Hosting Boston capped off a week that had late season slump stamped all over it, but the Raptors weathered the storm and came home to blow out a team that is fighting for their playoff seeding every night in the thick of the Eastern Conference race.
“It’s definitely big, because you’re playing against teams that’s fighting for something,” said DeRozan, who chipped in 15 points. “It’s the end of the season, you have every excuse in the world. [But to] go out and play aggressive like we did, especially on the defensive end, after these four games in five nights is definitely big.”
The Raptors have left the playoff race behind. They went into the all-star break comfortably in second place and have only advanced their position, keeping pace with Cleveland and distancing themselves from everyone else.
Scoff if you want. Sure it’s just the regular season. It’s only the playoffs that matter. But you have to respect what this edition of the Raptors have done. And they are confident they are doing all the right things.
“This is a team that we have a bunch of pieces and they all have their role. We have two main guys that we want to shoot all the shots, and they’re the guys that will carry us. And we have a job to do, mainly our job is to make them happy, help them and be around them. There’ll be some games that go your way and there’ll be some other games that go wrong. The games that go that way, hopefully you have a good game and have fun, but the other games you just have to do your job. I’m completely OK with that. This is the closest way, the shortest way to win. That’s what we all want and that’s what’s really fun.”
And that’s exactly what the Raptors are doing of late.
Don’t kid yourself, this four-games-in-five-nights marathon they just finished is gruelling and to get three wins, particularly with the middle two on the road is a testament to how good things are going right now for this team.
“We always say it’s not a one- or two-man show. It’s a 15-man show,” Lowry said. “We got guys who can play basketball. Lucas (Nogueira) came in and affected the game. Every single night everyone has to be prepared to play and we all appreciate everything everyone in this locker room can do for us.”
Scola’s legs are the oldest in the Raptors’ locker room but he played like he’d been lapping up the fountain of youth before tipoff. He hit a three-pointer early, then went to his post-up moves to keep it coming. He stole the ball from Avery Bradley at midcourt and had the Raptors bench in hysterics after he threw down an uncontested dunk. The Raptors led 30-14 after the first quarter and 55-41 at the half.
“I thought Luis, in the first quarter, really set the tone with his play, his effort, his force, his post-ups, his rebounding,” Casey said. “He really helped jumpstart us in the first quarter.”
FOURTH QUARTER DOMINANCE
After the Celtics outscored Toronto 33-24 in the third quarter and trimmed the lead to five going into the fourth, Kyle Lowry got to work. The Raptors held Boston to just six points through the first 9:41 of the fourth quarter. Lowry scored 15 points in that span to help Toronto to a 19-point lead before checking out of the game. The Raptors shot 50 percent in the fourth while holding the Celtics to 37 percent shooting, and outscored Boston 26-17 in the final frame.
Boston’s young legs should have been able to take advantage of this tired Toronto team, but it was the 35-year-old Luis Scola stealing the show with 17 points in the opening frame. Forget Kevin Durant, let’s ask Scola what he thinks of the city of Boston!
The Celtics finally woke up in the third quarter, getting back to forcing turnovers and pushing the ball in transition. What once was a 19-point Toronto lead was cut to a manageable 5 points entering the final frame. Isaiah Thomas helped fuel the run that chipped into the lead, finishing with a team-high 20 points.
Unfortunately the confidence gained in that third quarter wouldn’t carry over through the end. A plan to spark another run with a super-small ball lineup that had Marcus Smart at the four backfired with a seemingly endless string of turnovers and sloppy possessions, allowing Toronto to take back control.
Beyond Isaiah Thomas’ 20-point performance, no other Celtic scored more than 12. But this time the problem was compounded by horrid perimeter defense, as evidenced by the Raptors’ ability to shoot 46.4 percent (13-for-28) from 3-point range.
R.J. Hunter’s corner three with four-tenths of a second left in the third cut what was once a 19-point Toronto lead down to five (79-74).
The Celtics responded with three turnovers in their first four possessions of the fourth quarter – two throwaways from Tyler Zeller and another by Hunter. The Raptors converted each opportunity with a 6-0 run for an 85-74 lead.
STUD OF THE NIGHT: Kyle Lowry
He started slow but caught fire in the second half. He single-handedly destroyed the Celtics with 15 points in the fourth quarter and helped put away the Celtics.
All you have to know about the fourth quarter is that it was Lowry time. Kyle not only stretched the lead, but turned the game into a blowout. In the 14-2 run that Toronto used to effectively run away with this game, Lowry was responsible for 11 points, including back-to-back threes. Lowry finished the quarter with 15 points, and the game with a stat line of 32 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds on 9-14 shooting, including a superb 5-8 from distance. I know that Raptors fans have been clamouring about this for the better part of this season, but Lowry belongs in the conversation of top three point guards in the game today. His efficiency and consistency this season has reached a point where when he shoots, I’m surprised if he misses.
With this win, the Raptors go to 47-21 on the season, and end a brutal stretch of four games in five nights with a big win.
A motivated Lowry is a dangerous Lowry and, once again, his play did most of the talking.
“He was big,” Dwane Casey said of Lowry, who scored 15 of his game-high 32 points in the final frame. “He came through and he played with force and that’s what you’ve got to do. If you don’t play with force in this league people will take your reputation and take everything you have and I thought he came in and played with force, met their force.”
The defence was very good as the Raps managed to hold the Celtics to 91 points on 44 percent shooting from the field. Toronto also forced 15 turnovers and committed 10 steals. The only thing the Raptors let get away was the perimeter shooting as Boston shot 43 percent from beyond the arc, up from their season average of 33 percent. Overall, the team played strong defence, ultimately resulting in a win.
Cue the controversy: Even though Valanciunas is the better overall player, he might not be the better overall fit here going forward.
He’s a bad fit with DeRozan at both ends of the floor. The defensive reasoning has been covered above. Offensively, Valanciunas’ talents are just mostly wasted in a DeRozan-Kyle Lowry-dominant offence. He’d be best utilized as a second option on a team, taking advantage of his shooting touch, good footwork and strength inside and as a pick-and-pop guy or pick-and-roll threat thanks to his good hands.
Instead, he rarely gets the ball from DeRozan (though he’s been getting it more recently) and Lowry’s usually attacking the basket or kicking out to three-point shooters instead of slowing things down and posting up Valanciunas. Toronto’s offence is built on downward, attacking pressure, making Valanciunas more of a luxury.
At his new salary (which starts next year) and with the NBA going smaller, does he work here? Or is Biyombo’s defensive presence more valuable (opponents would double DeRozan and Lowry if Biyombo started, but DeMarre Carroll playing instead of James Johnson or Norman Powell would help counter that at least a little bit, since he is far more dangerous than those two).
Bismack Biyombo was a game-high plus-16 against Indiana. Starting in place of Jonas Valanciunas, who is out with a hand contusion, Biyombo scored 16 points and grabbed 25 rebounds, a franchise record surpassing the previous record of 24 by Donyell Marshall in March of 2014. All while taking only six shots.
There aren’t many shots to go around in the starting lineup, which is why Valanciunas’ offensive growth seems stagnant at times. Biyombo, on the other hand, continues to prove he doesn’t need shots to be effective. Would the Raptors be better off with J.V. anchoring the second unit and getting his shots there, with Biyombo being the chief screen-setter as a starter? The Raptors are 13-7 when Biyombo starts. It is unlikely to happen, but good food for thought.
How does Toronto, a team that doesn’t boast transcendent superstars or a gorgeous motion offense, hang with the big boys, you ask?
For starters, they combine a top-five three-point percentage (36.7%) with a fleet of skilled at-the-rim finishers like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Cory Joseph; they’re great at scoring from the optimal areas of the floor. On top of that, the Raptors have an almost unmatched ability to rack up the easiest points to get in the sport: free throws.
As of March 18th, Toronto scores the second-highest percentage of its points at the line at a whopping 20.7 percent (Minnesota leads at 21.4). With 840 combined makes, the Lowry-DeRozan pairing has made more free throws than any set of teammates in the NBA.
Chances at the No. 1 seed in East: Just 2.0 games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for No. 1 in the East, the Raptors still have a legitimate shot at it, but given the fact they’re resting players now and are still trying to get 100 per cent healthy, the chances they catch up and surpass the Cavs is looking slimmer with each passing day.
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