As officials reviewed the play, a chorus of “Let’s GO Rap-TORS!” serenaded them. The Air Canada Centre’s marquee song has largely gone unheard over the last two months, occasionally replaced with a smattering of boos or, perhaps far worse, dreadful silence. For some time, the Toronto Raptors have been failing to incite the madness that has come to define the ACC as one of the loudest venues in the NBA, their play reflected in a fanbase with the dial firmly stuck on worry.
Moments prior, Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas had reached out his arm in transition to gain an edge on a pursuing DeMarre Carroll. Carroll, perhaps frustrated with another poor first-half showing from himself and his teammates, responded with an effortful shove. Thomas was sent sprawling to the floor, bounced up, and threw the tiniest of finger guns Carroll’s way as Jae Crowder barked and a handful of Raptors swarmed to Carroll’s side. The end result – a flagrant foul for Carroll and a technical each for Carroll, Thomas, and Crowder – hardly mattered. The Raptors had shown life, and they’d awoken their home crowd in the process.
“Sometimes, we’ve got to take a stand,” Carroll said. “We can’t just let teams roll over on us. We can’t let people think that we’re soft.”
The returns of that moment were not immediate. A 10-point Boston lead swelled to 17 hardly a minute later. But the style of game this had become manifested itself in another moment with Thomas, as he earned himself a flagrant foul on a play against Cory Joseph, sparking a 7-0 Raptors run to end the half.
Toronto had not played well to that point. Their first quarter defense was beyond shaky. The offense had amounted to handing DeMar DeRozan the ball and standing around praying. Down Kyle Lowry due to a wrist injury that threatened to take all of the positivity out of a night where two major acquisitions would debut, the succession plan behind him – Joseph started, Delon Wright came off the bench – looked shaky initially, and all night in the case of the latter. The new additions, Serge Ibaka and a sleepless P.J. Tucker, looked more comfortable than expected, but expectations were low to begin with.
The Boston-Toronto series this season has come with some caveats. At least one starter has to miss every game. Tension can either exist and be downplayed or be absent and played up. It must be debated whether this is a rivalry yet or not, given the lack of playoff history and legitimate bad blood. And, for whatever reason, double-digit leads are made only to be broken.
Toronto’s late push in the second quarter bled into the third, and within three-and-a-half minutes it was down to one on an Ibaka mid-range jumper. Then an Ibaka triple would give Toronto their first lead since early in the first quarter. All told, it wound up a 30-8 run across quarters, with the Raptors fundamentally changing their constitution with their backs up against the wall.
The Raptors would have been forgiven for stalling out. Working two brand new players into the rotation, one with just two practices and one without a wink of sleep and only a viewed shootaround under this belt, is extremely difficult. Tucker drew raves for already knowing the Celtics as well as some of the coaching staff, and Ibaka’s quickly advanced to the point of demanding execution on defense in practice. But these things take time at game speed, even if veterans expect themselves to fight through it.
“I don’t believe in adjustment periods,” Tucker said after the game.
Beyond the adjustment period Tucker doesn’t believe in, the Raptors were also without their best player, with Lowry frustratingly keeping a sore wrist quiet, participating in All-Star activities, and now headed for diagnostic testing. Even with fortification, the Raptors without Lowry do not feel like the same team, sucked of leadership, creativity, energy, and, perhaps most importantly when the offense is run through DeRozan, shooting, as opponents can load up to make life hard on the team’s remaining star. And for just shy of two quarters, the game played out how it would be expected to, given the circumstances, although Toronto’s energy was lower than it had any excuse being.
As of the trade deadline, though, this may be a new Raptors team. It’s not as if Toronto was wilting regularly before, but there has long been the sense that the Raptors are a difficult team to beat but not a particularly hard team to play. They’re not soft, but they’re not exactly tough either, lacking last season’s unpunkability that Bismack Biyombo brought so emphatically. They can be pushed around a bit, their leads attacked and their comebacks cut short. Maybe it’s just been an exceptionally bad two months in that regard, but the Raptors, for all the ceiling they’ve shown, have felt on tenuous ground for some time.
Consider Ibaka and Tucker a solidifcation of the foundation, then. A host of Raptors deserve credit for the comeback, and it may start with the Joseph defense played in the second half, with the switchability and versatility behind him letting him get right up in Thomas’ jersey and keeping the league’s leading fourth-quarter scorer plenty cool. DeRozan’s offensive performance outside of the game’s opening minutes was masterful, too, even if Lowry jokingly evaluated it as “trash” after the game. Carroll was solid, given the necessary help around him to simply focus on doing Carroll things rather than trying to create too much on offense and help everywhere on defense. Short of Wright and Lucas Nogueira, everyone who played had their moments.
It was the debuting duo, though, that altered the feel of the game. The Raptors have an honest-to-goodness starting power forward, and when Ibaka shifted to center, the defensive possibilities opened up dramatically. Dwane Casey is going to have a field day with seven or eight players who can create hectic, switchy, helping, defense-first lineups when Ibaka’s the biggest man on the floor, and Casey didn’t tip his hand so much as lay his cards on the table as to how Toronto might approach Al Horford and company in a playoff series. The handful of Ibaka jerseys scattered throughout the ACC on Friday seem primed to multiply, with Ibaka’s 15 points, seven rebounds, and plus-16 mark in 36 minutes essentially filling what’s to be asked of him perfectly.
And Tucker, well, if that’s Tucker on no sleep, when he planned to not play, when his wife and agent told him not to suit up, then regular, well-rested, everyday Tucker is going to be a fan favorite like this city hasn’t seen in some time. The word “toughness” gets thrown around vaguely fairly often, but Tucker’s pre-game explanation cut to the heart of why his new teammates were beyond excited – DeRozan hadn’t slept either in anticipation, he claims – to add Tucker to the mix.
“I think your toughness is your character. It’s what you bring. It’s energy. It’s more than just going and hitting people,” Tucker said. “Toughness is a mental something. It’s something you are born with and you gotta hone it and try to figure out a way to make it work for your team.”
So no, Tucker didn’t hit anyone. (He did, however, have the ultimate WAMFW face on during the Carroll scuffle.) He did strip a ball right out of Thomas’ hands late, converge with Joseph for another steal prior to that, defend across maybe all five positions in the fourth quarter, lead the team in rebounding, and help close out his first game as a Raptor in about a decade.
“P.J. Tucker got them going,” Thomas said after the game. “That’s what he does. That’s why they traded for him. He’s the definition of a tough guy.”
That the Raptors put together the comeback is great for the psyche of the locker room. After storming back in similar fashion against Charlotte right before the break, they now have two wins in a row that were made tougher by circumstance and by themselves. Lowry’s injury looms over everything, but beating the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, locking up the season series, and trimming the gap in the Atlantic Division to three games, all without one of their stars, is a major victory. Too much shouldn’t be made about the outcome of one game – season series isn’t a perfect predictor of playoff success, the Celtics were without Avery Bradley, and they may look different if Horford ever shows up for one of these games – but the excitement reverberating around the ACC by the end of this game had far less to do with the actual outcome of a late February game than the new coat of paint the Raptors’ seem to have.
“It’s like, I’m pretty sure you have a car, right? You get a new paint job, you’re going to feel a lot better riding around,” DeRozan said at shootaround before dropping a career-high 43 points, with five rebounds and five assists, on just 28 field-goal attempts. (All with extra attention on him because of Lowry’s absence. It was truly a remarkable offensive performance.)
The new color will take some time to set. For now, it looks like the Raptors have a renewed energy and some much-needed additional toughness. The defensive communication late in the game was unbelievable. Options abound for Casey at that end of the floor. Without Lowry, the offense might struggle some nights, but DeRozan is still DeRozan, too, and the team might get back to being able to win at both ends of the floor. There’s a real sense the Raptors won’t go down easy any longer, and that the shot of life they’ve been given over the break will help them put the past seven weeks behind them.
“That type of physical play, that’s what this league is about. The way we competed down the stretch with that group, that’s the physicality we have to play (with),” Casey said. “It’s not a finesse game, it’s not pretty, we knew it was going to be a grind it out game, down 17 and nothing but grit and grime and hard work and want to is what that’s about out.”
It wasn’t pretty. That’s kind of what made this one so beautiful.