This was a much-needed injection of confidence and we should all buy something off of DeMar DeRozan’s Amazon wishlist to thank him for it. The game resembled the Bulls one last week where the Raptors, on the back of DeRozan again, were hanging tough except that deep down you had this nasty feeling that when crunch time came, the points produced by a one-dimensional system would dry out and the more nuanced opposition offense would win out. Except that that didn’t happen and DeRozan (14-27 FG, 12-17 FT, 42 pts, 11 reb, 1ast, 6 TO) continued to pour in points in the fourth, gave James Harden a taste of his own medicine by coaxing him into fouls, actually got the respect from the referees, and ended up with a career-high night.
[aside header=”Ariza on DeRozan”]
“He was very aggressive. He was hitting tough shots and got to the basket easily. He was jut being aggressive. From when he first came in until now, he is a totally different player. He is somebody you have to pay a lot of attention to because he can score in a variety of ways. Players like that you have to always keep your eyes on and always find different ways to stop him because he can score a number of ways.”
This game wasn’t a template on how to win games, but at this point with the team searching for positives and trying to build momentum heading into the playoffs, a win over a Western conference playoff team (albeit, missing Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, and playing on a back-to-back) is something to build upon.
If you watched the first quarter of this game you would’ve feared for the Raptors because Houston’s defense was crippling the Raptors guards. Vasquez couldn’t manage two dribbles without picking it up, and Ariza was basically giving DeRozan a cavity search that a TSA agent would be proud of, and the Raptors found themselves down 9 early. That’s when Lou Williams calmly put on his cape and came in to go 3-3, pushing the Raptors back to a tie by the end of the quarter. Honestly, the primary individual beneficiary of this season has to be Lou Williams – he’s reminded the league that he still exists and is capable of producing offense, he’s in a Rap song, he’s starring in commercials, and has a coach that thinks it’s perfectly fine for him to do whatever he wants, when he wants. Damn, now that is an MVP season.
[aside header=”Casey on DeRozan’s D”]
“The most important thing, not only the points, was his defense. I thought his defense and rebounding was as solid as anything else, which made it an all-around excellent game for him. I thought he set the tone defensively for everyone else.”
When a repeat of the first quarter materialized in the second and the Raptors were down 11, it was the combination of DeMar DeRozan’s assault on the rim and the ungainly existence of Josh Smith that brought the Raptors back. DeRozan had four finishes at the rim in the second quarter, which set the tone for his game. His response to the pressure applied by the Houston defenders was to find the seam and attack rather than step back for the fade, and mind you, he did take some shots that made you cringe, but overall the decisioning was more good than bad.
Looking at this shot-chart below, you’ll find a lot of missed mid-range jumpers, and I can tell you with certainty that most of his misses came when he was handing the ball and attempted to rise over the defense for a jumper. He hasn’t been effective at that for quite some time now, especially since the injury. What does work out for him is when he’s catching the ball off of some other action, and then spotting up for a jumper. DeRozan’s jumper isn’t at the level where he can compensate for the lack of balance in his body and still get it right, but if it’s an up-and-down spot-up shot, he’s far more reliable. Hint to Dwane Casey.
The underpinning of the Raptors success this evening, other than DeRozan, was rebounding and rim-defense. Jonas Valanciunas had five blocks and Amir Johnson led the way with 16 rebounds (including 6 offensive rebounds in the fourth), which are huge numbers in a game that was decided by three points. The 48-41 rebounding edge was massive and a big reason Houston wasn’t able to pull away when it had built leads of 9 and 11 in the first half. It’s simple: if you don’t concede offensive rebounds you give your defense a chance.
Harden (9-22 FG, 10-12 FT, 31 pts, 5 reb, 5 ast 3 TO) was guarded by Terrence Ross, James Johnson, and DeMar DeRozan. I wouldn’t say anybody slowed him because he was able penetrate at will, except that there was a second layer of defense in the form of Valanciunas and Amir Johnson there to slow him down. The Raptors bigs were helping very aggressively on Harden drives, and he had dump-offs available to the likes of Josh Smith, Clint Capela (three sick dunks in this game), and Joe Dorsey available, but Houston wasn’t able to convert those opportunities which ultimately cost them.
An even third quarter later it was time to tighten the seatbelts, and the best thing I could say is that Dwane Casey didn’t do anything glaringly stupid, which is significant progress. He had James Johnson in to guard Harden, he subbed out Vasquez for defensive reasons, he played the very effective Jonas Valanciunas to start the fourth, and lo and behold, he gave the team a chance at a win. Is that too much to ask on a consistent basis? I’m thinking that instead of “Pound the Rock” engraved in the Raptors locker-room, we have a bigger sign saying, “Let’s not do dumb shit”, which I think will have a more positive impact than a message that invites you punch a solid object.
Lou Williams had a hero-ball moment with 3:08 left in the game with the Raptors down 1 when, guarded by the demented Josh Smith, he took a 27-footer with ample time on the clock, which made me puke in my mouth a little bit. Other than that, though, it was all attack by DeRozan who scored 11 of the last 17 points for the Raptors (other six were by Amir Johnson) to see this one through. Houston missed some very big shots, including open threes by Ariza and Terry that might’ve swung momentum, but hey, they were right in front of the Raptors bench and I’m sure Greg Steimsma shouted something at them to throw them off, so Greg Steimsma, you da real MVP. The game was fittingly iced by DeRozan draining a step-back fade over Harden, a shot I’m sure he’s hit over his childhood friend many a time.
The Quick Reaction might have some talk about Greivis Vasquez being taught a lesson by senior citizen, Pablo Prigioni, who played this game with a cane in one arm and ignited Houston twice at the expense of Vasquez, but I’ll let that slide. Right now what annoys me about Vasquez isn’t so much that he’s taking pull-up threes, it’s that he feels entitled to taking pull-up threes. More annoyingly, he feels he deserves some sort of respect from the officials, which when he doesn’t get, he makes an Alan Anderson-face. Last night Casey relieved him of his ball-handling duties and instead had Lou Williams running the point, and it’s safe to say that it was a good decision.
The much-maligned Raptors defense deserves some credit for holding Houston to 8-27 from three, especially given that this is a huge source of Houston’s offense (lead the league in % of 3-point attempts). For once, the strategy of chasing Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza and James Harden off the line and conceding a drive worked. Again, I’ll warn you, this is not sustainable because more often than not, an NBA team given an invite to the paint will kill you, especially against a sketchy interior defense. Not on this night, though. This night, it was all about DeMar DeRozan proving a point against James Harden. Don’t ask me what that point is, but maybe something along the lines like, “you may be getting a lot of attention, but let’s remind everyone just how bad you suck on defense”.
Good job, Raptors. 50 wins is still on. We need to go 6-2 against @MIN, @BKN, BOS, @CHA, @ORL, @MIA, @BOS and CHA. Doable, but unlikely only because we face those damnged Hornets twice.