The Toronto Raptors are the first team in the NBA this season to clinch a playoff berth. They did it on March 7th.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Feels good, right? Okay.
The team—now on pace for 60 wins—wound up in a wild game that saw regulation expire and an extra period take place. If anything, last night gave the Raptors a lot more clutch basketball experience and was a resoundingly fun ride that saw Norman Powell play well, Serge Ibaka get ejected, a heroic DeMar DeRozan, and more.
Let’s get into it.
The game began slowly for Toronto, the starters again coming out of the gates like they weren’t interested in trying hard against a lower class team—this time in the form of the free-falling Detroit Pistons. The ball movement was spotty and nobody on the team could seem to hit shots—except for Norm, who hit a three early on and never looked back—while the defense suffered largely because of Ibaka’s lethargic (that might be an understatement—he looked like he was wearing cement boots out there instead of sneakers) play.
The bench managed to give the club a boost to close the quarter, which ended with the Raptors leading despite shooting just 40.7 per cent and going 3–12 from beyond the arc. The good news, at least, was they managed to hold the Pistons to an equally abysmal 37.5 per cent shooting.
Unfortunately, the wheels came off in the second quarter, with Detroit pummelling Toronto with a 16–2 run that starred Dwight Buycks playing lockdown defense on Fred VanVleet, and Ish Smith running amuck all over the floor. The breaking point came when Ibaka wouldn’t stop chirping an official, and subsequently got himself ejected from the game.
Enter Lucas Nogueria, who played the rest of Serge’s second quarter minutes and made a nice impact defensively, doing his thing around the rim. Powell hit another triple and the Raps made a tiny push that ended when Smith hit a gut-wrenching three of his own to close the half, putting the Pistons up 59–45.
Detroit outscored Toronto 36–18 in the second and raised their shooting percentage to 52.4 per cent, including 63.6 per cent on threes. The Raptors were held to a mere four fast break points and while DeRozan scored 11, he notably didn’t have any assists—a sign that never bodes well for the team as a whole.
Prior to the third quarter, it was announced that Delon Wright would not return. He played the first half with the sprained toe he received in Tuesday’s game against Atlanta, but didn’t feel well enough to continue.
Thankfully, Kyle Lowry chose the second half to step up as he went full KLOE, driving aggressively into the paint and kicking the ball out for dime upon dime. Twice in the quarter he was fouled while making a three-pointer—he converted the four-point play once. He also had a sweet and-one reverse layup that was Old School Lowry, and he pushed the pace back to where the Raptors wanted it, pitching the ball ahead off of misses to Pascal Siakam running the floor.
Feeding off of Lowry, the ball movement improved to its regular state, shots began to fall, and the Raptors erased their awful second quarter by dropping 40 points in the third to take a one-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes.
Without Wright and Ibaka, both Malcolm Miller—whom I’m really starting to enjoy; the kid knows how to cut!—and Powell got more minutes to begin the fourth, allowing Siakam to catch a breather before re-entering. The two were solid, though by the time Dwane Casey unleashed his closing lineup—Jonas Valanciunas, DeRozan, Lowry, Siakam, and VanVleet—the game remained close.
With 22.2 seconds left, the game was tied 109–109. Casey took the team’s last timeout after an offensive rebound, thinking incorrectly that the ball had touched rim. Since it hadn’t, there were only six seconds left on the shot clock. The ball was then inbounded to DeRozan, who was left to isolate about 17 feet from the basket.
He turned, fired, made it.
On the other end, Blake Griffin nailed an and-one and made the free throw.
Then, this happened.
“It was a big play,” said Lowry of the dunk afterward, “and for him to do that in that situation was just MVP-ish.”
A couple more DeRozan free throws, another Blake banker on the block, some horrendous inbound attempts with 0.3 on the clock, and the game headed into overtime.
The extra period was characterized early on by silly mistakes—a VanVleet travel here, a Valanciunas double-dribble there—until DeRozan decided to take over indefinitely. He made a key pass to Siakam for an easy two, then made an and-one midrange jumper. Finally, off of a key missed three by Reggie Bullock, DeRozan snatched the rebound and blazed downcourt, drawing all of the Pistons defenders and kicking the ball out to VanVleet in the corner.
And Freddy “I Was Born Activated” VanVleet rose, cool as a cucumber, let it fly, and snapped the mesh to put the game away for good.
The best part about that sequence was that prior to that shot, VanVleet was 1–9 from the field. DeRozan didn’t care. He saw that his teammate was open and trusted that he would make the shot when it mattered most. And he did.
“As soon as I saw his guy step in and Freddy step back, it was just that trust I got in my teammate,” said DeRozan post-game. “I knew he was gonna make it.”
This is what the change to the offensive system was all about: Finding the best available shot at all times, even if it’s not coming from your best players. The unselfishness by DeRozan is admirable, and it’s pretty safe to say that, by this point, this Raptors team is all in on one another.
Team Over Everything.
DeRozan finished with 42 points, four rebounds, and six assists on 57.1 per cent shooting to lead the club and did this:
DeMar DeRozan had 42 points on 30 shooting possessions. Five of his 6 assists led to shots from 3 and in the restricted area (the exception was Fred VanVleet’s game-winner). Despite high usage, DeRozan had just 1 turnover. He was an insane +154% win probability added (@inpredict) pic.twitter.com/UyWilQryNC
— Positive Residual (@presidual) March 8, 2018
Lowry had a big night also, racking up 15 points, seven boards, and 15 dimes.
Next up, the Raptors—now on a six-game win streak—will face off against the Houston Rockets—who are on a 17-game win streak, the longest this season—on Friday at home, where they are a league-best 27–5. This will be a great chance to test their mettle, even if they don’t have OG Anunoby or Wright to aid them.
For now, however, they can relax and enjoy their successful back-to-back, and their playoff berth, and set their sights on that elusive 60-win mark.