Coming in, chances are casual Raptors fans faced plenty of outside noise that may have resulted in giving last night the cold shoulder:
1. “League Pass” isn’t exactly this matchup’s middle name. And considering the recent schedule, despite a few moments of turbulence, this current stretch feels more like a bye week than anything else.
2. The fact that Cory Joseph was listed as the starter with Kyle Lowry getting some well-deserved rest. Not to mention another absence from Patrick Patterson (knee) and Brooklyn once again being without the services of Jeremy Lin (hamstring).
3. The need to argue back and forth on Twitter was more important. Are you on #TeamLeBron or #TeamDraymond?
4. The Leafs are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games. And it’s Matthews vs. Eichel!
5. The Jays just re-signed Jose Bautista to a one-year deal with a mutual option for more. Now, a “mutual option” is likely just a fancy way of saying there’s no chance in hell that option ever sees the light of day, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get — regardless of how much the optics of the contract represent a forced reunion.
6. You were too busy gathering supplies just in case Donald Trump’s inauguration is indeed the apocalypse.
For the diehards, chances are there were plenty of reasons to sit back and enjoy.
Note: With Lowry and Patterson out of the lineup, the added opportunity for each of the following meant the anticipation level went up right along with it:
1. Another chance to see just how far this team has come; AKA: Continuing to take care of business against inferior opponents (or at least string together more than a couple in a row).
2. With Joseph’s peculiar, up and down season, what better chance to restore the fan base’s faith than to have the controls essentially all to himself for a night.
3. Is there any other way for the Valanciunas-Bebe frontcourt to become less matchup-dependant than to keep getting consistent reps against multiple looks?
4. Speaking of JV, anytime Brook Lopez is at the opposite end, a physical test is always on deck. But Lopez’s current skill set, where he’s advanced his game far enough to incorporate the perimeter, is a stark reminder of where JV needs to go. Besides, anytime JV or Bebe can get some extended run trying to defend said perimeter is by far a positive in the long run.
5. The hope that Joseph and DeRozan will go out of their way to involve DeMarre Carroll early and often. With DMC finally getting healthy and transforming into what the Raps initially paid for, the next step is reinstalling his confidence to an unwavering level. He may not be the forever-missing third piece, but if his teammates act the part, Carroll will give them that much more of a return on their investment.
In a way, that’s similar to the philosophy I still stand by when it comes to Casey’s overall treatment of JV’s minutes — even with the positive effect Casey’s recent callout has had. But of course, I’m open to being wrong and tough love being part of the solution.
6. If the apocalypse is near, hopefully more minutes from the supporting cast will help press fast forward on a Paul Millsap trade.
So, with all of that said, let’s fast forward to what actually went down:
As the broken record surrounding the Raps would suggest, even a David-vs-Goliath type of matchup wouldn’t be without a few bumps in the road before eventually justifying the notion.
And like clockwork, a malaise initially broke out. After T.O. came out swinging with an 11-0 run, Brooklyn quickly responded with a 29-15 charge to end the first quarter — one that resulted in two vivid reminders: 1) Just how much need there is for another inside presence — the injection of Sullinger can’t come soon enough; 2) Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is likely going nowhere at the trade deadline.
I mean, the Raps showed no emotion on the defensive end to kick things off, but Jefferson (and his 10 points in 7 minutes of early action) was causing problems on multiple fronts.
You can probably add Caris LeVert and Trevor Booker to that list as well — the slashing shooting guard and inside bruiser helped stabilize every early run the Raps could muster. And the trio as a whole, held DeRozan’s first half in check with multiple fadeaway attempts from low-percentage spots. DeRozan going 2 for 12 ultimately led to the Nets’ 61-58 lead going into halftime.
To make matters worse, the Raps already-thin frontcourt lost Lucas Nogueira to the league’s concussion protocol after a Booker elbow to the eye and never returned…More on how JV faired in his solo mission to fend off Lopez in a bit. Hint: With the amount of times Lopez has gotten the better of JV, one would think an overwhelming desire to even the score (just on an individual level) would jump off the screen. But…
However, even with the Raps’ drastic in-game swings making yet another appearance, plenty of groundwork took place that eventually allowed the Raps to take control:
Cory Joseph. In a word: Wow … I’m thinking right around the middle of the 2nd quarter when he already surpassed his season high in points, this fan base realized that there was never a reason to doubt him in the first place. He’s deserved game to game criticism, sure, but his big picture took a huge step towards being restored last night.
And it wasn’t just his scoring (though he did end up with a career-high 33), he took his knack for knowing when to take advantage of a mismatch, especially when slicing to the rim, to a level we hadn’t seen before.
For those that want to ask the question/pose the caveat of whether or not he would have had total control over the offense if the opposition hadn’t been so inexperienced, well, that’s a valid discussion to have. But, he did pass the eye test with flying colors. Isn’t that enough, sometimes? He’s had big games in the past, but he’s never really cut so crisp, or displayed such a confident shooting stroke — at least from my own personal vantage point.
Unfortunately, the best-case scenarios for all the aforementioned reasons to watch this game didn’t all pan out. Namely: JV and DeMarre.
For JV, Lopez didn’t exactly need his expanded outside game to win this one-on-one matchup. Hell, the Nets as a whole had 46 points in the paint by the middle of the 3rd quarter. Credit Brooklyn for switching up their attack and capitalizing on the Raps’ flaws. Still, one instance in particular, Lopez exposed Jonas’ footwork with a wow-moment of his own: A spin move followed by a pump fake followed by a big man version of a euro step. I’m still searching for what to call it. For now, let’s just go with embarrassing. To be fair, though, JV’s previous redemption vs. Boston and his performances throughout this “taking care of business tour”, is cause to pump the brakes a bit and still be able to bask in his overall progression.
As for Carroll, well, his transition and spot-up threes remained consistent. But his impact fizzled (at least numbers wise) as the game went on. But let’s be clear, that was through no fault of his own — the later moments of this game called for another course of action.
Enter DeMar DeRozan and perhaps (still need to fact check this) the first time he’s ever finished a game as the team leader in points, rebounds and assists (36/11/6). He made his adjustments at halftime (you could also say he was just waiting for the moment he needed to up the ante) and as per usual, his season-long closer mentality kicked into high gear. From midrange floaters to carving out position deep inside the lane, DeMar flipped the switch when the notch in the win column began to stray.
Though, another possible turning point can’t go unmentioned. For those who witnessed it, you can relive its glory. If you didn’t catch it, well:
The score was 73-71 (Raps) with just over 6 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter. DeRozan drives the lane only to be dismissed by a monstrous Brook Lopez rejection. It leads to a Joe Harris one-on-none fast break but Pascal Siakam then proceeds to do his best LeBron-on-Iguodala impression and return the favor. You can only kill momentum by creating your own and you never know what kind of run you just negated by doing so.
Honourable mention has to go out to T-Ross and Fred VanVleet. Ross for shooting the Raps out of numerous sticky situations and VanVleet for furthering the notion that he’s gonna have a place in this team’s future. His career-highs in minutes (25), points (10), as well as his versatile production of 2 threes, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals will surely be relegated back to bench, but his tenacity on defense and capability to create will not be forgotten.
However, what’s a Raptors’ post-game commentary without balancing the scales a bit. Simply put: Norman Powell looked dazed and confused. As I said before, fluctuating minutes and a not-so defined role tends to take its toll, but last night was an example of a player failing to stake a claim on his spot in the pecking order. Especially after such an encouraging outing the previous time out.
Next up, Philly. Don’t look know but the taking care of business tour has an improving and potential roadblock ahead of it. League Pass power ranking candidate, indeed.