Best Two-Game Stretch in Years: Raptors Down Thunder in OKC, Salmon Shines

Raptors 104, Thunder 98 – Box

My full and total apologize to #TankNation, I realize that this was not how you wanted this game to end, but sometimes we just have to accept that the team we support won a great game on the road against a Western Conference powerhouse.  I’m sure that sinking feeling of winning must feel awful, and I recommend getting some sleep, having some Nyquil, and if you’re the religious type, praying to your respective God that the Raptors start their next losing streak ASAP.  I even suggest consoling yourself with some lies about how this was a matter of OKC looking past us, not taking us seriously, or some other fib, whatever works.  Now, go to bed and we’ll see you soon enough as we “suck to get better”.  Good night.

For the rest of you who were cheering for the Raptors last night or simply missed the game, I can honestly say that this was a great one to watch, especially on the OKC feed where Leo Rautins is nowhere close to a microphone to ruin it for us.  The Raptors went toe-to-toe against the Thunder, took some punches, threw punches back, and were faced with adversity in the fourth quarter as they were down 10, but they responded like a team playing with confidence and believing in their abilities, however limited you might think they are.

[Read the Reaction Post for Individual Player Analysis]


Unlike Dallas, the Raptors didn’t put themselves in a hole early and if anything, came out prepared to battle the Thunder in two areas where they’re most dangerous: on the glass and in transition.  The old philosophy goes that if you control the glass you’ll tone down the opposition’s fast-break chances and that’s exactly what the Raptors did.    The Raptors were +1 and +2 on the boards in the first and second quarters, respectively, which slowed the tempo of the game to manageable levels.  OKC were prevented from dominating the fast-break, getting easy baskets, and getting their overrated crowd going.  Instead, they were forced to play a slower game in the half-court, one the Raptors can better deal with.  In the half-court the Raptors’ perimeter defense was effective, starting with Kyle Lowry (22 pts, 9 ast, 7 reb, 6-16 FG, 2 TO) and down to Salmons, Ross, and even Patterson when he came out.  The reduced penetration meant the bigs weren’t called up on to play a tremendous amount of help defense and in-turn, focused on the boards.

The Raptors offense wasn’t firing by any means, as they only shot 33% in the first quarter, but they were playing defense, forcing turnovers (8 in the first quarter) and keeping OKC in check.  That amounted to a four point lead at the end of the first which was extended further in the early second on some blistering three-point shooting where the Raptors went 4-7 from three.  Once the second-unit came in (DeRozan stuck around), things deteriorated defensively.  Notably, Greivis Vasquez did not fare well against Reggie Jackson who played him around like a yo-yo.  As much as I like having a legit bearded man like Vasquez in the rotation, Casey should’ve pulled the plug early on him because it was clear Jackson had him picked out.

OKC started getting out in transition in the second as the Raptors defense took a slight step off the pedal, abandoned their interior play and stuck to jumpers, which allowed OKC to get back in it.  The halftime lead was six but it could’ve been a lot more had the bench held their own.  The Raptors shot 61% and OKC was at 63% in the second.  They key factor for me was once again rebounding, which the Raptors were +2 in the quarter, and the most amazing stat that came out of it was Serge Ibaka being held rebound-less in the half.  One of the strategies employed by the Raptors seemed to be to help off of Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and Perry Jones to focus on protecting the paint and not letting Westbrook and Durant run rampant through the Raptors defense.  Essentially, let someone other than their big guns beat you.  It worked for the most part and even when it wasn’t working (e.g., like that Lamb three in the fourth), Casey stuck to his plan and it worked out in the end.

If you were expecting the Raptors to fold and OKC to come back in the third you were half right.  OKC did came back on account of an amazing free-throw disparity which stood at 33-34  to the Raptors’ 11-13 (some really questionable calls including a non-call on a DeRozan drive).  DeRozan (17 pts, 4 ast, 2 reb, 7-20 FG), who had pedalled the Raptors offense with some good mid-range play in the first half was struggling to get space with Kevin Durant checking him, and Kyle Lowry was getting into some individual play with Russell Westbrook after a professional first half.  The offense was sputtering but not stalled, Valanciunas was providing a good interior physical presence and even scored on a nice turnaround jump-hook, and Patterson provided some late shot-clock bailouts to keep things chugging along.

Dwane Casey benched Valanciunas with 6:16 left in the third and replaced him with Tyler Hansbrough, and the Thunder promptly went on a 14-4 run.  Without Valanciunas or DeRozan, the offense was null and Vasquez’ defense (or lack of) was spotted by Westbrook who went at him to the tune of a few scores.  The 15-point third quarter turnaround had the Thunder going into the fourth with a 9-point lead, and more importantly, had momentum on their side.

I was honestly surprised to see Vasquez out there to start the fourth and thought Casey would bring in Lowry to see if this deficit could be cut early.  I’m glad he didn’t because Vasquez did well to make up for his earlier stint with some excellent quarterbacking of the offense: he had two assists, a score, and got fouled for FTs in the first few minutes of the quarter.  Reggie Jackson didn’t get a chance to exploit him because Jeremy Lamb and Derek Fisher dominated the ball and more importantly, the Raptors team defense led by John Salmons disrupting the passing lanes and keeping the Thunder wings at bay, including Durant, resulted in missed jumpers.

John Salmons perhaps had his best spell in a few seasons in the fourth quarter as he went off for 9 clutch points when the Raptors offense was under pressure and looking lost.  DeRozan was being checked by Durant and double-teamed on his elbow face-ups, and Lowry wasn’t finding much room once he got past Westbrook.  Sometimes, you need pressure to be relieved and Salmons did just that, and his defense on Durant shouldn’t be discounted either.  You need someone to step up in the fourth quarter and it doesn’t have to be the same guy every night, which is the norm on effective squads.  Last night it was Salmons who delivered and Johnson who later iced it with this great snatch from Ibaka.  Later, Casey spoke about Salmons and the defense on Durant:


“Guys buckled down. I thought John Salmons did a tremendous job. Amir Johnson did a tremendous job. You don’t hold a guy like Kevin Durant down like they did many times. He had a quiet 24. He had to work for each one of them. I thought those guys did a magnificent job sticking to the game plan and making him work for his shots. The only thing you want to do is slow a guy down and I thought that was the huge difference in the game.”

Lowry was quick to shower praises on Salmons as well:

“John Salmons, I mean give him the game ball, offensively and defensively. Just, here, take the ball. He was a big-time player tonight.  He’s been in this league 12 years. He’s made some money, he’s made good money, he’s been on all types of teams, playoffs and he’s a veteran guy that we all look at and say, ‘hey look if the guy can get to 12 years and do what he’s done and he’s still coming out here playing hard, playing defence like it’s his last possession then that just shows the pride he takes in the game and you can’t let him down.’ ”

Could the Raptors beat the Thunder in a seven-game series? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean this win shouldn’t count for anything as many would have you believe.  I believe that you have to walk before you can run, and the Raptors are showing that their current roster, as constructed, is capable of playing good basketball.  There are pieces here in DeRozan, Lowry, Johnson, and Valanciunas that can be built upon without the need to tear everything down.  There’s plenty of evidence of that, and last night when Durant tied the game with a three with a minute and change left, the Raptors could have folded up and died but they didn’t.  That’s a sign of a team that’s figuring out how to win and when you overcome a stretch like this, it speaks to the squad’s character.  Will it last? I don’t know.  Unlike many, I hope it does.

Any time you come up big against a Thunder squad on the road, it has to be a team effort and this post won’t to justice to the accolades that need to be given for last night.  Yes, the Thunder were on a second game of a back-to-back but that’s the NBA and as this OKC fan stated, the Raptors deserved the win.  Some key points that should not go unnoticed follow.

Jonas Valanciunas is not fazed by his erratic playing time and as soon as he came into the fourth, scored a great basket in the paint after gathering himself.  If you watched this game you would’ve noticed that he does not panic when he gets the ball in the post, he’s calculated in his footwork, dribbling, and post movement.  Who knows if he’ll ever be a the dominant center that Raptors fans want him to be; what I do know is that at this moment, right now, he’s capable of being a serviceable big that can provide balance on the floor and for that to materialize it’s only a matter of touches and playing time.

Kyle Lowry frustrated Westbrook in the first half, drew a charge against him and went at him like Westbrook isn’t used to.  It rattled the OKC guard who looked visibly bothered and I felt had a game-lasting effect on him.  Lowry’s tenacity on the perimeter hindered the OKC offense and along with Salmons and, at times, Ross, disrupted the Thunder dynamics.  The fact that all three can keep up with the Thunder on the break also neutralized their main strengths for key parts of this game.

All in all, it’s a huge win that puts them at 2-0 during a stretch that most picked them to go 0-3.  The Thunder are no longer undefeated at home and their nine-game winning streak is snapped.   Kudos.  This is what happiness looks like:


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