Roy Hibbert drove to his right, an NBA colossus trying, of all things, to score off the dribble. Kyle Lowry, giving up 14 inches and 85 pounds, slid to his left, planted his feet and took a charge. It was Hibbert's sixth foul of the game and he trudged to the bench, dispirited and frustrated. His teammates would soon join him when Frank Vogel waved the white flag in the closing minutes of a 95-82 Raptors win over maybe the NBA's best team.
This wasn't a fluke. The Raptors went toe-to-toe with the biggest, baddest team in the NBA and won. There were no gimmicks, just quality play on both sides of the ball and a growing belief that something might be happening here.
After a three-game undercard against the dysfunctional Knicks and just plain sad Bulls, the Raptors took center stage by welcoming the Pacers to Toronto as they embark on a brutal four game stretch that will see them play Indiana twice and Miami once.
Despite the huge jump in competition, the Raptors were up to the challenge early, jumping out to a 26-18 lead after a first quarter dominated by Kyle Lowry, who scored five points, handed out seven assists and even made time to take a charge on Luis Scola before his much more important one to come against Hibbert.
In a matchup between two of the league's 10 best defenses (yes, Toronto has been that good), the teams took turns dominating defensively: the Raptors held the incandescent Paul George scoreless in the first (and to only two points in the half), while the second was a terrifying reminder of why Indiana leads the league in almost every defensive category. Their defense works like a boa constrictor; every time you try to escape, they just squeeze a little tighter. Their long-armed demons forced 13 turnovers and carried them to a 44-40 lead at the intermission.
Instead of falling apart in the third, the Raptors took advantage of Hibbert picking up his fourth foul with five minutes left to turn a five point deficit into a three point lead, 66-63, heading into the final frame. There was more of the quality defense and hard work that has defined this team of late. After a John Salmons three gave Toronto the lead late in the quarter, the sellout crowd on hand came to life and - gasp! - there was some real juice in the ACC.
After Hibbert picked up his fifth foul just moments into the fourth quarter, the door was officially open for Toronto to pull off the upset. Against all odds they slowly took control as DeMar DeRozan hit several tough jumpers after a slow start. George shoved Lowry down the stretch, a frustration foul that mirrored the mood of his team as they lost only their sixth game of the season.
Along with the Oklahoma City win less than two weeks earlier, this stands as one of the most impressive Raptors' victories in recent memory. It's truly incredible how much of a difference the removal of Rudy Gay has made. It's like watching a completely different team and it's a testament to how complex a basketball team is that removing a player like Gay could make such a huge difference. Many thought they'd be better, but playing like this? It's next-level stuff.
The win moved the Raptors to 15-15. Winning as many games as you've lost never felt so good.
Some extra notes:
- He's had flashier performances, but this might have been Terrence Ross's best game as a pro. He scored 18 points and drew the assignment on George for most of the night, holding him to 12 points on 5-14 shooting. Perhaps no one has benefited more from Gay's absence than Ross; he's looking, at worst, like a high upside 3-and-D player. Not bad.
- He put up a relatively quiet 13 and 9, but Jonas Valanciunas more than held his own against Hibbert, a guy who's given him lots of trouble in the past.
- What more can you say about Lowry? He probably won't make the All-Star team, but there's an argument to be made that he should. He's been efficient on offense and a holy terror on defense. I have no idea how much of this is in response to the trade rumors that were swirling around him, but this is by far the best he's played since coming to Toronto.
- The relative merits of win now vs. tanking have been debated to death, and more won't be said about it here other than to say it's awesome to watch games that mean something now. As fans, all we want is to have some hope and be entertained when we sit down to watch a game. The Raptors are giving us both right now, so let's just enjoy the ride as long as it lasts.
- Up next is Washington on Friday. At 14-15, the Wiz are just behind the Raps in the standings and the two teams will likely be jockeying for position all season long. It'll be interesting to see how they match up in their second meeting of the year.