The term “playoff atmosphere” can sometimes have too low a bar to clear. Over an 82-game season, the occasional raucous, highly contested, or well-executed game can feel more important, and there are nights that better replicate a desperate competitive environment than others. Sometimes, it’s an overstatement. Sometimes, though, it’s a game like Friday.
The buzz was palpable from well before tip, the fourth Welcome Toronto night and the first official Drake Night of the year – plus a genuine sense of anticipation in the city in the day or two leading up to the game – had the Air Canada Centre full early and loud just as soon. The visiting Houston Rockets came in winners of 17 straight, owners of the league’s best record, and looking to avenge a loss on their own court to these Toronto Raptors earlier in the year. Both sides were down a starter, the Raptors a key reserve, and two teams playing their third game in four nights saw the line come down something close to even.
The Raptors were slight underdogs, and for all of the change in momentum and reputation and organizational equity the franchise has built up over the last half decade, damned if Toronto crowds don’t still play the part of plucky David like few others.
“The crowd was great. They picked us up,” Dwane Casey said. “We need them a little bit more when the referees give us…I don’t want to get fined. But they were great tonight. We needed them. They really carried us. It was a hot building and we needed it…The crowd, the moment, the team you’re playing, if you can’t get excited about tonight, you need another profession.”
“The game was lit man, I hope you enjoyed it,” James Harden added.
And my goodness, did the Raptors ever match the crowd’s energy and come with a sense of the moment. To call the first quarter the team’s best of the season may be an understatement, and it’s almost unspeakable how many positives came from the opening 12 minutes. Kyle Lowry was full KLOE, scoring 13 with three assists in a hurry. DeMar DeRozan was engaged defensively and hitting pull-up threes. Jonas Valanciunas did his best to punish Houston’s switch-heavy approach, at least when P.J. Tucker wasn’t being an absolute mad man to scramble to fix the switch and make life tough for him. (Tucker pre-switching all over the court was something to see. Dude is a savant.) And Fred VanVleet came in and lost Nene in his waves for a fun highlight. The Raptors shot 62 percent for the quarter and only committed a pair of turnovers.
What’s more, their defensive approach to Houston’s isolation-heavy attack was great. They switched where they needed to but mostly stayed in one-on-one defense, keeping defenders tight to shooters and trusting their guards and bigs. Jakob Poeltl was terrific around the rim and on a number of switches onto Chris Paul, Norman Powell did as good a job as you can hope on Harden, and the Rockets were stuck with an 0-of-5 mark from long-range that was far more notable for the attempt volume than the cold shooting. By the end of 12 minutes, the Raptors were up 32-16, enough to get Drake predicting the streak was over on the house mic.
The second would be a big test. The Raptors trust their all-bench group immensely. Here, they’d be playing against three Rockets starters and without Delon Wright. Seven-Time All-Star Joe Johnson loomed, too. The bench, as they have so often, responded, getting a huge burst from Malcolm Miller, who went on a personal 7-2 run with a tremendous stretch that included a three, a drive, and a cut. That group extended the lead by a point over five minutes, a big victory and a positive harbinger for potential playoff rotations.
The Rockets are the Rockets and had not won 17 in a row for no reason. In theory, they were due a counterpunch, and it appeared it may be coming when Trevor Ariza became an attacker and seams appeared to be opening up. The Raptors stayed dialed in, though, with Lowry’s shooting remaining pristine, DeRozan hitting bank shots, and Powell cleaning up his own miss and then sprinting back around a screen to allow Valanciunas to stay at home and break up a Harden lob to Capela (Valanciunas had such a great defensive half. A DeRozan three followed, and the ACC seemed ready to burst on the precipice of a 20-point lead. Frustration seemed to be setting in for the Rockets – Paul got away with some unnecessary displays of that frustration – and it’s easy to see why: They managed just nine 3-point attempts and scored just 43 points, their second-lowest first-half total of the year (on a 93.5 offensive rating). They were also down 15 at the break.
“Game plan. Game plan. That was our game plan, to keep them inside the three,” Lowry said. “We know they’re going to shoot them. They’re going to get them up. We held them inside the three. We can’t take everything away from them. We tried to take away one of their strengths.”
That inevitable push-back came with force at the top of the third, owing in part to some extra aggression against what Toronto’s defense allows and also some drifting focus from a few of the Raptors. Lowry’s outside shot and a technical free throw Paul gifted them was all the offensive juice the Raptors had initially, and the Rockets managed a 10-3 run to get right back into the game. Lowry steered them right back out of it, an excellent performance continuing with a defense of P.J. Tucker on a post-up that lead to a Rockets turnover. Serge Ibaka chipped in on offense, too, and Lowry’s example set the tone for a team-wide defensive pick-up. Harden did his best to end that, though, hitting consecutive off-dribble threes with Powell’s hand in his face to raise the tension level precipitously.
That once again meant a strong test for the bench, who subbed in almost entirely as a unit to play with DeRozan for the last few minutes of the quarter. DeRozan scored promptly and VanVleet made a terrific play for a steal, but the Rockets’ rotation doesn’t relent, and Eric Gordon took a turn carrying the offensive load to pull close again. A DeRozan three and a Poeltl put-back provided a bit of additional separation and kept the lead at eight entering the fourth, still a tight margin given the quality of the opponent.
Casey went all-bench again at the top of the fourth, a justifiable risk given that the team needs to eventually learn how they’ll respond in situations just like this. It looked shaky at first, but they bounced right back with. C.J. Miles provided a three, VanVleet picked up Paul full-court to help slow Houston down and pressure them into turnovers, and the defensive energy was incredible, helping them win their stint by a point again, this time over four minutes before Lowry checked back in.
Toronto then went small for the first time opposite a Houston lineup that had Tucker at center, going four-out around Poeltl with Miles as the de facto power forward. It didn’t work out, though it was a reasonable enough move. They stuck small, too, with a closing lineup that included VanVleet in Ibaka’s normal place and Valanciunas opposite Capela. There’s no real word for the stretch run than awesome, with two really good teams and some legitimate All-Stars trading big scores and big stops. DeRozan drove, Gordon hit a floater. Lowry hit a three, Harden answered. Houston got a stop, Toronto got a stop. There was even a DeRozan-Harden possessions that date back literally to when they were 11 or 12, by their estimation.
Where the Rockets made the difference up was at the free-throw line, getting the Raptors into the penalty while committing zero fouls themselves. It also helped that Harden hit a ludicrous step-back at the end of a possession where VanVleet was draped all over him. DeRozan answered with a baseline turnaround and the Raptors got a big stop, but Valanciunas was stripped attacking out of the corner (he curiously spent a lot of time just chilling in the corner down the stretch). The Rockets had a chance to tie, and Valanciunas and DeRozan came up with a huge stop, Valanciunas tipping a pass and DeRozan corralling it. DeRozan and Valanciunas converging for a key defensive play, given where they’ve come from, might be the lasting memory of this one, two players long-maligned for their defense borderline saving the game on that end.
“He told on himself. I tell him all the time, he’s a better defender than he’s shown,” Casey said.
After another Raptors miss – a late Miles heave – the defense came up huge again, forcing a late Rockets three and scrambling like mad for the defensive rebound. DeRozan came up with a pair of huge free throws to go back ahead four, and Gordon responded with a quick three from the middle of Lake Ontario to pull within one. There was a weird call on the Raptors’ next inbound, with Valanciunas getting free throws that the Raptors thought should have went to DeRozan. Valanciunas hit them both, setting up a final play for Houston, down three with 5.4 seconds to play. Siakam was the lone big defending against a five-out attack, and the Raptors smothered Houston from the inbound, eschewing the chance to foula nd forcing Harden into an errant desperation shot from the logo.
“We knew they were gonna start making shots, especially when you got a player like Harden that’s gonna turn it up, especially in the fourth quarter, to get his team back in the game,” DeRozan said. “We just had to stay patient, execute, understand what we had to do to pull out the victory.”
With that stop – the last in a series of big ones in the closing minutes – the Raptors snapped the longest winning streak in the NBA, winning a seventh in a row themselves and sending yet another message that everything they’ve done this year can be replicated against elite competition. Lowry scored 30 points on 19 possessions, and he and VanVleet held Paul in check. Harden got his 40 pretty efficiently, with some impossible shots mixed in, but letting him do so allowed the Raptors to stay home on Rockets shooters and hold Houston below their season-average offensive rating. They won the rebounding battle slightly, survived turnover trouble, knocked down shots, and learned plenty about themselves, in personnel and in system.
“Guys stuck with the game plan. They stuck with game plan, they trusted each other, they trusted what we were doing and stuck with it,” Casey said. “Our big thing tonight was mental toughness. This team is going to score. They are a great scoring team and are one of the best I have seen in my many years in the NBA. You take away one thing and they figure out another thing. They keep moving out further and further. That shot Eric Gordon hit was almost at half-court it seemed like. So my hat is off to our guys. I thought they did everything we asked them to do. Took care of business, met their runs, didn’t get frustrated and stuck together and finished it up.”
The Raptors did what they’re supposed to after, downplaying the importance of any one game but allowing themselves some pride in their performance – until midnight, as Casey warned, before the focus turns to New York. They’ll try not to have a let-down. This was just a step on the way to where they want to go, after all. It was an important one, though, and if this is the type of performance they’re capable of with regularity, they just might be able to get there.