Coming off of a pair of unsightly losses to end a five-game road trip, the Toronto Raptors needed a win. They needed it in the literal sense, because a 2-3 trip had squandered their cushion for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and that’s a pretty important factor for this team looking ahead a month. They needed it in a more broad sense, too, because a losing streak can carry with it the seeds of doubt, and the schedule, while hardly arduous compared to earlier stretches, is fraught with teams fighting for their lives right now.
“I mean we’ve got what, 15, 16 games left?” head coach Dwane Casey asked rhetorically before the game, speaking to the urgency felt in the locker room. “And to understand what significance, it means in these next 16 games, home court.”
As with all things Raptors right now, that need comes with an accepted caveat: It’s probably not going to be sexy. The Raptors aren’t built to win pretty in general, and that’s an even more glaring reality when Kyle Lowry is sidelined, as he presently finds himself. It’s an old story despite being only a few weeks old right now: This version of the Raptors needs DeMar DeRozan to carry a heavy load against increasingly greater defensive attention, they need depth players to step beyond their roles, and they need to defend like hell, turning every game into an ugly war of attrition.
It couldn’t be more fitting, then, that with the Raptors in need of a win, the deciding stretch of play saw the hosts and the visiting Dallas Mavericks conspire to quietly ban all offense from the Air Canada Centre.
This is only slightly hyperbolic. The Raptors continued to lean on an all-bench group to start the fourth quarter, a fivesome that seems questionable on paper, devoid of players able to create for themselves or others, but one that had moderate success earlier in the game. Casey could choose to stagger the minutes of DeRozan, Serge Ibaka (a team-high plus-18 in a scoreless, defense-first effort), Cory Joseph, and even Jonas Valanciunas to help those groups, but the rotation remains an experiment in flux. So Casey rolled with a group that employed a high give-a-damn meter over the end of the first quarter and the start of the second, tasking them with holding on to a 13-point lead as long as possible.
Four minutes and 30 seconds later, that bench group had taken the “hold the score” edict almost too literally. To that point, a total of two points had been scored in the fourth, a long Fred VanVleet jumper that sent the Mavericks panicking with an early timeout. Until Patrick Patterson knocked down a triple, finally shaking his games-long aversion to taking them, offense was only a rumor. The Mavericks didn’t score until nearly five minutes into the frame, when Harrison Barnes dunked, preened, and cut the lead to…16. Sure.
“It makes the game a lot easier when you do that,” Casey said. “That’s the way we want to play, I thought we had a good rhythm from that tonight and that’s the key to it, getting stops…I really was impressed with Fred VanVleet, he and Delon Wright did a good job pushing the basketball, Norm Powell, keeping the tempo going.”
The game was still somewhat in reach for Dallas at that point, especially considering some of the offensive stretches the Raptors had struggled through. Casey started going back to starters, sitting Jakob Poeltl down after 44 minutes combined between this game and the Raptors 905 game earlier in the day, and eventually bringing DeRozan and Norman Powell back into the game. VanVleet remained, though, and knocked down a nice jumper as the Mavericks went under a high screen, an encouraging sign that Powell and Delon Wright have also flashed of late (VanVleet and Wright did a really nice job here of playing Fake Razor Ramon and Fake Diesel to Lowry and Joseph). Things went more or less swimmingly from there, and soon Pascal Siakam joined Poeltl in the Fred VanVleet Doubleheader Club, and Lucas Nogueira broke a string of seven consecutive DNP-CDs by playing the victory cigar role.
“He (Poeltl) and Pascal, I told ‘em, what’d Ernie Banks say? Let’s play two,” Casey said of the rookies. “Those two men are going to be excellent players in this league, their time is going to come. I love Jakob’s intellect on the floor, he knows where to be, what to do. He gets some cheap calls…those two young men are going to be excellent players in our program.”
The Raptors’ cruise-control was so extreme in the fourth quarter that DeRozan even sat down with 3:30 to go and the team up 21, finishing another terrific night with 25 points, six rebounds, and two assists. DeRozan’s two assists don’t do nearly enough justice to how he handled attention from Dallas’ gaggle of sizable wings and array of traps, as he propped up the offense for significant stretches by facilitating and making some savvy reads of the floor. Wesley Matthews leaving the game shortly before halftime with a calf injury helped, sure, but Barnes and Dorian Finney-Smith are tough assignments, and the Mavs were aggressive getting up into DeRozan early in possessions.
DeRozan’s exit was followed by the crowd roaring as Powell stared down the Mavericks defense, looking to push the Raptors to 100 points and deliver free pizza. Did he realize it? Well, he waved a hand to the crowd after making the first of two free throws, then did his duty as a fan favorite and sank the second.
“Yeah, I felt the energy when I was at the free-throw line, about getting the free throws to get 100,” Powell conceded of the somewhat silly tradition. “That’s double – we get a win and they get free pizza. But it was a big win for us coming off the road trip and dropping two, our last two games, so we were really focused and locked in.”
Prior to the near-shutout to start the fourth, Powell had been a big part of the team’s success. Not only did he take up the call of chasing a red-hot Seth Curry around and limiting him to five points, he continued his recent emergence as one of the team’s best bets to step up in support of DeRozan on offense. Powell only took eight shots, but he used them well, kicking in 19 points with three assists and really helping push Toronto’s transition game.
“Yeah, that’s when we’re at our best, when we go out there and play,” DeRozan said of the offensive tempo. “Especially once we get stops and not worrying about a play call, but understanding, get to our spots and make something happen for one another.”
Getting out and running a bit was a focal point against the glacial Mavericks, and it started on the other side of the ball. The Raptors have been better on defense since the All-Star break, and Monday was a look at how good they can be there when dialed in over even just 36 minutes. They shook off an iffy first quarter to hold Dallas to 36.5-percent shooting, just seven threes, and only 13 trips to the free-throw line, forcing Dirk Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes into tough shooting nights alongside the team’s shaky guard play. Valanciunas was able to tilt a tough Nowitzki matchup by playing bully inside, posting a 14-point, 12-rebound double-double in 23 minutes (his absence in the fourth was as much about the blowout as any performance issue), too.
Holding any team, let alone one fighting for its playoff life, to 87.7 points per-100 possessions is a nice accomplishment. Coming off of a pair of lesser defensive efforts, it’s a proper righting of the ship ahead of yet another tough weekend with three games in four nights. The team’s defensive rating is now 102.8 since the All-Star break, seventh in the league, and they’ve nudged up to 13th in defensive efficiency on the season. There are signs of respectability, and while there were divergent opinions in the locker room about how much standings-watching is appropriate at this point – Atlanta lost, giving the Raptors a renewed two-game edge in the race for fourth – there was consensus that it’s this type of defensive effort that will lend itself to the results they need over the next month.
“If we string this together,” Patterson cautioned about the fleeting success of defense. “This is how we should be playing on a consistent basis on the defensive side of the ball. It shows what we are capable of on the defensive end of the ball, but it’s just one game.”
It’s just one game. One ugly game. Ugly sure is a lot prettier in a win.