Revisiting the Season: The Best Games of 2014-15

From “we want Bruno” to “we want James Johnson”. It was a roller coaster of emotions. I’ll be the first to admit: the way the Raptors ended the season left an extremely bitter taste in my mouth. I knew the success from the first third of the season wasn’t sustainable, but I propped up enough ... Read more

From “we want Bruno” to “we want James Johnson”. It was a roller coaster of emotions.

I’ll be the first to admit: the way the Raptors ended the season left an extremely bitter taste in my mouth. I knew the success from the first third of the season wasn’t sustainable, but I propped up enough hope to get crushed by the freefall finish that followed. I didn’t want to look at the season as a success; I just didn’t want to look back, period.

But with more than a month removed from the Raptors’ final loss, the thick fog of disappointment has lifted, and it’s easier to see the season with a little more clairvoyance. There were downs, sure, but there were plenty of positives as well. Before all the despair there was cause for celebration, and even though the Raptors flamed out rather spectacularly, it was a season worth remembering.

Here are the top five games of 2014-15.

5. Raptors 110, Cavaliers 93 (the “We the North” game)

Let’s first lay down the context. This was the early-season Cavaliers, not the battle-tested Cleveland squad that’s hanging tough in the Finals with the Golden State Warriors. This was the top-heavy, star-driven Cavaliers with no supporting cast and 10 new players to start the season. Shawn freaking Marion started at shooting guard.

But forget all that, because beating LeBron James has been downright impossible for the Raptors. They hadn’t done so since the Chris Bosh era. A red-hot Raptors squad, propelled by their Eastern Conference leading 10-2 start to the season, rolled into Cleveland and proceeded to lay the smackdown.

The Cavaliers opened with a 24-6 run, but Lou Williams came off the bench and carried the squad by dropping 24 points in the first half. The rest of the Raptors took over from there, finishing the game on a 104-69 (nice) run to escape Cleveland with a statement win. Not only that, a band of Raptors fans had travelled down to Cleveland to take in the game, and with the win in hand for Toronto, those die hard fans managed to drown out the despondent Cavaliers fans with joyous chants of “Let’s go Raptors.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSzLqYhw-kY

4. Raptors 110, Clippers 98 (the “let love fill your cold hearts” game)

This was the game that warmed the most cold-hearted Raptors fan. With the Raptors on a brutal six-game strip through Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, Portland, Oakland and Phoenix, the road trip doubled as a test of the Raptors’ true talent. Was their 22-6 record a mirage?

Admittedly, I was skeptical. How could you not be? It was just a little too good to be true. But still, after dropping a frustrating game to Chicago, the Raptors managed to bounce back with a win against the Clippers. It was their most impressive win of the season to that point.

DeMar DeRozan did not play, He tore his groin a month earlier and wasn’t yet ready to return. So it was just peak Kyle Lowry leading the charge against Chris Paul a fully-healthy Clippers squad. And wouldn’t you believe it: the Raptors stormed into the Staples Center and came away with a gem.

It started with Lowry. He outplayed Paul (!!!) and paced the Raptors in scoring with 25 points. Meanwhile, Jonas Valanciunas dropped a cool 22-point, 11-rebound performance against DeAndre Jordan. Perhaps the most telling tale of the game: 41 percent of readers voted that Dwane Casey’s grade of A-minus in Tamberlyn’s Quick Reaction was too low. The RR readership thought A-minus was too low for Casey.

Times were good back then.

3. Raptors 124, Bucks 82 (the “Bruno” game)

This was the Bruno Caboclo game.

There’s not too much point in revisiting anything else. The Bucks had not yet mastered their would-be suffocating defense and were ransacked by a much more experienced team. The Raptors outscored them by double-digits in each of the first three quarters before Casey emptied the benches. Onto the court stepped Bruno Caboclo and the ACC went nuts.

Bruno’s 12-minute stint cemented him as the Raptors’ unofficial mascot for the season. Still “two years away from being two years away”, the fresh-faced 18-year-old took to the court and looked every bit of the unprepared rookie. The length was real – his 7-foot-7 wingspan looked almost comical when put in action — but the skills were questionable. He looked utterly confused and could barely make sense of what he was supposed to do.

But for the first time, we saw the potential. We saw him pick pockets with his go-go gadget arms. We saw a little bit of ball handling. We saw the athleticism and the 3-point stroke. He gave us a peek into the future. And from that moment on, Bruno became synonymous with happiness for Raptors fans. The mere mention of the lanky Brazilian doubled as the currency of hope in the fanbase.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyJFVbjjxcg

2. Raptors 96, Grizzlies 92 (the “sentimental” game)

In the grand scheme of things, the Raptors’ win over the Western Conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies wasn’t a big deal. The Grizzlies were down a few key rotation pieces (prompting Eye on Basketball’s Matt Moore to unleash a wicked rant on Twitter) and it was very early in the season.

But for me, personally, it was perhaps the most exciting game of the season.

The game fell on a Wednesday night, which was always a sore spot for me throughout the season. Wednesday was production night for McMaster’s The Silhouette, which always made for nervous late nights spent huddled in a dingy cave with me and my co-editor Shane. That game marked the start of a weekly tradition and sparked a very rewarding friendship.

As part of their 20th anniversary celebrations, the Raptors honored Vince Carter with a touching tribute. The ceremony for Carter was a long-time coming; after burning bridges with his messy exit in 2004, Carter returned a decade later and was finally met with more cheers than jeers. For that one brief moment, the Air Canada Centre jetted back in time, to a place where “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” ruled the skies. As the grizzly 37-year-old stared longingly at the unparalleled legacy that he left behind in his unforgettable five years in Toronto, tears rolled down his cheeks. That moment changed the narrative. Carter was no longer just the cruel heartless villain that left the franchise that he popularized in the lurch. He was the star that made a mistake during a trying time for he and the Raptors.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfc8DuyZJxY

A tightly-contested game followed thereafter. The Grizzlies led for most of the first three quarters, but spurred by an inspiring defensive effort by Chuck Hayes, the Raptors erased Memphis’s lead and carved out a two-point lead with under a minute left. In need of a game-tying basket, the Grizzlies turned to Zach Randolph on the right block against Hayes. Randolph is one of the strongest players in the league, but even he didn’t have the bulk to move Hayes — a mountain of a man — off the block. Hayes forced Randolph into an awkward airball, before the Raptors corralled the rebound, up two points, with 30 seconds left.

Lowry took over from there. He isolated up top as he stared down Mike Conley. The two have history: the Grizzlies opted to build around Conley, while tossing Lowry to the wayside. Lowry let the clock whittle down, before driving hard to the elbow, tossing a hard jab step at Conley, and fading away for a dagger. The shot brought the ACC to its feet and gave the Raptors their first signature win of the season.

I watched this game with Shane in the Silhouette’s dingy office. We had just started working together a month prior and didn’t know each other very well. Needless to say, not a lot of work got done during the game. Instead, the picture looked something like this: me, a crazed Raptors fan, living and dying with every possession, as Shane (a Bulls fan; gross) watched on silently. After Lowry sealed the game, I let out a victorious spell of celebratory expletives, before storming out of the office and into the deserted basement of the student centre. I eventually settled down and stepped back into the office to catch Shane with a bemused expression on his face.

From that moment on, Wednesdays marked more than production night. It became a chance for Shane and I to lounge out, freak out about the Bulls and Raptors, before settling into some web editing at around midnight. It was out of those moments — presented by a brand of fandom unique to sports — that we bonded and became friends. And isn’t that what sports are for — to invest your heart into something and sharing those scant dividends with those you care about?

1. Raptors 87, Spurs 82 (the “best” game)

This was the Raptors’ finest win of the season. Without a doubt.

This came during a mini mid-season renaissance. The Raptors had struggled for much of 2015 and doubt was starting to cloud the sunniest of outlooks. Owing mostly to a defunct defense that colored most of the season, Toronto’s defense temporarily turned around after Dwane Casey swapped Terrence Ross with James Johnson in the starting lineup. The move killed spacing, but it stopped the bleeding on defense.

The move arose somewhat accidentally. The Raptors played the Clippers two nights prior, and got blitzed in the first quarter. With Casey scrambling for solutions, Johnson found himself tasked with checking Blake Griffin, and incredibly, it worked. Johnson’s ability to switch seamlessly between guarding the paint and perimeter was a perfect fit for a frenzied defensive scheme that often yielded mismatches. Johnson helped spark a huge turnaround before the Raptors crushed the Clippers by a score of 123-107.

Johnson emerged as the hero once more against the Spurs. His defense helped muddle down the Spurs’ picture-perfect motion offense and he shut down Kawhi Leonard. But Johnson also submitted his best offensive performance of the season. He led the Raptors in scoring with 20 points — including the game-winning triple — to help the Raptors to their best win of the season.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl_873BgK8o

Check back later this week for the Raptors’ worst games of 2014-15.

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