Raptors Dismantle Magic, Good Times Roll

Happy New Year!

Raptor fans, it's time to put your hands in the air, and commence waving them like you just don't care.

Raptor fans, it's time to put your hands in the air, and commence waving them like you just don't care.

Wow. That’s about all I can say about this one, off the top of my head. Of course, you didn’t come here for one-word articles, and there’ll be a bit more directed analysis then that to follow (click here for the Quick Reaction), but I figured I’d start the postgame by talking about how much fun that game was to watch last night. The 3s were falling, the team was running on all cylinders, and it really did feel like I was watching the Raptors of the glory years. Sure, close games are exciting, but after all the heartbreaking losses to start the season, it was pretty damn entertaining to just watch an old fashioned Raptor blowout.

As the broadcast began and it became clear that the Magic were without Jameer Nelson and E’Twaun Moore (just the only two point guards who receive playing time), you had a feeling that tonight could be a good one for the Raps. Sure, they were on the road playing a back-to-back, but a team rolling out a 3rd string player against the position that has proven to be the Raptors’ greatest strength? On paper, it seemed like a recipe for disaster for the Magic, and the Raps had to be licking their chops when they got the opposing roster before the game.

That wasn’t exactly how things began, though. The Magic started Ish Smith at PG, who I’d never heard of before (had to look him up – he played at Wake Forest, who knew?), but who was making things difficult for Jose in the early going, shredding past him into the lane, as speedy offensive point guards are wont to do. Luckily for the Raptors, he proved to be a fairly offensively limited player (I suppose that’s why he’s a 3rd stringer, after all), and so his effectiveness in the lane was largely limited to dishes to the Orlando bigs, particularly Andrew Nicholson, who had a very good night shooting the ball both in mid-range and off post-ups. Vucevic was also quite effective from mid-range, which will continue to be an issue as long as Aaron Gray gets starters minutes – due to his size, he’s hesitant to close the distance on jump-shooting bigs, and so if opposing centers can make the 15-footer, there’ll always be the chance they go off on him. In either case, the Magic bigs dominated the outset of this game, even though Raptor shots were falling, and forced Casey to call timeout early with the Raps down 17-11.

My, though, what a difference a minute can make, and the Raptors came out of the huddle looking nothing like the team we’ve been accustomed to seeing this year. This was a group of players jump shooting with confidence, taking the ball to the rack when it was open (even Jose finished a nice drive in the first, rather than dish as he’s done so often this year), and after a quarter the Raps had turned the 6 point deficit into a 15 point advantage largely due to a ridiculous .700 shooting percentage (and 4 of 5 from 3 point range!). That exceedingly high shooting percentage looked (and proved to be) unsustainable, but there were other signs that the scoring differential may not be: for one, the Raptors assisted on 11 of their 14 made field goals in the quarter (a ridiculous 78.5%), showing a team effort to move the ball and find the open shot.

For me, that ball movement was the biggest take-away from tonight’s win. Success breeds success, and it sure looked like the Raptor players were enjoying swinging the ball around the perimeter to find the best shot possible. Numerous players (DeRozan and Pietrus, to name two) besides our point guards brought the ball through the lane, only to find the open man outside rather than force up a shot. This team doesn’t have a true number one scoring option, and playing “team ball” like this is clearly the way the Raptor offense is most effective. They may  not always be able to put up 120, but this mindset is the only way they’ll get there, and so hopefully it will become part of the team’s hard-nosed all-for-one identity.

The second quarter was more of the same from the Raptors, as the bench came in and continued to shoot the lights out of the building (ending the half 10 for 14 from long range). Once again, the Raptors went small with their second unit, but this time using Landry Fields instead of Linas Kleiza at the “4.” Kleiza actually didn’t get any run at all during the game (no idea why, yet), but Fields made Casey look like a genius with the move, continuing his excellent play since his return from injury and making up for his lack of size with great hustle, both defensively and on the glass. I’m very quickly becoming a Fields fan – it’s so refreshing to watch Raptor wings actively hunting for boards – and it seems like he’s had better and better games every time he’s gotten burn since his return. Sure, we can haggle about the contract all we like, but the bottom line is he’s a member of the team, and production like this will help the Raps win on a nightly basis. Simple as that.

The Raps ended the half up 67-47, which must have had Raptor fans who switched over to the UFC prelims or “The Chronicles of Narnia” on CBC double-checking their phone/tablet/box score providers of choice in disbelief. Sure, the Magic were shorthanded and their defence was porous, but putting up that many points on any NBA team is an impressive achievement, and regardless of the opponent the Raptors were playing their best offensive basketball of the year. It was a lot of fun to watch this group playing with extreme confidence – it really did seem like they were able to score whenever and however they wanted, no matter who was on the floor or who the Magic had on defence. This was the deep, talented team we’ve been promised by management all season, and although the chances of us seeing a performance like this more than a couple more times during the course of the year is slim, it’s still fun to watch games like this and just forget about the team’s record on nights like tonight. Mickael Pietrus made the bold claim at halftime that the Raptors would make the playoffs if they could keep up this sort of effort for the rest of the year, and, for once, it didn’t seem like a stretch.

As usual, the Raptor starters came back in to start the 3rd quarter, and promptly looked like they’d already won the game. The offense became stagnant, with wings standing around the perimeter and waiting for Jose to distribute rather than moving the ball with the frequency we saw in the first half, the defence began to sag, and it was only because a good percentage of Raptor jumpers were still falling that Orlando was only able to cut the lead to 13 midway through the quarter. At this point, Casey had seen enough, and reinserted Amir for the struggling Aaron Gray (who really struggled this game – he’s just not built for fast-paced, end to end games like this one), as well as Alan Anderson and Kyle Lowry. This substitution, in my opinion, was the death knell for the Magic – Lowry promptly reinvigorated the team with a couple of phenomenal drives, Anderson contributed on the other end with tenacious defence (very quickly becoming a recurring theme, which is extremely exciting), and by the time the quarter was over, the Raptors were up 16 and essentially playing the entire fourth in garbage time. Ball game, and nothing really left to speak of other than stat-padding and how crappy Hedo Turkoglu looked (seriously, -37 in 23 minutes? I don’t know what I’m more shocked about – that we gave him that ludicrous contract, or that we found someone else willing to take him off our hands).

I won’t elaborate too much on the end of the game, save to say that Quincy Acy looked pretty good in his few minutes of playing time (I really wish he’d get a bit more run, especially in games like this where the outcome really wasn’t in question), and it was great to see John Lucas play so well after what was certainly an unbelievably emotional day for him following his grandmother’s passing. I think I speak for everyone here at RR when I say we wish all the best to both him and his family.

Long story short, though, the Raptors won a game by 35 in which everyone, save Gray (did I mention he led the team in turnovers tonight?) played an excellent game. Sure, it might not be the team we see every night. Hell, it might not even be the team we see every few weeks. But for tonight, it sure was a lot of fun to watch our guys run up and down another team, on the road, and dream of what could be. The favourable schedule continues Wednesday back in Toronto against Portland. Here’s hoping we start the New Year as well as we finished 2012.

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