A good indicator that a team is moving in the right direction is that team's ability to win ugly on the road. The Raptors did just that in Salt Lake City last night.
After a sloppy first quarter, the Raps zoned-in on defense, holding Utah to just 17, 18, and 17 points over the next 3 quarters, respectively. While Casey's boys struggled on offense for large chunks of the game themselves, shooting just 44% from the field -- with the Jazz staying within touching distance because of that -- this was a game, that after the first quarter, the Raps never seemed in danger of losing.
This Utah Jazz side are definitely not the Utah Jazz of your childhood, nor are they even the competitively mediocre Utah Jazz of last season; but they are a team that's improved (having a point-guard has helped) since the Raps pounded them in November at the ACC. Playing at high altitude (again) after a grueling back-to-back in Denver and Portland, the Raps couldn't afford to take anything for granted.
And unlike the opening minutes in Portland, the Raps began proceedings last night engaged at both ends. They went to Valanciunas early and often and the big Lithuanian had his way against Enes Kanter (avenging the Treaty of Buchach) -- backing him down and scoring in the post, and even facing up and nailing his underused jump-shot.
Valanciunas, who had 8 points in the quarter, and Amir Johnson, who looked a little more mobile last night (it helped not having to cover a guy like LaMarcus Aldridge), helped the Raps build up a 17-8 lead, before the Jazz made a run of their own.
That run was sparked by Marvin Williams (that's right, former number 2 pick, Marvin Williams) who had 8 points in the first quarter, and would finish with 23. Williams showed glimpses of what the Atlanta Hawks must have seen in him in 2005, when they selected him over Chris Paul and Deron Williams. He knocked down shots from the outside and repeatedly beat the Raptor bigs off the dribble -- even showing a nice array of post-moves in the lane. What's that they say about broken clocks?
That Williams-led, 19-7 run, saw the Jazz lead 27-24 at the end of the 1st.
In the second-quarter Casey introduced the bench unit, and the ex-Kings gave the Raps the spark they needed to begin to pull away from the Jazz. Kyle Lowry, who would eventually leave the game after experiencing right knee pain (he's okay) and DeRozan, began the game 0 of 7 from the floor. But John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez helped pick up a lot of the offensive slack.
The Raps began the second quarter on a 12-4 run -- Vasquez hit a couple of those ugly floaters and Salmons had his jump-shot going -- before DeRozan found his shooting touch again, knocking down a 3 in the corner, before putting the ball on the deck and getting to the line.
At the half the Raps led comfortably, 55-44.
The second-half began with a Terrence Ross runner in the lane (Ross had a quiet night overall) followed by DeRozan gliding through the paint for an easy lay-up. Both teams shot poorly in the 3rd quarter, overall, but solid defense from the Raptors, and a corner 3 from Salmons towards the end of the quarter, kept the Jazz at bay.
Utah, however, would make their final run at the Raps early in the fourth quarter. As Lowry headed to the locker-room, the Jazz went on a mini run. Brandon Rush
travelled scored over Patrick Patterson, before Rudy Goubert blocked (that's an understatement) an attempted Vasquez runner, and Alec Burks scored for the Jazz in transition.
An 8-0 run made it a one-possesion game, at 73-70, and Casey was forced to take a timeout.
But that's as close at Utah would get. The Raps steadied themselves after the timeout. Patterson got to the line in the next possession to help calm the nerves, and the Raps opened up a comfortable lead again. DeRozan knocked down a jumper and hit a big 3 in the corner to put the Raps up by 10, and force the Jazz into a timeout of their own.
It was all a formality after that DeRozan 3, however, and the Raps saw out the game to move to 2-1 in their 5-game Western Conference road trip; and 26-22 on the season. It was just the Raps' 5th win ever in Salt Lake City. A mature, professional performance.
Additional Game Notes:
- Don't panic, Kyle Lowry is fine. Just "a little soreness" according to the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Phew!
- The Raptors have never finished a season with a winning road record. Right now they're 14-12 away from the ACC.
- A couple season's ago, if DeRozan wasn't scoring, he wasn't helping the team. Tonight, when he shot wouldn't fall early on, DeMar turned facilitator and racked up 4 assists before he even had a point. A really nice development to his game.
- Needless to say, Vasquez is an upgrade over Julyan Stone. He did a solid job with Lowry playing hurt/not playing at all in the fourth.
- Not really sure what Tyrone Corbin is doing with this team. They lack talent, for sure; but they're young and athletic and would be best served playing up-tempo. Instead, Corbin has them playing a plodding, half-court game. Doesn't make sense.
- I'm sure someone will make an offer for Gordon Hayward in restricted free agency, but he looks like he's having a rough go of things this year. Doesn't help that the Jazz are completely reliant on him to score, create, and defend the perimeter.
- Alec Burks is a really fun player to watch. He has the potential to develop into a dangerous scorer.
- Rudy Goubert is going to end up on a lot of NBA posters. The guy is huge and tries to block anything that moves, and he's going to get his fair share of rejections. But he's going to get dunked on A LOT.