At the half, with the Trail Blazers leading an extremely tired looking Raptors team, 57-40, I had this game recap pretty much written. I figured, assuming that the second-half would run a course similar to the first, that I'd start with something like this:
Coming off of a back-to-back -- and Denver-to-Portland is THE toughest of back-to-backs -- the Raptors looked exhausted. Missed free-throws, jump-shots hitting the front of the rim, and turnovers galore, were signs of that fatigue. Getting blown out by the best offensive team in the league under those circumstances is begrudgingly acceptable. Schedule loss. Don't over-analysize. Don't panic.
The above paragraph would've neatly summed up the Raptors loss had the game ended after 24 minutes. But after a furious second-half comeback, led by the All-Star (He ABSOLUTELY deserved that prefix tonight) DeMar DeRozan, in which the Raptors led for the first time in the game with just 25 seconds left, this game could in no way be described as your run-of-the-mill schedule loss.
It's well worth recapping the final, breathless minutes.
With 6 minutes left the Raptors trailed by 13, 100-87, having been down by as many as 19 earlier in the game. Jonas Valanciunas nailed a jumper, and DeRozan -- who would finish with 36 points and a career high 12 assists -- hit a 3 to cut it to 8. After a pair of Patrick Patterson buckets the Blazers' lead was down to 4 points.
Patterson then drew a charge on LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kyle Lowry, as he's done so often this season, swished a deep 3 and the Blazers lead was down to just one point -- 102-101. Lowry finished the game with 23 points and 8 assists, after struggling with the length of Nicolas Batum early on. It was a really smart defensive move by the Portland coaching staff to put the rangy wing on Lowry. It took him a long time to get comfortable.
The next fews possessions consisted of a bricked Batum jump-shot, a Patterson miss at the end of the shot-clock, a Lillard miss, and in the crazy subsequent possession; a DeRozan miss, followed by DeMar diving for the ball on the baseline, getting it back, and having his shot blocked under the basket by Robin Lopez.
Seriously, this game was bonkers.
After Aldridge missed a turnaround jump-shot that he normally makes in his sleep, DeRozan was fouled by Matthews on a deep two. DeRozan kept his cool to sink both free-throws, and the Raptors -- inexplicably -- led by a point with 25 seconds left.
Unfortunately for the Raps it wouldn't get any better after that. Damien Lillard, who finished with 21 points, and 7 assists, drove into the lane and banked home the game-winner after a mis-communication between Lowry and John Salmons.
With 11 seconds left, and the Raptors down 104-103, DeRozan got tied up by Wesley Matthews, but tipped the subsequent jump-ball to Chuck Hayes (more on him later). Casey took a timeout and DeRozan got another chance to win the game. But with Matthews doing a stellar job bodying him up, DeMar dribbled the ball off his foot and the Blazers regained possession. Batum iced the game with 2 free-throws, and the comeback effort came up agonizingly short.
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades (Incidentally, I'd rather be hit with a horseshoe), and I realize that Dwane Casey doesn't believe in moral victories (or at least won't confess to believing in them publicly); but deep down inside, if he was honest with himself, he'd have to agree that that was the very definition of a moral victory.
The Raps looked dead and buried at the half. Amir Johnson was clearly injured, Portland were playing off 3 days rest, and as cliched as it sounds, the Raps just didn't have their legs. In previous years -- and prior to the Rudy trade -- they would've lost this game by 25. And although this team is obviously far from perfect, it's extremely refreshing to watch them fight through adversity and stay in games until the end. On Monday night in Brooklyn they were rewarded for that fight, and tonight they came up short. Both games illustrate that these guys aren't the Toronto Raptors of the last few seasons.
But just to stop myself getting too excited after a Raptors loss, I'll run through some things that I didn't like/some overall negatives:
- LaMarcus Aldridge (who finished with 27 points and 15 rebounds) had far too much space early on tonight, and he killed the Raps in the first quarter. Amir was clearly hobbled and couldn't close him out quickly enough. While I realize that it's dangerous doubling against the best 3-point shooting team in the league, perhaps shading over another defender would've at least given LMA pause for thought.
- Jonas had a nice-ish game offensively, but he got worked over by Robin Lopez too often on the glass, and struggled with Lopez's physicality. For all the muscle that he put on in the off-season, JV gets worked over a lot against strong, high IQ centres like Lopez, who can use their bodies intelligently.
- DeRozan had an incredible game, but that handle needs work. It's not the first time that he's coughed up the ball on a game-deciding drive this season. I feel like an asshole criticizing him after such a great game, but it's worth pointing out.
- There isn't too much in this world that'll make you long for Greivis Vasquez: Julyan Stone will make you long for Greivis Vasquez.
- For this season Terrence Ross should just worry about his defense and 3-point shooting. But working on an off-the-dribble game in the summer should be a high priority.
- It's worth reiterating: DeMar DeRozan, late miscues aside, was sensational tonight. Every Raptor had a rough first half (DeMar had just 6 points and 2 assists at the break) but he put the team on his back in the second-half (I have a triple-double in cliches tonight) and had 28 points and 10 assists in the final 24 minutes. Given his playmaking, and the circumstances --- struggling teammates, second game of a back-to-back -- that was the best game I've seen DeMar play.
- Some nights you're going to wonder why a 6'6" centre, who can't jump, is getting minutes; but then there are nights, like last night, which remind you why Chuck Hayes is one of the most respected big men in the league. A few weeks ago Casey put Hayes on Al Jefferson, who was tearing the Raps to pieces, and last night he made a similar adjustment by putting Chuck on Aldridge. As mentioned, LMA was killing the Raptors in the first half (18 points and 11 rebounds). He had just 9 points and 4 rebounds in the second-half, however. Hayes refused to be backed-down (Chuck could probably stand his ground against an elephant in the low-post) and got a hand in Aldridge's face on every possession. Great effort.
- Joel Freeland is from England. I'm from England. I like Joel Freeland. That is all.
- With last night's win the Blazers are now 34-13. They finished last season 33-49. What a turnaround.
- Armstrong and Devlin were discussing Portland's 'non-rebuild rebuild' and whether it was a model for the Raptors going forward. Don't forget the Nets' role in that rebuild: You know, the pick that became Damien Lillard, in exchange for
Perimeter Kendrick PerkinsGerald Wallace. Thanks Prokhorov!
- Just before the end of the 3rd quarter I wrote down that the Raps were doing a great job chasing the Blazers off the 3-point line. Then they made back-to-back 3s to end the quarter and finished the game shooting 8 of 18. So yeah, I totally jinxed that, I guess.
- Terry Stotts has done a great job this year, but he was a little slow to adjust to DeRozan going off. Also, that Lillard-Mo Williams backcourt is just gross defensively.
- On the subject of Lillard: Devlin was telling Jack Armstrong that Lillard is one of the poorest finishers at the rim in the NBA. I wish he hadn't. Lillard almost instantly started driving to the basket and finishing emphatically. It gave Armstrong ammunition for his future nauseating FORGET THE STATS JUST WATCH THE GAMES rants.
- The Raptors haven't won in Portland since 2006. However, after last season's loss (featuring Amir's mouth-guard throwing ejection) the Raps fell to 4 and 18. Things are better this year, me thinks.