The job of a writer covering the Raptors has become that of a shaman, reading the leaves and bones of a game to predict the future of the mercurial Raptors. This game had plenty of bones and leaves, but it followed the same basic pattern as the previous Kyle Lowry return games: a terrible start with an encouraging fourth quarter, resulting in a win.
The Raptors are enjoying a stretch of basketball in which the process matters far more than the results. This is known, but it is worth re-iterating: the Raptors care only about playing well going into the playoffs. During a relatively convincing win in New York, the Raps have some kinks to work out before the road to the ‘ship, but most signs point towards positivity.
The Knicks are objectively terrible, even when they trot out their superteam including Kristaps Porzingis, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, and Joakim Noah. The Raps can beat today’s Knicks team – lacking all four aforementioned megastars – based entirely on DeMar DeRozan isolation midrange jumpers, but that is not how the Raptors want to be playing basketball going into the playoffs. Despite that knowledge, the Raptors only just survived the first half based entirely on DeMar DeRozan isolation midrange jumpers (and drives). The Raptors want their defense stingy, their offense zippy, and their Lowry healthy and rust-free heading into Game 1. The first two goals were not met until the fourth quarter. However, Lowry is getting run with the team’s new additions, and he’s shaking the rust off quickly, which is maybe the most important sign that can be gleaned from this stretch.
Both teams seemed uninterested in this yawn-inducing matinee in New York. Do teams ever play well in the afternoon in New York? These games just shouldn’t be scheduled. Without Porzingis, the Garden is a deep, dark pit of misery, dragging all entrants into the woe and horrors of the realm of Phil. His great eye is always watching, willing terrible and triangle-shaped horrors on both his team and opponents alike. On the other hand, the Raptors were left watching the brilliance of Willy Hernangomez, who put in a late bid to join the Voltron Raptors DestroyersTM.
Have you ever seen a dumpster fire? It’s pretty sad – it involves peoples’ thrown-away and forgotten items, but then they are also on fire. The first quarter was sad. The first quarter was a dumpster fire. My analysis will therefore begin with the second quarter, to prevent any unneeded and unwanted eye-gouging from shocked and appalled readers.
The second quarter began with a recently-used iteration of Lowry+bench, which included Jonas Valanciunas. The results were mixed. Vananciunas had one of the first games in a long time in which he was engaged, decisive, and aggressive on both ends of the floor, but still hurt the Raptors’ production. That is fine, and if he is engaged, the Raptors have to be happy. The Lowry+bench lineup failed to deliver, and Dwayne Casey turned to DeRozan early to keep the Raptors afloat after two monster Kyle O’Quinn jams. DeRozan went straight to work, and he was locked in, scoring efficiently and creatively to keep the Raptors in the game. He hit midrange jumpers, running floaters, fading banks, and-1 circus shots, and free throw after free throw to pile on the points. That is a good sign in the leaves. On the other hand, Carroll air-balled a wide-open midrange jumper, so… let’s call it a wash.
Lowry started to get engaged before the half. He got a huge block and shorted a deep 3 immediately after. He appears to be the same player as before he had surgery, but he is rusty. This is a great sign, and more on his positive play later in the game. One more sign in the game – but this time troubling – was Powell’s only run. He stood in the left corner, then right corner, then left corner on the three half-court possessions of his few minutes, missing a 3 and contributing nothing else. However, he did get a steal and fast-break jam. He didn’t play again until garage time, when he took a smack in the face and left for the training room. Powell looks to be another break-in-case-of-emergency piece for this year’s playoff rotation.
Hernangomez continued eating the Raptors’ lunch while they watched on, apparently not hungry enough to care. The allegorical play of the first half was Hernangomez spinning past an unconcerned DeRozan for an easy flush. Willy dropped 20 in the first half, which was second only to DeRozan’s 26.
Halftime was nice, as it proved to me that other teams also rock the terrible Simon Sez attempt at entertainment. However, Simon is apparently a jerk to children, which is a plus. He told one child who raised his right hand instead of left that, ‘it’s a science thing, but you can learn over there [gesturing dismissively towards the void where losers could apparently learn their left and right]’.
The third quarter was full of refreshing signs that lacked results on the score board. The broadcast crew mentioned that Lowry had some ugly turnovers resulting from miscommunication with new additions PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka. Those are much better errors to make now than in a few weeks. Lowry was engaged on both sides of the ball. He wizzed around on defense, disrupting the Knicks offense at every turn. On offense, he showed his masterful Chris Paul-ian ability to keep everyone happy and engaged. The Raptors kept inching closer, but easy fast break buckets killed any Raptors’ momentum before the team could build a big lead. The Raps went into the fourth up 1 after a driving DeRozan floater off the glass.
The fourth quarter was beautiful. My tarot cards predicted seven years (or, you know, one quarter) of plenty, and Lowry did not disappoint. Casey started the quarter with an interesting iteration of Lowry+bench, involving Cory Joseph, Tucker, Patrick Patterson, and Jakob Poeltl. This lineup was beyond dominant. They made New York look like a team whose best player is Marshall Plumlee (which, obviously, he isn’t, but I had to mention the marvellous brothers Plumlee somewhere). Lowry and Poeltl ran beautiful pick and rolls, resulting in an easy Poeltl duck-in for a bucket and then a classic KLOE 3.
Patterson is a much better defender with Lowry in the game. They both are cerebral defenders, making great and unexpected jumps on reads that surprise offenses. They are great together, and their defensive chemistry really shone through. Combined with the quickness of Joseph, the versatility of Poeltl, and the intensity of Tucker, this Lowry+bench lineup was defensively dominant. On offense, Patterson also looked fantastic. He hit open 3s and even drove for a dunk! His drives used to look like DeMarre Carroll-ian forays of tragicomedy into the paint. Now he looks good. Most of the time.
Poeltl also looked fantastic on both ends. He sealed off opponents’ drives, contested shots, rebounded well on both ends, set great screens on offense, and finished when he had a chance. This was the best I’ve ever seen him play. This lineup flew around, switching easily and smothering any New York attack. Poeltl could eat glass on one defensive possession and then contest a shot and trust Lowry to crash the glass on the next, starting a fast break that ended in a Tucker 3. Despite DeRozan’s early dominance, Casey trusted this lineup until 1:30 left in the game, when the result was wrapped up with the Raps up big. Whoever says Casey isn’t creative with lineups is blind or willfully ignorant.
So, the signs were horrid, mixed, then brilliant. DeRozan is locked in, which is a must for the playoffs. Lowry is shaking the rust off, and he so clearly makes everyone on the court better when he plays. Patterson is back to doing what made him the plus-minus king, and just in time. The Raptors can trust their pieces off the bench to play defense above all else, which is most important for a team trotting Lowry and DeRozan out from jump street. Things are looking up.
Let’s zoom out for a moment and abandon any attempt at sniffing the wind to foretell the future. The Raptors clinched the third seed, and they recorded the franchise’s first-ever consecutive 50-win seasons. It doesn’t take a shaman to read the signs in those leaves.