Three things happened last night that would have seemed all but impossible a mere 18 months ago. First, the Raptors honoured Vince Carter with a video tribute in a moment that brought tears to Vince’s eyes and felt like it genuinely mended the past between the Air Canada Centre fans and the former hero they once called ‘Air Canada.’ Second, the Raptors got an impressive win over arguably the best team in the league thus far this season. Third and finally, the Raptors and their fans became engulfed in a derisive flame war on NBA Twitter that had nothing to do with Vince Carter, and everything to do with NBA fans and writers feeling like Raptors have gotten too big for their britches, sort-of-speak, and feeling compelled in turn to argue how this does not prove that the Raptors are definitely title contenders. Last year’s poo poo platter of an NBA roster in Philadelphia beat the Miami Heat in the early season, before setting the all-time record for consecutive losses, so I would have believed at least the second item of the previous list to be possible if prognosticated a year and a half ago to me. But the first and third would have seemed comically far away. But now here we are, cool with Vince, battling for first place in the NBA and being argued about in the spotlight about whether or not we’re contenders and mocked for believing too much in our team. This is completely new, completely fantastic territory.
Putting that narrative aside, let’s get to what we saw last night.
It turns out that James Johnson has been just as big of a presence on the bench unit as we all thought he was. Landry Fields got four minutes of run in his stead and the audition all but definitely won’t be getting him the part in Casey’s ten man rotation. The 5-man bench unit had some of their least effective run together last night, especially in the first half. Vasquez unleashed a trio of shots at one point that each refused to have contact with the rim: an air-ball attempt from 3, a floater that bonked off the side of the backboard and a banked-in 3 pointer that, as much as we might mock, represents ¾ of the Raptors margin of victory. Tyler Hansbrough fell hard on his shoulder again last night, taking him out of the game. Valanciunas got some 2nd quarter minutes with the bench unit in a game where he struggled to contain Z-Bo and Marc Gasol, who went for 18 and 18, and 22 and 12 respectively. Those two are a nightmare for any big man, which is to say that that’s exactly what they were for Jonas as well. The best way to contextualize the Raptors awful 2nd quarter is to bring up how the basketball artist formerly known as Prince(Tayshaun) drove casually past his man, through the lane and dunked on Valanciunas. There’s never been a reason to be proud of that happening, but if this was 2005, there at least wouldn’t be as much reason for embarrassment. In 2014, when Tayshaun Prince’s offensive game is barely a whisper, that can’t happen. He shot 6 of 8.
It’s not surprising that the Raptors struggled offensively against the grit and grind Grizzlies for much of the game last night. Gasol seemed to scare the Raptors out of the protected area. DeMar didn’t have to face Tony Allen or Courtney Lee, as both were out with a virus, but he struggled instead with himself. DeMar forced his game at times last night, scrambling with the ball, forcing long jumpers before the end of the shot clock and fishing for free throws on pump fake jump shots that just weren’t being called. He battled through, put up 21 points and finally started finding his way to the rim in the 4th quarter. But the Grizzlies were able to take away his efficiency by only sending him to the line twice.
This game, as with any other impressive win the Raptors have had against a top opponent the past two seasons, came down to the 4th quarter. It turns out that the Raptors are kind of great in the 4th. You might have heard a little something about this trend mentioned somewhere between once and a hundred times in between Matt Devlin and Leo Rautins playful flirtations on Raptors broadcasts. It’s a thing. And so is the Raptor’s play in the 4th. The Raptors defense in the 4th quarter locked in, and did so last night with some uncommon lineups. Chuck Hayes, brick wall extraordinaire, had his number called, and he played great. Post defense is tough, especially against freight trains like Z-Bo and skilled 7-footers like Gasol. Hayes gives up at least 4 inches to both players, but did a great job against both. Hayes forced Gasol into taking some very difficult turn around jumpers that, just because he looked like Dirk in hitting, doesn’t mean he wasn’t very well defended. Defense in the post is all about quickly shuffling your feet into position, taking away space and staying on your feet. There are people who can do this well. The reason why Hayes can guard low post big men so much more effectively than others is because while doing those things well, Hayes is also impossible to shoulder out of the way or back down in the process. Gasol threw shoulder after shoulder into Chuck’s chest, turning from side to side in an attempt to widdle his way into the low post. He didn’t budge an inch. Marc Gasol is around 280 lbs.! Hayes kept his ground and maintained his footwork, challenging every shot or fake without jumping. This should be appreciated.
Hayes wasn’t alone with his 4th quarter defense, as Amir Johnson’s hobbled ankles allowed him ten minutes of his best basketball so far. Amir played important minutes on Gasol, cut inside off of a screen for a crucial late basket, blocked Z-Bo at the rim late and was perhaps the only Raptor last night to understand the importance of boxing out and rebounding.
The Raptor’s biggest basket of the 4th quarter, unsurprisingly, was a beautiful layup from Kyle Lowry. Lowry drove hard, twisting his body around the Grizzly defender in place to draw the charge and dropped in the highlight reel layup. What was surprising about the 4th quarter offense was Terrence Ross taking over. I don’t know what got in to the young man, but he had a confidence in his game and a swagger in his step that we haven’t seen this season. Ross drained 3s off the dribble and in the face of defenders. He drove to the basket. He was taking alpha dog ‘I got this’ shots and drilling them, putting up 14 4th quarter points. Maybe he did it for his hero, Vince. Maybe he did it for himself. Maybe he did it for Lisa Ann. I don’t know, and I don’t care, but god damn do I want to see him do it again.
It’s a stretch to say that the Raptors proved their title contention in last night’s win over Memphis. Yes, the Grizzlies were without two key starters in Tony Allen and Courtney Lee and missing multiple bench guys as well. But guess what, injuries and illness happen in the playoffs too. One game of the regular season should never been seen as a macrocosm of who any one team is or what they’re ultimately capable of either way. You’d be a fool to discount this game or argue it as a sign of a forthcoming Larry O’Brien trophy. It was an important, quality win over a very good Grizzlies team. I feel good about this game, I feel good about Vince Carter, and I feel great about this team. Nobody needs to worry about May and June. That’s more than enough for now. Who’s up next?