the NBA — not only in the Eastern Conference but in the NBA — and one of the top point guards (Isaiah Thomas) in the league,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “We’ve had two losses, which is not a reason to panic, but just the way we lose. So everything goes into the mix. Our focus, our energy, our toughness, whatever the adjectives you want to use has to be in play (for the matchup).”
Horford makes his presence felt in almost every facet of the game, while Thomas is the Celtics primary source of scoring.
“He’s unbelievable in the fourth quarter, he’s the best player in the league in the NBA in the fourth quarter,” Casey said of Thomas, the final selection in the 2011 draft by the Sacramento Kings. He has since moved to Phoenix and now Boston where he has established his all-star credentials.
“He’s proven that, their team is one of the highest scoring teams in the fourth quarter,” Casey said marvelling at Thomas’ late-game heroics. “We know that, you know that going into the fourth quarter so your high beams better be on when you are going into the fourth quarter against Thomas.”
If Ujiri and the Raptors swing for the fences to have a “Big Three” of Demar, K-Lo and Cousins, the worst that could happen is we regress to an average playoff team with more tinkering to do. But if they gel, boy… If it works and they feed off of one another, then we could very well send the league into a global meltdown by having the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals.
My fellow Raps fan, we’ve escaped from the shackles of expansion team despondency. Like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank, for years we endured, quietly chipping through bricks (and my God, there were lots of bricks). Now we find ourselves one player away from potentially reaching the end of the sewage pipe. We’re almost there.
And when Demarcus Cousins comes to Toronto, and the Raptors make the finals, we will kneel in the lightening and pouring rain together, thinking of everything that once was and how it shall be no more.
That’s if we pull the trigger.
As my Serbian grandfather used to say when he wanted his walnut pudding: “Now is the time.”
To end the show the guys discuss if Boston or Toronto is the second best team in the East. As usual JD and Donnovan disagree. They also debate if Toronto needs to make a trade to improve defensively. (31:00).
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