“Toronto could be the best team in the East right now,” Lillard said. “DeMar and Kyle are both playing really well, guys coming off the bench are doing a great job, doing their role. Pat (Patterson) coming in, Terrence Ross coming in, just top to bottom, guys are doing their job and that’s what that team is. They’re a really good team.”
And the Raptors needed every bit of it to get past a game but young Portland squad.
It didn’t help that the Blazers were saddled with foul trouble most of the night, accumulating 35 fouls that led to 54 Toronto free throw attempts — including 43 makes, the most by any team this season. But it also didn’t help that the Blazers allowed the Raptors to shoot 51 from the field and yet again didn’t have an answer defensively for the dominance of DeRozan and Lowry, who combined for 59 points during Toronto’s win in Portland in February.
But even so, the Blazers almost had a wild comeback. They trailed by 15 in the second half, but used a strong fourth-quarter rally that included a whole lot of Lillard to make the game close. With a mix of deep three-pointers, pull-up jumpers and tough drives, Lillard almost single-handedly rescued the Blazers, making 7 of 13 shots, including 4 of 7 threes, en route to 22 fourth-quarter points.
“You just continue to give him the ball,” McCollum said, when asked about Lillard’s offensive outburst. “Obviously, we didn’t get enough stops to win the game, but he kept us in it for long stretches throughout that game and in the fourth quarter. He hit big shots, he was aggressive, he got to the free throw line. And he gave us a chance to win at the end.”
Given the manner in which these two backcourts were eying each other before the game, getting production from elsewhere was vital and the Raptors received their extra push from Jonas Valanciunas (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Norman Powell, who started in place of James Johnson and scored 10 points with six assists in 21 minutes.
Casey elected to go small at the start and let Powell guard McCollum, freeing up DeRozan and, as it turned out, likely keeping him out of foul trouble. This is how streaks are put together: with game-changing spurts from Lucas Nogueira earlier in the week, and Powell’s contributions 24 hours after a 30-point outing in the D-League.
“It was strictly a matchup situation,” Casey said. “I’m very confident (with Powell). The hustle, the fight, the grit he gave us against those guys to try and wear them down … just his energy gave us a bump to go against a team that plays with two guards like that.”
Damian Lillard, already with a reputation as a great late-game player, had 22 of his 50 points in the fourth quarter alone to keep the Blazers in touch.
“I know he doesn’t like talking about it, but how he’s not an all-star in this league . . . shame on us,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said, taking the hit for coaches who left Lillard off the Western Conference all-star team.
“That young man can score any which way he wants to. Talk about (Stephen) Curry coming across half court and shooting — well this young man can do it also. I’m happy for him and the way he’s dealing with the situation because he can be a bitter young man. He’s going to be trouble for all of us for a long period of time.”
RAPTORS PLAYER(S) OF THE GAME
DeMar DeRozan became the third player in Raptors history to top 9000 points with his 38-point performance, joining Chris Bosh and Vince Carter. DeRozan had one of the season’s strangest statlines, finishing with 38 points on 7-for-19 field goals, while shooting an absurd 24-for-25 from the free throw line in 37 minutes. Although DeRozan missed the NBA record for most makes from the foul line without a miss, he set a franchise record with his 24 free throws.
Kyle Lowry scored 28 points to go with five rebounds, six assists and two steals in 37 minutes. Lowry made eight of 15 field goal attempt, three of his five attempts from deep, and shot 9-for-15 from the free throw line.
Ever resilient, the Raptors respond with punches of their own. Lowry continues to drive to the rim unabated. Lillard, for all of his effort on the offensive end, looks tired. He stands tall, visibly taking in oxygen, while Lowry goes past him and gets to the line. Then DeRozan drives into the paint, pulling up and hitting a beautiful floater. Order is restored, if only for a moment the Raptors have regained a 5 point lead. After a stagnant 2 minute period Lillard returns to his Super-Saiyan form and begins tossing world ending shots at the helpless Raptors. Over the course of 45 seconds he would score 8 points, 6 of them off setback fadeaway 3-pointers that had basketball Twitter racing to type #LeaguePassAlert to make sure they bore witness. The lead was now down to 1 point, 115-116, but the Raptors had the ball with less than 2 seconds remaining.
The problem? Portland was out of timeouts.
The Blazers fouled DeRozan and sent him to the line for his 24th and 25th free throws of the night. He calmly hit the first to break a franchise record for makes in a game. He missed the second on purpose to burn the remaining .9 seconds on the clock.
Lillard time would fall short about the same time “Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve was coming on. The effort was valiant, but ultimately not enough to overcome the hole Portland dug through three quarters. End of game score: Portland 115, Toronto 117
Outside perhaps only Steph Curry, Lillard is the most dangerous shot taker and maker in the league. And boy howdy did he try to liven things up against the Raptors. He hit a long (long) buzzer beater at the end of the first quarter to bring the Blazers within one, and did what he could from then on to keep the game close. The Raptors, riding the wave of free throws, kept pushing the lead up and away from the star point guard and his teammates (only C.J. McCollum’s 24 points were of much help to Dame).
But as Lilliard’s been doing all year, he got hot in the fourth. He’d top 40 points in the final frame with an insane combo of deep threes, and-1s, and other moves, and finish the game with 50. “That young man can score any which way he wants to,” said coach Dwane Casey after the game. DeRozan summed it up even more succinctly: “Video game.” Unfortunately, Lillard was in a shoot out with DeRozan and Lowry, and that made just enough of a difference for the Raptors win.
The Raptors got fortunate that time ran out, since Lillard was officially on fire to end the game. Finishing with 50 points, it looked like the Raptors had no way to handle Lillard’s unlimited range.
Luckily for the Raptors, he didn’t have much help, considering CJ McCollum was the only Blazers’ player to join him in double digits with 24 points. With their young backcourt, the Blazers were able to slice and dice the Raptors defence, providing the Air Canada Centre with some memorable entertainment.
The Raptors did step up enough on the defensive end of the floor, limiting the Blazers to 46.9 per cent shooting. The biggest presence on defence was Bismarck Biyombo, who along with his 9 points was able to pick up 2 nasty blocks.
he Raptors are on a great run, and I think the sky is the limit for this team. Before, the goal was to make the playoffs. Now, it’s about trying to win and advance. I’m going to continue to work hard and contribute however I can. I am excited for the new opportunity and a chance to play in front of some of the best fans in the league.
I do appreciate Dub Nation bringing me in, but it just didn’t work out. And like I said, that’s just how the business goes. I definitely had a great time playing there and I wish them all the best. But now it’s time to move on to the next chapter.
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What was appealing to you about the opportunity in Toronto?
I played with Patrick Patterson and James Johnson in Sacramento, and I’ve known Kyle [Lowry] from being local in the Philly area. There was a comfort level that came with that. It’s not like I was coming to a team on the decline. They are doing really well. Second in the East and getting even better. For me it was an oppourtunity to help with the depth. Our expectations are very high and I just want to help maintain those expectations.
The perks at playing at home in basketball are probably less tangible than in other sports. In football, a deafening crowd can seriously disrupt the visiting team’s play calling. In baseball, the host team bats second and, more importantly, last (plus, there are different field dimensions and batter’s eye backdrops).
In the NBA, the advantage is more of a mental thing. It is what you make of it.
“I think it’s the familiarity of it,” Dwane Casey said. “Shooting backgrounds is one, there’s [also] something about the crowd noise in your favour when you do something positive that will juice you up a little bit. But the comforts of home is sometimes good and bad. Sometimes guys get too comfortable being home, thinking because you’re at home you don’t have to play as hard but I think it should be the other way around, you wanna protect your house, protect your home and take care of home. So I think just the familiarity of the home settings, your locker room, routine as much as anything else is a home-court advantage.”
The importance of protecting home is something we heard a lot about from a concerned Casey in years past and the topic resurfaced early this season as his team opened 4-4 in Toronto. Since then, they’ve won 19 of 21 games in their arena. Cleveland is the only Eastern Conference team that has fared better at home.
On the campaign, they’re scoring almost three points more at home than on the road, allowing roughly two points less. Statistically, the differences in their home/road splits are subtle. The biggest difference from the Raptors of old, according to Casey, is something that’s harder to measure. He says it’s maturity. DeRozan, along the same lines, insists they’re coming out with a greater focus and that same sense of urgency they’re used to having in everyone else’s gym.
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Scola makes an emphasis that DeRozan is the reason for 90 per cent of the open threes he takes and knows it’s in the team’s best interest to have the offense run through Kyle and DeMar.
“They open stuff for all of us on the court, but I think they open it more for each other,” Scola said. “DeMar opens things up for Kyle and Kyle opens things up for DeMar. That allows them to be consistent the whole game and that is what we want. That’s what this team needs. We need them to shoot as many shots as possible.”
Forward Patrick Patterson usually gets a chance to play with one of the two during the game and says they just seem to know how to find each other.
“They seem to find each other in moments where you feel like they wouldn’t,” Patterson said.“Whether it’s Kyle penetrating to the basket and somehow finding DeMar or vice versa, they seem to have some type of sixth sense for each other out there on the court. They have a great feel and I think that is all credit to their relationship off the court, so when they’re on the court we all know what they are capable of individually, but what they do together as a tandem it’s crazy. They’re not too many like that tandem.”
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