Maybe it’s because the playoffs are approaching, or maybe I’m just tired of the malaise, but over the last couple weeks I’ve found myself moving away from being pessimistic about the Raptors’ current state of affairs and instead peeking around for threads that suggest there’s more to this puzzle than meets the eye. Even when the team was tops in the league, we all knew that there was something fueling this team that wasn’t totally reflected in the players’ (and coaches’) basketball abilities, some sort of “je ne sais quois” that propelled this team to heights it probably had no reason to reach.
Last night, we saw some of those same tendencies re-emerge, in what was one of the more entertaining Raptor games since the all-star break. The Heat aren’t exactly the Spurs this season, sure, but they were a talented team boasting two all-star calibre starting guards, and the Raptors managed to pull out what was, in many ways, a slugfest of an affair. Not only that, but while watching the game you expected them to find a way to win. You knew that Lou shot would go down (take a look at Zarar’s quick reaction for some Vines of the bigger moments), even though you also knew it was a terrible shot statistically. Sometimes, the Raptors get to that place, and it was nice to be reminded of that.
I don’t mean to use the term “slugfest” to imply that this was a defensive struggle, because it was certainly not that. Both teams had serious issues containing the others’ guard rotations, and the game largely became a duel of backcourt isos: Wade throws a punch, DeMar throws one back. Dragic throws another, Lou Williams returns the favour. Rinse and repeat, and you’ve got a general idea of what the flow of last night’s contest was like.
That might make it sound like it wasn’t an aesthetically pleasing game, but it wasn’t that, either: both teams were making shots, and it did feel like neither group was going to miss for long periods. The Heat did miss more often, of course, but they were bolstered by Hassan Whiteside (good god, what a monster), who eviscerated the Raptor frontline with size and not much else. I don’t want to put too much stock into Jonas’ terrible night (he fouled out in less than 10 minutes and was generally useless), but it was troubling watching him so thoroughly dominated by a rookie centre. Hopefully it was just an off night.
Luckily, though, the Heat missed enough (and 20 free throws, many coming courtesy of Whiteside), that the Raptors were able to pull out a win on the backs of DeRozan and Williams, who were both brilliant last night in their own ways. DeMar, in particular, is really rounding into form – he’s starting to look more and more like a complete player on the offensive side of the ball, and did an admirable job moving the ball around the floor when he wasn’t hitting ridiculous off-balance twos. Lou, of course, is Lou, and when he’s on, he’s one of the best shows in the NBA. Last night, he was.
The issues that plague this team are still there, of course. Perimeter defence was borderline nonexistent last night, and Whiteside really exposed the Raptors’ lack of size at the forward spots with Amir out and Valanciunas basically out, despite Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough, and Chuck Hayes having good nights. James Johnson’s playing time still remains a mystery, and Kyle Lowry is obviously working his way back into form – his shooting touch was a few degrees south of “off” yesterday, and yet he still found himself chucking late in the game rather than passing to his red hot backcourt mates.
However, there are plenty of boxes to check off after this game. The Raptors finally got the Miami on the road monkey off their back (with a pretty solid presence of road fans, to boot). They tied a franchise record for wins, and with two games left to go, are still in the hunt for 50. They secured home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, too, and essentially eliminated the Heat while doing so. It was an entertaining game, against a veteran team playing tough to save their season, and these young, maligned Raptors managed to sneak out a win despite playing severely shorthanded in the front court. On paper, it wasn’t the kind of game the Raptors should have won, but sometimes this team gets to a level where you just toss the paper in the garbage, throw up your hands and say: “F*ck it. This is kind of fun.”
The Raptors got to that place yesterday, and were rewarded with a scrappy, gut check win that, hopefully, did a decent job of reminding us all how memorable this season was, despite the dog days we’ve endured and the obvious issues with the team and coaching staff. Two more games to go, and then playoffs, and I’m officially taking off my skeptic hat and throwing on my fan one. I don’t care if this makes sense, anymore. Offseason Garrett can deal with that. I’ll take entertaining games, and gut check wins, and crazy Lou Williams 3s for a couple weeks, please and thanks.